How to redistribute authority: participatory knowledge matters for democracy


If collaborative science or participatory budgeting does not incorporate some openness to calamity and creativity, to the world pushing back, then it will not have the effect of generating ‘real life’ experience and redistributing authority. 

Claire Blencowe
2 September 2013

Democracy is not just about the formal structures of elections and political representation; democracy is more fundamentally about where authority rests in society. A democratic society is one where ordinary people have authority; enough authority to make political demands, to hold people to account, to be taken seriously. This is why there is an essential link between democracy and dignity. Democratisation is about the dispersal of authority throughout society – the dignity of ‘ordinary folk’. So what is authority and how can participatory practices create it or redistribute it? These questions lead us to think about the ways in which different people are characterised as knowing, or not knowing, about ‘reality’ or ‘the real world’. I want to suggest that ‘knowledge of reality’ is a crucial battleground of democracy.   

What is authority?

Authority has been defined as ‘advice that cannot safely be ignored’. It derives from people having different knowledges and experiences. We grant authority to others because we suspect that they know better than we do, or because they have access to some reality that is beyond us – be that insider knowledge or the objective facts, the big picture or the strings of power in an institution. Authority is generally tied to particular circumstances or types of question – I’m an authority in this situation, you’re an authority in that. It isn’t something that we possess as individuals but rather comes from the differentiated relationships that we have to realities that lie outside of us.

In utilitarian action-orientated societies, such as those of the ‘over-developed world’ today, authority is closely tied to the ability to claim to ‘have experience’, to have done something, to have ‘really lived’. We see people as authoritative when they have made a contribution to the real world, (impacting on the lives of others, making something happen), when they have encountered and explored hidden ‘secrets of life’, or when they have gone through some transformative ‘life experience’. This happens in all sorts of different ways. Most obviously we grant authority to various ‘experts’: people who, through scientific training or experience, know a great deal about some specific and important area of life. But we also grant authority to people who have gone through particularly intense ‘real life’ experiences of injustice or suffering; or who go beyond their own interests, to work for other people, caring for or creating life and capacities.

Because of this, participation in the institutions and practices of scientific investigation is a really important source of authority and dignity. Scientists have a kind of privileged access to ‘reality’, using special techniques and technologies to observe causes and forces that are invisible to the ordinary eye. Scientists have specialised knowledge that makes them closer to the ‘objective’ or ‘hard’ facts, and they can often draw authority from that relative proximity. Medicine is perhaps the greatest source of authority in this respect, because it is both a set of scientific knowledges about hidden realities and a set of practices for intervening in and caring for the health of other people. Medical doctors participate in innovative science and technological advance, achieving great things in knowledge, but also sacrificing themselves for others, providing care, and touching on the very limits of life – facing death and illness, or bringing new life into the world. This makes for some highly authoritative figures.

We also seem to grant a great deal of authority to people that have participated in the (so called) ‘real world’ of markets, financial risk and wealth creation. Entrepreneurs, economists and ratings agencies sit amongst the most authoritative figures in our societies – those whose opinions are seen to matter, who issue advice that can’t safely be ignored. Such figures have participated in the domain of life that is (often portrayed as) most fully real; they have contributed to economic growth, taken risks, encountered ‘the bottom line’. This ‘market-experience based’ authority seems to become ever more significant. In the UK, for example, scientists and even doctors increasingly have to engage in market practices – being called upon to justify their scientific and caring authority by stepping down from the ivory towers to participate in the ‘real world’ of market competition. The authority of entrepreneurs, financiers and economists isn’t just about these people being wealthy and having financial clout. In part their authority comes from the sense that they have engaged with, been close to, experienced the ‘real world’ of economic necessity and market forces. Indeed, recent events in banking demonstrate that such figures do not even have to have been successful or act legitimately in order to be authoritative – they just have to have been close to the action. In the fall-out of the financial crisis experts on financial matters became all the more likely to have their voices listened to in public debate, despite such experts having been in significant respects responsible for the crisis, as suddenly knowledge of complicated financial instruments and indicators came to appear as the all important key to reality. We could say that the shadowy figures of the financial world claimed an authority relative to the crisis precisely because they had participated in its creation.

