Types of participation 

Involve’s Pathways through Participation research, with NCVO and the Institute for Volunteering Research, found that people’s participatory activities fell into three main categories (although there are clearly many overlaps between them):

Social participation: the collective activities that individuals are involved in, including being involved in formal voluntary organisations (e.g. volunteering for a charity shop or being a trustee), informal or grassroots community groups (e.g. a tenants’ and residents’ association or a sports club), and formal and informal mutual aid and self help (e.g. a peer-support group or a community gardening group).

Public participation: the engagement of individuals with the various structures and institutions of democracy, including voting, contacting a political representative, campaigning and lobbying, and taking part in consultations and demonstrations.

Individual participation: people’s individual actions and choices that reflect the kind of society they want to live in, including buying fair trade or green products, boycotting products from particular countries, recycling, signing petitions, giving to charity and informal helpful gestures (such as visiting an elderly neighbour).

Qualities of participation

Participation is widespread

The research uncovered a huge number and variety of participatory activities and places where people participated. Everyone we interviewed had participated in some kind of activity at some point in their life. We were able to identify past participants who no longer participated, but were unable to identify any genuine non-participants (i.e. people who had never participated in their lives).

Even people who thought of themselves as non-participants or who were described by others as non-participants often turned out to have been involved at some stage when probed. Our findings add weight to other studies which suggest that participation is widespread4 and is centrally important to people’s lives and the communities in which they live.

Participation has some common features

Across the range of activities that people told us about, we concluded that all forms of participation have some common features. Participation is:

  • Voluntary: Participation can be encouraged, supported and made more attractive, but it is inherently about a free choice to take part (or not) without coercion. People get involved because they want to.
  • About action: People are moved to action for a range of different motives and their involvement may be limited in time and scope, but all participation requires an action of some kind. Even a relatively passive form of participation such as signing an online petition involves an opinion and a degree of activity and effort.
  • Collective or connected: Participation means being part of something. Even when the action is of an individual nature, such as giving a charitable donation or buying fair trade foods, there is a sense of common purpose and the act itself has a collective impact or ambition.
  • Purposeful: All participants want to do something that is worthwhile in their own terms, and every participatory act has, and is intended to have, consequences. At the very least, participation makes a difference to the individual participant; at most, it also helps change the world around them; and sometimes it does both.

Perceptions of participation are contradictory

People perceive their own participation and that of others in different ways. Such perceptions often influence how and why they choose to get involved. For example, many interviewees suggested that they did not see themselves as political and did not want to be associated with such activity. Stereotypes of people who participate were also evident, with interviewees saying they did not like or want to be seen as ‘do-gooders’:

‘You’re very easily mistaken for being a goody two-shoes and that’s what I’m saying, it’s not all altruistic, it isn’t. I get a big kick out of seeing other people made better from what I’ve done. You could say that that’s selfish because it makes me feel better…’

People’s perceptions of themselves, of other participants and of different types of participatory activities did not always match reality. A reluctance to being associated with political activity was, for example, often inconsistent with the reality of the frequency of people’s engagement in this field: the vast majority of respondents voted, and many people had contacted their local MPs or been involved in some kind of campaign. Furthermore, while some interviewees referred to the negative stereotype of the ‘do-gooder’, they were such active participants that they could easily have been described in that way themselves.

Participation impacts on people and places

We found many examples of the impacts of participation: on the individuals that participate through to wider societal and global impacts. Impacts on individuals were both instrumental (e.g. developing new skills and networks) and transformative (e.g. greater confidence, satisfaction, and sense of purpose and self-worth). We heard compelling stories about the impacts of participants’ activities on other people and places. Often this was through making or preventing change in the local environment, for example by being designated a conservation area or by providing community facilities or protecting them from closure. People’s stories also demonstrated how their participation supported and enriched the lives of individuals and groups in a community, from providing sport, arts and cultural activities and education for children and young people, to providing opportunities and skills such as IT training or work experience. We also found many instances of how the impacts of participation created and supported wider change, for example through:

  • advocacy and raising awareness of issues;
  • changing legislation;
  • promoting international causes by providing support, campaigning and fundraising for international charities;
  • environmental impacts such as reducing carbon emissions at the level of individual behaviour change and through local and national campaigning via environmental organisations.

Conflict and tension are an integral part of participation

Policy-makers and practitioners have tended to portray participation as a good thing, to focus on the positive impacts of people’s involvement and on how it can benefit society, organisations and the individuals involved. However, this is only one side of the story: participation can also have a less positive side for communities and participants and it frequently involves conflict and tension.

We found evidence of the difficulties caused by clashing or dominant personalities within groups, the development of cliques, and disagreements over how to achieve the mission of an organisation. Furthermore, some people we spoke to had become burnt-out at especially stressful or busy periods within the organisations they had been involved in or their personal relationships had been put under considerable strain. Such experiences had led some people to stop their involvement. We also heard examples of conflict being an intended consequence of participation with people in direct opposition to the state or other forms of authority, either locally or nationally, seeking or resisting change, enacted through lobbying local MPs or taking part in marches.