Published on February 17, 2010

Contextualising participation: the dynamics of power

The Pathways through Participation project explores how and why people get involved and stay involved in different forms of participation over the course of their lives. The team have recently produced a literature review exploring the literature on public participation from a range of practical and theoretical insights.

Understanding how the dynamics of civic participation are inflected by the dynamics of power is one of the numerous underlying themes of Understanding participation: A literature review. The literature review draws attention to the structural and contextual factors which promote or inhibit public participation, without sidelining how participation operates on the ground, so to speak (i.e. the activities and actors involved), and why it permeates certain individual lives. This is of particular relevance for the Pathways project as it forms an astute theoretical framework for guiding explorations into individuals’ motivations and trajectories through public participation. However, understanding participation in this manner also extends much further.

In the review power becomes one of the central ‘shaping forces’ for understanding participation, yet it is often cited as a nebulous, contested concept – defying practical value. What the literature review demonstrates is that the concept of power as developed by Lukes and Gaventa can be situated so as to develop a nuanced understanding of participation. This understanding accounts for visible power inequalities, agenda setting etc but also contributes to demonstrating how dimensions of power can better inform our practical understanding of participation and research approach.

Thus in chapter 5, the literature review rightly situates social networks, space and place and power relations as central guides for understanding public participation. This has implications for how the project and those in the field seek to gain an understanding of public engagement activities and participation demographics. Through this the review subtly asks the rhetorical question: how can we understand choices about ethical consumerism, campaigning, forms of associational life and demographics of people who participate, without understanding how structural factors have facilitated such choices?

Demos’ recent publication The Power Gap is one example of how researching power can successfully contribute to a deeper understanding of the effectiveness and presence/absence of civic engagement. The literature review shows a similar approach to making power measurable. However, the review provides a holistic framework in which to understand how determinants of individuals’ and social groups’ participation involves numerous overlapping factors, with power as that which pervades all yet also constitutes an indicator in its own right.

As this project develops through the fieldwork, it will be interesting to note how and why people participate while bearing in mind the impact of the power relations, associational networks and space and place, as highlighted through the literature review. The use of mapping sessions (“power maps” and “activity maps”) in the case study areas are already successful examples of how the connection between theory and practice is developing and a picture of participation is forming.

Zaki Nahaboo

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