These predominant forms of authority (scientific expertise and market-experience based authority) are exclusionary, elitist and so anti-democratic. The authority of scientific expertise and medicine is obviously intertwined with gross inequalities of access to education, technology and time. It takes an awful lot of investment for someone to become a participant in advanced scientific experiments. It might be easier to participate in market forces than it is to participate in the developments of bio-chemistry; but market-experience based authority has some really anti-democratic implications of its own. Market-experience based authority can radically compound marginalisation by characterising the economically excluded in infantilising terms, as people who ‘lack experience’, who have not ‘made a contribution’, or have not ‘really lived’. Such characterisations make it all too easy for elites to ignore the views of ordinary people. In the recent rhetoric of the UK government, the supposed ‘shirkers’ (the un- or under-employed and those unable to work) are said to keep the blinds on their windows drawn – a caricature that paints these people as themselves blind to what is going on ‘out there in the real world’ and provides yet another excuse for politicians to ignore their voices, insights and concerns. These ways of thinking, and talking, about ‘the real world’ can undermine the dignity and self-respect of ordinary economically excluded people, such that it becomes very hard to even articulate a view or political demand in the first place… let alone to have one’s view heard and respected.

Participatory practices can challenge such elitism and be seen as technologies for redistributing authority, enabling more people to speak with the gravitas of experience, to not be ignored. We can think about that challenge to elitism in at least two different ways.

Widening participation

First: participatory processes can expand access to the kinds of experience that are normally the preserve of experts and those with the means to achieve specialist status. Procedures that involve ordinary people in decision making effectively expand access to ‘real life experience’ – generating opportunities for ordinary people to act within domains of life that are widely thought of as really important. Participatory practices can be engines creating and redistributing authority, dignity and confidence. Widening participation in scientific analysis (especially medicine), or economic risk taking, is particularly fruitful in this respect, because of the great significance that is attached to these domains of life in our societies. To do science, or to be involved in markets and economics, is to have greater authority on public issues. In this sense, participatory practice is not simply about enabling ordinary people to ‘have a say’ in a particular policy decision but is potentially also about more profound and enduring changes in the distribution of authority; creating new expertise, dignity and confidence amongst participants.

Thinking about participation in this way – as attempts to disperse authority by widening participation in ‘real life experience’ – highlights the importance of risk and openness in participatory practice. If a participatory practice is to contribute to the dispersal of authority it cannot be tokenistic or scripted in advance (such as in those ‘consultation exercises’ that enable participants to choose between narrowly prescribed options through carefully managed deliberations). Participatory practices that involve ordinary people in scientific decisions (be that the approval of a drug for sale, the working out of flood defences or deciding farming strategies) should involve genuine opportunities for knowledge creation, experimental investigation, and reconfiguration of the question or stakes. This is to say that such processes should be real events of scientific enquiry – not simply ways of telling people about already-established scientific facts. Likewise, participatory budgeting is meaningless from the point of view of dispersing authority unless there is a ‘real’ budget at stake, substantial enough to make a proper difference to the people or problem concerned and to mean that there is a genuine financial risk involved. If collaborative science or participatory budgeting does not incorporate some openness to calamity and creativity, to the world pushing back, then it will not have the effect of generating ‘real life’ experience and redistributing authority.

Thinking about the issues in this way also points to a potential problem with the promotion of widening participation, from the point of view of equality and democratisation. Widening participation in a particular set of practices (such as scientific enquiry or market economics) does, in a sense, confirm the importance and authority of that practice. This, in turn, can add even more authority to the existing elites within those fields of practice and compound present inequality. For example, incorporating more people into medical biochemical enquiry, and holding up such science as an especially important practice in which ordinary people should be engaged, confirms to the world the significance of this mode of understanding and creates a greater investment in this way of knowing. Such a confirmation of the importance of biochemistry is not ‘democratising’ from the point of view of advocates of, say, holistic or behavioural approaches to medicine - who already struggle to have their voices heard relative to the biochemical model. A similar dynamic is at the heart of many people’s concerns about the ‘participatory turn’ in international development over the past two decades – where ‘pro-poor’ participatory practice seems to sit all too comfortably alongside neo-liberal economic strategies that can undermine the very living conditions of impoverished people. Involving ‘local people’ in the decisions and direction of capitalist development is inclusive and can foster dignity, but it can also be seen as a kind of ‘co-option’ that garners support and strength for one (free-market) model of how things should be done. This is all the more problematic because the newly active ‘local’ participants in development practice can only ever be playing ‘catch up’ relative to the already ‘expert’ international development practitioners.  Whilst overcoming the abjection and indignity of exclusion by widening participation in various domains of reality, we can, at the same time, compound existing hierarchy by cementing pre-given ideas about what is real and what matters. This seems to be an inescapable danger of widening participation.

