Participation and its Discontents

A Blog in Collaboration with the ASA Political Sociology Section

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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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Brazil’s Decade of Participation and its Spring of Unrest

By Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ana Cláudia Teixeira

For some time this last June Brazil occupied the headlines for its own version of “Occupy,” when the Free Bus Pass Movement catalyzed a national wave of protests comparable to the global Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.  What began as a relatively small dispute over a bus-fare hike in São Paulo later escalated into mass protests involving millions of Brazilians around the country, mobilizing protestors in at least 140 cities.  In city after city, police batons and tear gas were met with Facebook and Twitter, and by month’s end the country had come to a near stand-still as an amorphous movement made demands ranging from access to transportation and health to protests against lavish World Cup expenditures and campaign financing reform. 

It was a self-described “horizontalist” and internally democratic movement led by young people independent from all political parties that lacked a clear agenda, ideology, or even specific proposals.  The fares were reduced, the national government proposed some specific responses on items like healthcare, and an ambitious political reform was discussed for a moment before disappearing into congressional morass.

The amorphous movement—the “June Protests”—had repercussions in other sectors as well before it fizzled by year’s end.  Anti-privatization protesters took to the streets in October to protest the privatization of oil, and at one point oil workers in 16 states across Brazil went on strike while bank-tellers forced the closure of some 12,000 bank branches in October. Meanwhile, the Movement Against Dams occupied the construction sites of two hydroelectric projects, while the Landless Workers Movement and Small Producers Movement mobilized national protests with a focus on food sovereignty.   Public school teachers and their allies in several cities across the country staged militant strikes, at one point exchanging rocks with the police in Rio.

Together, these protests have occasioned a fair bit of rethinking about Brazilian democracy. Does police violence justify violence in response?  What are the limits of civil discourse?  

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Pitfalls of “Cooptation”

Pablo Lapegna

What is cooptation? What is the meaning of being “co-opted”? The Oxford dictionary provides three meanings for co-opt, from which the noun cooptation is derived:

1. Appoint to membership of a committee or other body by invitation of the existing members

2. Divert to or use in a role different from the usual or original one

3. Adopt (an idea or policy) for one’s own use.

A number of scholars have increasingly grown uncomfortable with the term “cooptation.” If you do research or are interested in contemporary Latin American politics, you probably have noticed that the term is oftentimes used in reference to the participation of social movements in the governments emerging from the breakdown of the Washington Consensus.

From the CONAIE in Ecuador to the Community Councils in Venezuela, from the unemployed “piquetero” movements in Argentina to indigenous and peasant organizations in Bolivia, a number of social movements have been cooperating with government structures by working closely with state programs or its leaders have become members of Congress.

In other words, in the last fifteen years or so, the first meaning of the term “cooptation” seems to be accurate, in the sense that social movements, civil society organizations, and community networks have been appointed to the administration or have been recognized and admitted as members of a polity that was previously closed to them. Nevertheless, in everyday political parlance (and in several scholarly analyses) the second meaning of the term is the one that usually prevails.

Put differently, cooperation with the government and inclusion in the polity are seen as signs of social movements losing their transformative spirit, diluting their original promise of social change into a “reformist” agenda.  

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Participation Ain’t What It Used to Be, Informal Discussion, New York University, August 2013

Philip Lewin and Rebecca Hanson

The impetus to host an informal discussion regarding the promises and pitfalls of political participation was triggered by a presentation given by Gianpaolo Biaocchi at the Georgia Workshop on Culture, Power and History in November 2012 (organized and attended by Tim Gill, Rebecca Hanson, Pablo Lapegna, Philip Lewin, and David Smilde).  During the workshop, a discussion emerged regarding how the value that researchers assign to participation seems to alternate between enchantment and disenchantment.  For instance, while popular protest against the Washington Consensus led scholars to believe that participation could generate positive social change during the 1990s, many now hold a more guarded view of its promise.

As the discussion unfolded, we debated not only the limits of participation with respect to achieving social change, but also its darker underside.  For example, we noted how rather than facilitating democratization, participation can accentuate the advantages of active minorities.  We also discussed how participation sometimes weakens progressive institutions rather than shoring them up, and how the discourses associated with citizen participation are often used to promote a neoliberal withdrawal of the state. 

The primary target of our discontent, however, involved the normative meanings that in our view had become attached to the idea of participation.  Whether implicitly or explicitly, political sociologists tend to conceptualize participation in moral terms—as something that people should do and as a vehicle for achieving changes in the world 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. 

This understanding of participation, however, often reflects the normative dispositions of academics rather than an actually existing empirical reality.  Given scholars’ inclination to study people who share their outlooks, those who choose not to participate are often overlooked and ignored in the literature.

These lines of discussion—and the success of Caroline Lee, Michael McQuarrie and Edward Walker’s Democratizing Inequalities conference in 2010—spawned the idea to stage an informal workshop on the study of political participation parallel to the upcoming American Sociological Association meetings in New York City.  Participation Ain’t What it Used to Be was held at New York University’s Gallatin School on August 12, 2013.  In this post we offer a summary of the lively debate that occurred as an invitation to continue the dialogue.

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Participation and its Discontents

The scholarly literature on participation tends toward extremes, and the extremes, it seems to us, are cyclical.  Discussions of participation seem to go through waves of enchantment and disenchantment.   Criticism is overtaken by enthusiasm, to be then overtaken by dismissal, and then perhaps rediscovery.   

If we start with Pateman’s 1970 classic Participation and Democratic Theory, a glance at the titles at any number of stops along the way, from Putting the Last First (Chambers 1990), to Participation: The New Tyranny (Cooke and Kothari 2001), to Spaces for Change? (Coelho and Cornwall 2007) gives a sense of this movement. And in the literature as a whole (not necessarily in these books above) there are also the predictable small skirmishes at the edges about what generation a particular study belongs to, or who is the first to declare “fatigue” or to rediscover the previously forgotten.

We intend for this virtual conversation to build upon a wave of scholarship in the literature on participation that works from a perspective of empirical and normative interrogation. (The literature is vast and we do not pretend to provide a review of it here, but forthcoming collections by Lee, Mcquarrie, and Walker 2014, and Alvarez, Baiocchi, Rubin, Thayer and Lao provide a good orientation. See also Poletta 2013 for a useful recent review).  

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