Participation and its Discontents

A Blog in Collaboration with the ASA Political Sociology Section

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Participation Initiative – ASA 2014 San Francisco (August 19, 10:30-12:10)

During the course of 2014 the Political Sociology Section has sponsored a participation initiative that builds upon informal discussions during ASA 2013. Its primary goal is to examine and debate some of the fundamental dilemmas in the social scientific study of participation. A secondary goal is to push forward the search for alternative forms of scholarly participation. 

Lines of inquiry and debate that originally emerged last year have continued on a blog called Participation and its Discontents. The San Francisco session will be divided into three equal parts based on three questions drawn from the blog discussion. Each question will receive short statements from the moderator and exponent, and then open up to a free flowing discussion.

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The Impasses of Participation in Public Security: Favela Resident Engagement in Police Pacification in Rio de Janeiro

Stephanie Savell

In the cluster of Rio de Janeiro favelas known as Complexo da Maré, everyone believed “pacification” would be different. Rio’s controversial police pacification program aims to replace drug trafficking gangs’ control over favelas with “Police Pacifying Units,” or  “UPPs.” In the months leading up to Maré’s pacification in March 2014, to usher in a version of the program that would answer their local security needs, engaged civic leaders and activists called for and participated in meetings with police. Here I describe how some important issues blocked true dialogue between the two sides. Such impasses raise doubts about whether a participatory process of public security could actually move things in a positive direction by reducing police abuses and providing more meaningful safety and order in the neighborhoods of the urban poor.

That police and residents would have different interpretations of their conversations is perhaps obvious, yet these differences merit close examination. In a city as polarized as Rio de Janeiro around the issue of public security, meetings between favela residents and police were a remarkable attempt at finding middle ground. It was the first time residents from any favela in Rio had taken such an initiative, and meant overcoming longstanding animosity towards the police, resented for their violence in the city’s war on drugs. Whether or not participants on both sides had this intent, their conversations marked a possible way forward out of entrenched patterns of miscommunication, disrespect, and abuses.

During the 15 months (January 2013 – March 2014) I conducted ethnographic research with favela residents and security forces in Rio, I observed several meetings between Maré’s civic leaders and members of the military police, the branch of Rio’s police force responsible for pacification. Hosted at a military police operations base located near Maré, the meetings were facilitated by a police officer tasked with “community relations” and open to local leaders including neighborhood association presidents, staff from local nonprofit organizations, and church pastors. The meetings were held to discuss police-community relations and determine what pacification would look like in Maré. But the divergent and oftentimes opposing interests and goals of police and residents prevented much from being accomplished. Both sides viewed the others’ actions as threatening their own group.

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“Part” of What?

Paul Lichterman

“Participation” connotes participants who share something. They are parties to a problem that pushes back on their everyday lives and aspirations, or those of other people with whom they identify. Sociological skepticism trains us to ask whether or not some participants will benefit more than others from different ways of naming or addressing a problem. Culture scholarship points out the varieties of speech and practice that complicate participation. Social movement studies compare how different collective actors identify as sufferers.  I’m struck by another way that participants differ in their relation to a problem at hand. Some participants are adjuncts

I have met many adjuncts on my ethnographic rounds in the world of housing advocacy in Los Angeles. Some are college student interns toting up non-profit work experience as they update mailing lists for a community land trust or research landlord records for a skid row tenants’ organization. Some are contracted specialists, paid or gratis—graduate students, in my experience—like the one who taught local residents to dramatize gentrification through theater of the oppressed. At least a few are working off misdemeanor violations at an approved community service site, like the man that I marched with to the beat of a conga drum in a protest demanding a ban on condominium conversions downtown.

Increasingly, activist and community service organizations are non-profits with a small paid staffs who can’t do all the things a relatively complex organization wants to do to survive politically as well as financially. They sign up adjuncts, or they open themselves to university and high schools students who need “service learning” credit and in return offer the ambiguous benefits of inexperienced, free labor. Whether or not we think that a nonprofit-industrial complex is squeezing the possibilities for participatory democracy, it is worth asking how the meaning and consequences of activist participation may change in worrisome or promising or simply unpredictable ways when some of the participants are interns, plug-in volunteers, and plug-in specialists. 

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When Participation “Fails”: The Implications of Struggling Organizations for Participatory Democracy

Rebecca Hanson

While early studies of participation were steeped in skepticism and cynicism, since the beginning of the new millennium researchers have promoted participatory governance and participatory democracy as a solution to a wide range of institutions:  Representative democracy, inegalitarian civil society and even capitalism. 