Transforming reality

Second: participatory practice can work to redefine what counts as ‘participating in reality’, by changing and challenging understandings of what ‘reality’ is in the first place. It is possible to redistribute authority by changing perceptions about what is important – what makes things happen – and thus changing given understandings of who has participated in important domains of life and practice; who has ‘real life experience’ and why; and thus who can claim authority.  Changing understandings of causation have the effect of changing what counts as ‘real life experience’, ‘knowledge of reality’, or as ‘making a contribution’. We can redistribute the authority that attaches to scientific expertise by changing accepted definitions of what constitutes scientific practice. Likewise, we can build up the authority and dignity of different groups of people by establishing a broader and more pluralistic view of what constitutes economic activity and wealth creation.

Whilst it might seem either politically irrelevant or overly radical to attempt to change what counts as reality, this has in fact been central to a number of social movements and governmental transformations. For example, changing ‘what counts as public life’ has been a long standing and often successful strategy of the feminist movement. By making ‘the personal political’, feminists created authority for those people (most often women) who deal with the mess of personal life. A particular strategy of much feminist writing has been to transform accepted definitions of and understandings of what the economy is made of – highlighting the necessity to the ‘official economy’ of various domains of life that had previously been categorised as purely private matters. Feminists have long demanded recognition for domestic labour, biological reproduction and familial socialisation as ‘real work’, upon which everything else depends. Such arguments have impacted upon who is seen as contributing to the economy and to society at large, who has ‘real life’ experience, and who can claim public authority.

‘Community Economy’ action researchers and activists have taken up this mantel in recent years. They work to establish new visions of economic reality, wherein the ‘formal economy’ of capitalist relations is recognised as being no more than the ‘tip of the ice-berg’ of economic activity. They do projects with communities, including communities who are officially classified as ‘economically inactive’, to highlight the wide and varied ways in which people do actually already participate in economic life. At the same time they work to create new community-based practices of production and exchange. These projects are not about widening participation in capitalist markets and development, but rather seek to diversify understandings of what counts as economic reality and so proliferate the range of activities that count as meaningful real life economic experience. These movements work towards dignity and the redistribution of authority.

Changing accepted norms around what counts as reality is more difficult than creating new opportunities for ‘widening participation’ in existing practices of governance. But such change also has a more radical potential with respect to effecting democratisation. And such radical and democratising changes have happened in the past. The nineteenth century saw a great shift in the understanding of what reality is – with the establishment of the idea of public welfare, national security and economy alongside the new sciences of society. New objects of knowledge and practice were identified, including various processes of collective growth or decline, whilst various existing activities were reclassified as the causes or determinants of those processes. For example, parenting transformed (in public understanding) from a private practice into a paramount cause of national wellbeing or decline. New forms of state and philanthropic policy were rapidly developed to impact upon this now paramount domain of life. These shifts in thinking about the nature of reality had a tremendous impact upon the distribution of authority in public life in the twentieth century; contributing to the immense successes of the women’s movement, the political recognition of ‘labour’, dramatic extensions of suffrage,  and the creation of the welfare state.  

 Whether or not such a revolution is under way, or even possible, today we should understand that debates concerning the nature of reality, knowledge and causation, are no mere ‘academic exercises’ – petty diversions for overly-privileged minds. Such debates are, or can be, the very battleground of democracy. Accepted theories concerning what causes things to happen, what connects things to each other, what is the basis of growth – these theories determine what counts as ‘real life’, who has had ‘real life experience’ or access to reality, and who – on the basis of such access – can claim dignity, exercise authority, and make effective demands. Challenging and transforming such accepted ways of thinking, identifying new objects of knowledge, can constitute a major event in the making of democracy.


This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData