Participation and Its Discontents

Discussions of participation seem to go through waves of enchantment and disenchantment. The Political Sociology Section of American Sociological Association (ASA) started the blog “Participation and its Discontents” to generate discussion on the topic for a discussion at the 2014 ASA meeting in August 2014. The blog will focus on problematizing participation beyond euphoria and disillusionment.


The first essay “Participation Ain’t What It Used to Be…” posted on February 10th was about the informal discussion at a workshop in New York University regarding the promises and pitfalls of political participation. Participants debated not only achievements of social change by participation, but also its darker underside, including how participation sometimes weakens progressive institutions and how the discourses on citizen participation are often used to promote a neoliberal withdrawal of the state.

The primary target of participants’ discontent involved normative meanings: political sociologists tend to conceptualize participation in moral terms as something that people should do and as a vehicle for achieving changes that they should seek. “We tend to assume that people want to participate in the political process, make decisions about governance, and that they are motivated by a genuine desire to effect positive change”. Those who choose not to participate are often overlooked and ignored in scholars’ literature.

It was mentioned that a number of books since the 1990s underlined the importance of social movements and people’s participation for social change, yet the euphoria of 1990’s seemed to bring a new way to skepticism. Several participants suggested that skepticism may be related to the current moment in which corporations often sponsor participation and this sponsorship produces participation that does not necessarily challenge the unequal locus of decision-making, which separate it from empowerment and democracy.

There were interesting arguments and questions about outcome of participation, institutionalization, cooptation, and romanticization of participation.

  • Democratization had not always increased participation, diminished inequality or translated into empowerment. Should we even evaluate participation based on them?
  • Uncritical celebration of autonomy and spontaneity, seen in such as Occupy Wall Street movement, neglect to account for the exhaustion produced by participation, and how repudiating institutionalize politics can increase the risk of burnout. This is one the ways in which academics often romanticize participation.
  • The problem with institutionalization was not necessarily institutionalization as such, but how certain processes of institutionalization can erode feelings of empowerment.
  • Although marginalized groups seek to accomplish goals and have their grievances redressed, academics often label instances of institutional achievement as cooptation.
  • How normative conceptions of what constitutes “good” vs. “bad” participation, (e.g. grassroots participation vs. corporate-funded “astroturfing”), influences how we make comparisons across actual participatory projects.
  • Did the tendency to place social actors into categories like “participant” and “nonparticipant” rely on a false dichotomy? The period before their public participation included activities like going to work, going to church, and doing community service work. Are these not forms of public participation? Where should we draw boundaries?
  • Is participation always political? When does someone “become” a participant? Definitive categories (e.g. participation vs. nonparticipation, political vs. nonpolitical, empowering vs. disempowering) are necessary.

Through the blog, they hope instead to think together and sharpen their frameworks, to learn from the comparisons between research practiced in different parts of the world. One essay will be posted per week through the next eight months. Although the blog is written mainly for ASA members, keeping checking their postings can be good opportunity to rethink “participation” deeply.

You can read the entire articles here.

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