Research on participatory organizations in Latin America, where left-leaning governments have been voted into power throughout the region, has taken a particularly enthusiastic turn.  Since the 2000s, governments in countries like Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia have invested state resources (financial, institutional, and discursive) into a variety of participatory initiatives with the purported goal of expanding and deepening democracy.  In Venezuela, for example, the national government has set aside millions of dollars each year to fund communal councils (community organizations with a participatory democratic structure) to carry out infrastructural, cultural and educational projects. 

There is now an extensive body of literature that (1) identifies when, where, and why participatory endeavors do or do not succeed and (2) documents the positive impacts of participation when experiments are successful.  We might even include research that looks at clientelistic participation here, since success could refer to either empowered citizens successfully making claims on the state or a clientelistic flow of resources.  While the latter case is generally disparaged and looked down upon, even clientelism could be considered a successful acquisition of state resources by citizens—resources that many need to survive. 

But much less attention has been paid to what forms participation takes in struggling or failed experiments and how these experiments impact community relations.  Indeed, despite the fact that successful experiments are most likely in the minority, little attention has been paid to experiments that are unsuccessful in mobilizing participation, accessing and/or distributing state resources, and/or building consensus and social trust.  Research that does look at “failure” tends to be preoccupied with accounting for why things did not work, rarely paying attention to what happens after a group’s “failure to launch.” 

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State-Driven Participation and Social Exclusion: Two Cases from Chile

Patricia Richards

As in many parts of Latin America, since the return to democracy in 1990, official rhetoric in Chile has esteemed the virtues of participation. In part, this is a response to the demands of diverse groups of citizens who took substantial risks to help bring about the end of the 17-year military regime led by Augusto Pinochet. But given the many compromises entailed by the transition to democracy and the broader context of neoliberal reforms in the region, what has been the substance of participation offered by the state and how has it compared to the demands of citizens?  In this post I explore this question from the perspective of two groups:pobladoras (poor and working class women) and Mapuche indigenous people. 

During the dictatorship in Chile, a vibrant, cross-class women’s movement contributed its voice and energies to opposing the atrocities of the Pinochet regime.  The movement opposed all forms of authoritarianism, and Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic president, took on the movement’s slogan, “democracy in the country and in the home,” as his own.  Soon after the return to democracy, SERNAM, the National Women’s Service, was established as a government agency designed to promote women’s equality with men.  

Between 1999 and 2001, I carried out research with pobladoras who had participated in the movement.  The longtime relationship between organized pobladoras, middle class feminists, and many of the women who came to work in the state (the “femocrats”) led many to think that SERNAM would be a participative organization, soliciting the input of diverse groups of women in the process of creating its plans and policies. 

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Activism in the Age of Deliberation

Francesca Polletta

When residents of Washington, D.C., gathered in late 2003 to deliberate about budget priorities for the city, they followed a format that has become increasingly popular. Organizers of this Citizen Summit, the third in a series, had recruited a demographically representative group of 2,800 citizens and had gotten the Mayor’s commitment to include the summit’s recommendations in a citywide strategic plan. Seated at tables of twelve with a professional facilitator at each, participants traded ideas for reforming police-community relations, discussed the need for more senior housing, and debated with city officials about who should control the public schools.

Meanwhile, outside the Washington summit, sixty people with banners and a megaphone had gathered to protest the mayor’s policies on housing and education. “Fund schools, not a stadium,” one protester yelled when the mayor appeared, while others took up a chant: “Tony is a phony!”  The mayor nevertheless invited the protestors to join the summit, and according to the Washington Post reporter who was covering the event, a few minutes later, some of them did.

The question for proponents of public deliberation is this: should the mayor have invited the protestors to join the forum? The question for students of social movements is this: should the protesters have accepted the invitation? The questions for both are these: In an era in which deliberative fora have proliferated, with citizens now routinely given the opportunity to make recommendations about policy, what is the relation between deliberation and protest? Should deliberation make protest unnecessary? Or does the institutionalization of deliberation make protest even more necessary?

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For the Love of a Woman

Dorit Geva

In the spring of 2013, as I was conducting a political ethnography and interviews with members of the Front National (FN) in the southeast of France, I had an extended conversation with Pauline (a pseudonym), an up and coming FN politician. The day I visited her in her home near Avignon, the shops in the town’s center were mostly shuttered, while North African immigrants sipped tea along the hot, dusty sidewalks.

Pauline encapsulates the new face of the Front National, a party conventionally described as belonging to the radical right. She is a fiercely intelligent and vivacious woman in her fifties born into a working class family, and has had a successful career as a schoolteacher and now as a school principal. She described to me at length her process of disaffection with the Socialist party and her transition to becoming an FN activist.

