Diminishing Returns and the Broken Promise of Participation

In this blog I offer thirty-one critical responses to the current fashion for participatory projects and methodologies. While my main focus is grounded in playing devil’s advocate to the evangelical exponents of participatory video, I am very open to being shot down - or at least engaged - in counter-dialogues. (Either through the comments section below, or privately by email). Please attribute all quotations from this unpaid work. It is my life.

Please also excuse the rhetorical tendency to exaggerate; I’m not using this blog to craft a highly nuanced critical essay.In other work I have addressed problems with, and potential solutions to collaborative models of work.

Also, I’m still working through a projection of what comes after the promise of participation...

  1. The participatory field is admittedly quite fuzzy, since arts projects in the community may be quite vague about their intended modes or levels of participation; engagement evidence is notoriously difficult to measure in terms of impacts and evaluation, and/or the empowerment achieved.

  1. There is a tendency to exclude those models or practices that are partially, or not primarily participatory. This may have the effect of potentially distorting the positive impact ratio of those projects that qualify as whole-heartedly in the fold.

  1. In reflective reports on participation, there is often the foggy sense of a contribution to social capital and community capital, without any sense of the methodological challenges to, or controversy around, these highly fashionable policy approaches and agendas. [See the note at the end of this blog]

  1. Another weakness is that an assumption of inequality is often built into the participatory model, or into the terms of project reference. Typically, this takes the form of ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’, ‘reaching to the hard to reach’, or ‘including the excluded.’ Patronising and bourgeois. I've seldom met an angry youth who lacked voice.

  1. Following from the previous point, is there not a residual romantic ideology of inspiration and failure at work in participatory discourses? Conversely, is there a lack of personalised, romantic intensity at work?

  1. Claims to the effectiveness of projects are frequently or symptomatically inflated because negative outcomes adversely affect future funding; 

  1. To interrogate claims on the level of value also risks offending the romantic foundations of creative worthiness of individuals in need of encouragement and support and their utopian community life that is just waiting to emerge after the intervention.

  1. How far are active and effective forms of participation specific to a time and place (Western, enlightened, or romantic) ?

  1. The coherence, fixity, or stability of the methodology is at odds with the variety, mobility and complexity of social practices.

  1. Claims to success are often anecdotal and ephemeral. This feature of the evaluation is then defended as a quality-led approach, or falls back on romantic notions designed to resist critical analysis.

  1. It is just as difficult to measure a variety of micro-impacts several years in the future, as it is to value the impact on one individual where the work had a major transformative dimension to his or her life’s work and direction. Participatory outcomes, like the medium term impact of the work of an inspiring teacher, are fundamentally difficult to qualify or quantify.

  1. Effectiveness is often expressed in terms of soft targets achieved such as ‘finding a voice’ rather than material improvement in people’s lived experience.

  1. There is a danger that participants become ambassadors for the local government’s unelected officers.

  1. The promise of participation is vaguely geared to future possibility or potentiality sleekly framed so as to remain forever unaccountable. Often there is a narrative turn that measures story rather than material impact.

  1. The clarity of the message delivered by participants is confused by the need to report positive or constructive changes taking place (alienated facilitator or funder agendas creeping in.)

  1. Sometimes it is clear that participants feel they have not expressed what the funder wanted, or that they have fallen short of a perceived goal. Such are 'compromised' projects. Is there not a conspiracy of silence about the frequency of these?

  1. Participants sense that they have not met the facilitators’ ideals which may be more ideologically coherent than the collective experience expressed by the participants. Has political correctness silenced certained voices?

  1. Funders are perceived to be the enemy, they are on the other side, whereas the reality is that they are tasked with (1) being responsible and accountable purseholders (2) having to respond to the priorities of their bosses, who are in turn, people elected by the people.

  1. Participatory discourses are stuck in a 1970s crafty-utopianism and fail to adequately take account of major cultural shifts expressed in postmodernity (Lyotard, Baudrillard), high modernity (Giddens), liquid modernity (Baumann), performativity (Butler), Enlightenment and communicative action (Habermas), Mass communications and culture (Adorno), convergence theory (Jenkins), ideology and psychoanalysis (Zizek), rhizomatic and intensive differences (Deleuze), singularities and complexities (teratology and chaos theory ...) ...