Given her class origins, she had taken for granted supporting the Socialists from birth. Yet, through her experiences working in the French national school system, and her sense that the “1968 generation” had destroyed it with its excessive political correctness, she found herself looking for something new. She underwent a surprise conversion to the FN after meeting Jean Marie Le Pen, the former FN leader, who quickly spotted her potential and recruited her into the party. Her deeper engagement with the party came when Marine Le Pen, Jean Marie Le Pen’s daughter, became party leader. Pauline strongly identifies with Marine, as she’s fondly called by her supporters. Like many other men and women FN activists I’ve spoken to, she sees Marine as a “modern woman” who understands the difficulties faced by French citizens far from the fashionable cafes of Paris.

Pauline’s story captures how disaffection with the traditional centrist parties in France and other parts of Europe is transforming into support for radical right parties. Hers is a tale of participation, discontent with mainstream politics, and the rerouting of participation into a passionate battle against liberal elitist politics. 

It’s also a tale of how estrangement from institutional party politics has unintentionally merged with decades of feminist activism intended to increase women’s participation in political life. Embodying a change from “politics as usual,” women leaders and activists are seen as the new great hope. Since women have long been excluded from equal participation in institutional party politics and are a minority within France’s state elite, many FN supporters see them as inherently anti-establishment. Marine Le Pen plays the anti-establishment role to perfection, evoking love, admiration, and passion amongst her supporters, old and new.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Uncivil

Ruth Braunstein

“Participation” is officially the buzzword of this political season.

During a recent address at my own university, Hillary Clinton called upon an auditorium full of college students to be the “participation generation.”

“Citizenship is a team sport,” she declared. “We can’t afford to leave anyone sitting on the bench. Everyone has to participate.”

And indeed, more and more seem to be. Over the past decade in the United States, ordinary citizens across the political spectrum have flocked to new participatory projects.

Highly visible efforts like the Occupy movement and the Tea Party are only the tip of the iceberg. Often out of sight, community organizers mobilize millions of Americans around the country, while residents of major cities are experimenting with new forms of public engagement, including participatory budgeting.

For the past several years, my fieldwork within a local Tea Party group and a progressive faith-based community organizing coalition has placed me at the center of this participation boom.

But I am also perched at its edge, where the participation of groups that are sometimes considered “bad” for democracy – like rightwing groups and religious groups – puts enthusiastic proclamations like “Everyone has to participate” to the test.

In the United States, calls for greater citizen participation are typically grounded in a vision of democracy as a process marked by openness and inclusion of all people – including people with whom one disagrees.

But this definition of democracy as a process exists in tension with a substantive vision of democracy as a particular kind of society rooted in particular values. And there is widespread disagreement (at least in the US) about what this good society should look like.

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Ironies of Participation Key to Understanding Venezuelan Protest Movement

David Smilde


Poster circulated on social media is one of a series titled: “How to overthrow the Dictatorship in Venezuela? Attack the system hitting it at its base.” The first sequence reads:  “Civil disobedience: Carrying out guarimbas, Convoking marches, Demonstrating.” The second sequence “International Support: Record repression, Store information, Distribute massively”

That participation has been a central issue in the past fifteen years in Venezuela is well known. In electing Hugo Chávez in 1998 and rewriting the constitution in 1999 Venezuelans overwhelmingly supported a move from a model of democracy that restricted citizen participation to occasional trips to the polls to a model in which there would be a tighter, more robust engagement of state and society.

Of course this represented a rather late change in official structures of the state, running to catch up and accommodate the growth of citizen participation in multiple, non-state channels, in the 1980s and 90s, from street protest to popular religion.

And there is ample scholarly work on the many different participatory initiatives of the Chavez era, including communal councils, community radio and more recently the rise of the communes.

Less understood, however, is how fundamental issues of participation have been at play in the political opposition to the Chavez and now Maduro governments. Here I will focus on the ironies of participation involved in the cycle of protest that has, over the past four months, caused more than forty deaths, shaken the government of Nicolas Maduro and exposed the fault lines in Venezuela’s opposition movement.

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Why We are All Political Animals and What that Means for how We Think about Participation

By Matthew Mahler 

We are all political animals.  A silly claim to be sure. At a time when rates of civic participation are hardly universal and opinions of elected leaders and of government, more generally, are at an all-time low it’s almost difficult to imagine a more fatuous declaration.  And yet, I believe this senseless point is not only one worth considering but is also one that will help us think more clearly (and realistically) about the phenomenon of participation.

To understand the value of such a claim requires us to think a bit about the problem of intersubjectivity – that is, how it might be possible for two (or more) people who inevitably perceive the world from different perspectives to nonetheless sustain the presumption that theirs is a world in common with others.  While we traditionally assume that the meaning of things is anchored in the very objectivity of things themselves or in the symbols that we use to represent those things to ourselves and to others, what Garfinkel, following Schutz, famously recognized, is that shared understandings are never exclusively a product of things themselves or of our representations of those things.

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