  1. In fact, the promise of the participatory is insulated from most of the major currents in contemporary cultural theory and tends to confine itself to narrower sociological, psychology or community work based analytical frames.

  1. Disciplinary boundaries are also strictly enforced as a consequence of the need for specialization and professionalization (Ivan Illich), or in line with academic career paths and associated research citations and outputs.

  1. In more general terms, where in one sense the participatory dimension lacks specificity and evidence, in another, it fails to engage with broader movements at work in society and in intellectual thought.

  1. Despite its proclaimed emphasis on communicative actions and contexts, participatory video practice becomes too rooted in its technology and IT-related skills rather than ontological awareness.

  1. Often the issue just mentioned is emphatic because funding has been awarded based on IT skills-development and employablity issues, narrowly defined. Instrumentality rules in a materialist-capitalist society (Marx). Taking this one step further leads into a Heideggerian perspective on a failure to think being.

  1. The participation is confined to an already ghettoized social sub-section, rather than promoting critical dialogues and creative disseminations between sections of society.

  1. As fashions and policies shift, specific groups are excessively favoured compared to others (e.g. youth)

  1. And may groups or localities may suffer new initiative fatigue, or become disenchanted by yet another innovatory intervention in which the participants are the ever-ready-made-laboratory-for-life.

  1. Because aims and objectives are narrowly project-specific, bounded by a specific time and locality, products of participation are quickly dated and disposed of. This represents poor value compared to other forms of intervention that may grow from within, rather than being professionally facilitated from above / without.

  1. Participation is seldom framed in terms of a wider architecture of a global politics of the silenced and the disenfranchised. What starts local stays local. Developmental means safely apolitical.

  1. Because participatory projects depend on trained facilitators there will in turn be a dependence on training programmes for facilitators and a reliance on specialist professionals who need to be paid for their work. As the public funding of social projects at all levels diminishes the viablity of this model has to be questioned.

  1. The participatory project seldom matches (or respects) the existing forms of organic participation in, and critical distance from, the already ‘present’ forms of popular culture or lived experiences. Looked at another way, there is a vaguely embarrassing effort on the part of facilitators to co-opt current themes such as gangs, guns, mobiles and hip-hop, in order to ‘come closer’ to the ‘life’ of the people. Again this may simply valorize the ephemeral in a process of collective top-down indulgence, rather than addressing the critical challenge of the ‘other.’

© Dr Ian McCormick.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)


Problems with Conceptualisation of Social Capital

As identified above, the conceptualization of social capital is the biggest challenge facing proponents of the theory. At present there is a lack of rigorous conceptualization of social capital (Krishna and Uphoff 2002). Lin, Cook et al (2001, p. 58) identified that there is a 'danger that we may reach a point where the term might be used in whatever way it suits the purpose at hand, and thus be rendered meaningless as a scientific concept that must meet the rigorous demands of theoretical and research validity and reliability'. Fine (1999) pointed out that social capital is taking over explanations of economic development, growth, and prosperity, he also suggest that social capital had other possibilities before being turned against the other social sciences by economics (Fevre 2000).  Hean, Cowley et al (2003) made the observation that the accumulation of literature on social capital has begun to obscure the understanding of the concept. The inappropriate measurement techniques that have been implemented have caused problems for understanding social capital at the conceptual level and led to debate over whether the concept is relevant or appropriate (Stone 2001). Or as McHugh and Prasetyo (2002, p. 1) put it, 'the proliferation of competing definitions, analytical methods and applications associated with the term is perhaps only dwarfed in volume by the literature critical of its theoretical ambiguity, ambitious conceptual scope, and practical over-versatility'.

© Dr Ian McCormick. But please do contact me if you want to use this article as a guest post on your blog.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
Further Reading

Arnstein, S. R. (1969) "A Ladder of Citizen Participation" JAIP 35 (4) 216-24

Bandura, A. (1995) “Exercise of personal and collective efficacy in changing societies” in Self-efficacy in changing societies. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1-

Barnado’s Report (2001). “Do community-based arts projects result in social gains? A review of literature.” By Authors: Tony Newman, Katherine Curtis and Jo Stephens. Available here http://www.barnardos.org.uk/commarts.pdf

Bauman Z. (2006) Liquid Times: living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Bery, R. (2003) “Participatory Video that empowers” Participatory Video: images that Transform and Empower, S. A. White (eds.) New Delhi, Sage publications: 102-

Blond, P. (2010) Red Tory: How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it. London, Faber and Faber.

Boog, B. W. M. (2003) "The emancipatory character of action research, its history and the present state of the art" Journal of Community and Applied Social
Psychology 13(6) pp. 426-438.

Braden, S. (2004) Participation: A promise unfulfilled? Building alliances between
government and people. Research Report. Dept For International Development, UK.

Braden, S. and M. Mayo (1999) "Culture, community development and representation" Community Development Journal 34(3)

Buckingham, D., M. Pini and R. Willett (2007) “‘Take back the tube!’: The discursive
construction of amateur film and video making” Journal of Media Practice
8(2) pp. 183-201

Carpentier, N., R. Lie and J. Servaes (2003) “Community Media: muting the democratic media discourse?” Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 17(1)

Castells, M. (2009) Communication Power. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Chvasta, M. (2006) “Anger, Irony and Protest: confronting the issue of efficacy, Again” Text and Performance Quarterly 26(1) pp. 5-16

Cohen, M.B. and Mullender, A. (2006) “The Personal in the Political: Exploring the
Group Work Continuum from Individual to Social Change Goals” Social Work
With Groups 28 (3/4) 187-204

Cooke, B. (2001) “The Social Psychological limits of participation?” B. Cooke and U.
Kothari (eds.) Participation: the New Tyranny? London, Zed Books: 102-21.

Craig, G. and Mayo, M. (eds.) (1995) Community empowerment: a reader in
participation and development.  London, Zed Books.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia.  (trans.)  B. Massumi London, New York, Continuum International.

Dinham, A. (2005) “Empowered or over-powered? The real experiences of local
participation in the UK's New Deal for Communities” Community Development
Journal, Oxford University Press

Ellsworth, E. (1989) "Why doesn't this feel empowering?" Harvard Educational Review, (59): 297-324.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Penguin

Freire, P. (1972) Cultural action for freedom.

Freire, P. (1974) Education for Critical Consciousness. London, Continuum

Freire, P. and D. P. Macedo (1987) Literacy: reading the word and the world. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope: re-living Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York,

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern
Age Cambridge, Polity Press / Basil Blackwell.

Giddens, A. (1991) The consequences of modernity. California, Stanford University

Giddens, A (2000) The third way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Cambridge, Polity Press / Basil Blackwell.

Goffman, E. (1990) The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth, Penguin

Habermas, J. (1984) The theory of communicative action: life world and system, a
critique of functionalist reason. London, Heinemann Education.

Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. London,
New York, New York University Press.

Jovchelovitch, S. (2007) Knowledge in context: Representations, Community and
Culture. London and New York, Routledge.

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity: The New Critical Idiom. Routledge.

Lyotard, J. (1984) The post modern condition: a report on knowledge. Manchester,
Manchester University Press.

Matarasso, F. (2007) “Common ground: cultural action as a route to community
development” Community Development Journal 42 (4) 449-458

Reason, P. and H. Bradbury (2001) Handbook of Action Research: participative Inquiry and Practice. London, Sage publications.

Shaw, J. and C. Robertson (1997) Participatory video: a practical approach to using
video creatively in group development work. London, Routledge.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

White, S. A. (2003) Participatory Video: images that Transform and Empower. New Delhi and London, Sage Publications.


  1. A quote from Dr Robert W. Gehl, spotted on his blog http://www.robertwgehl.org/index.php

    "While Marx cautions us not to confuse the money-­ commodity with the abstract process of exchange – that is, don’t confuse gold with the abstraction it stands in for — for the millions of Facebook users, there should be no confusion, since the wealth flowing through Wall Street banks is abstract enough to most of them. It is a “concentrated representation” peculiar to our historical moment: a speculative bubble, built out of the commodification of the private lives of Facebook members. Thus the news coverage of the sheer amount of money flowing through the site and into Wall Street financial firms is another form of abstraction failure, one that starkly and undeniably reveals the power of Facebook to appropriate the emotional lives of its users, even as investors are betting that Facebook can hide this fact from its users behind an ideology of participation and connection."


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