Participation Now

When is citizen participation transformative?

When is participation empowering and transformative? What is the relationship between ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ modes of participation? At a conference on the theme of ‘Participatory Cultural Citizenship’ in Aarhus, last November, keynote speaker Leah Lievrouw shared her thoughts on this with Participation Now. Interview.

Hilde C. Stephansen Leah A. Lievrouw Nick Mahony
6 January 2014

Hilde: Why did you choose this subject, Leah?

Leah A. Lievrouw:  Well, I think participation is transformative when knowledge changes, when it changes peoples’ knowledge, when it changes the community’s sense of what they know and who knows it and who is allowed to decide and be part of that collective building of capacity and what’s known in the society.  Very often, we leave that to large institutions; we bump that up to them. We have our grassroots everyday common knowledge, but then we have education and we have government and we have cultural institutions and we have religion and we have all these institutional forms where knowledge resides.

What we have to look at is what the intersection is between those institutionally approved ‘legitimate sources’ or locations of knowledge, and then what is happening in the world and what the dialogue is between those two poles. That intersection is where it happens.

Nick: How does that relate to the idea of commons knowledge?

Leah: Commons knowledge is a genre of new media practice. It is the opportunity that media technologies have given us, have afforded us, to capture more of that everyday, interactional, informal kind of so-called ‘grassroots’ bottom-up knowledge generation. At a distance, one of the things that we would typically see before these kinds of interactive technologies emerged, was a lot of that work going on at a very local level, geographically local. But now anyone with a particular interest, the most arcane interest that you can think of, can reach people all over the world, and de facto create for themselves a location, a place to cultivate what they know, to share what they know and to get excited about it and come together around it. 

Commons knowledge poses the question of how that mobilisation happens and then how it confronts or deals with the authoritative knowledge embodied in these institutions. This is a relationship of tension. It’s not entirely hostile, because at one level the institutions want to have their finger on the pulse, as it were: all of us academics know how that works. They do want to know what’s going on out in the borderlands, at the margins, and to be able to think about it and use it as well as bringing it in or incorporating it in some way into institutional knowledge.

But, at the same time, those people who are working in the grassroots, working at the edges, working in their own communities and creating these spaces for themselves, also have to contend with the fact that there’s institutionalised knowledge out there and that inevitably they are influenced by it, they draw from it, they play with it: “remix culture” is entirely about that.  So it’s a relationship that works both ways. But I think there’s a tension between the two, because they have different aims and different priorities. Both sides are trying to capture each other, trying to poach from one another in different ways.

Hilde: But when is this process manipulative, rather than empowering? At the end of your presentation you finished with a set of these ‘tensions’ for further debate. Could you tell us about that?

Leah: I had six or seven different sites of tension and one is scale, bigness and smallness, local and global, and everything in between.  This re-enacts the micro/macro problem a little bit but at the same time our technologies don’t limit us to micro/macro; they can work at any scale. There’s a tension about governance which is what you are referring to and the whole power question of who decides and who gets to be part of whatever rules are going to be introduced regarding these discourses.  Typically in the past, we have left it up to the cultural institutions to make those rules, to decide what the boundaries are, to sort of codify knowledge and to approve it, legitimate it.  That’s getting tougher to defend all the time because now there are so many competing sources of knowledge that do different things.

But governance matters. It may no longer be just up to the institutions to make those rules, but governance also happens at the grassroots level: Wikipedia is instructive in this respect, because it started as an entirely freeform activity, but has very quickly, as it grew its own practitioners, its own participants, come up with its own rules which they now refer to as “the five pillars”. Every Wikipedia entry has to satisfy certain criteria and the Wikipedians themselves, the editors, and anyone who is a participant gets to get in there and argue about the rules.

So there’s a meta-level of governance that’s going on as well. It’s not just about the content. It is about their own relationships, and who can say what under what circumstances. So the question of rulemaking is not necessarily about fixing things in place, although they often have that effect.  Rules are also necessary for interaction, rules are necessary for group work, rules are necessary for any kind of collective activity that has goals in mind. They can be loose or tight but I think governance is another one of those questions that must come up. 

Those are the two areas of tension that strike me first – and I think that’s the same for a lot of the speakers that I’ve heard at this conference. We have been talking about the same thing, raising questions. 

There are not a lot of answers so far, but a lot of definitional work is being done, and that has to happen. To have people not only thinking about this or that project, but trying to move up one level to say what they have in common or what their differences are; what the boundaries are around different areas and whether they overlap or intersect; are there networks, what shape would we give this thing? 

Any taxonomy that we can arrive at is likely to be short lived, but there may be some commonalities. Chris Kelty’s work is very interesting from a historical point of view because you can look back in time and say does this hold?  Our ideas about participation now may not look at all like they did fifty or a hundred years ago. 

Hilde: Why is it important for people who are studying participation to pay attention to the question of knowledge production?

Leah: When we talk about knowledge we are talking about our capacity, our ability to act. So everybody from folks like Amartya Sen to school teachers at the primary level is interested in cultivating that capacity; either because it’s an interesting and good end in itself for the individual, or because if you think about the collective and the relational element of society, knowledge also takes on this relational character.  The question arises: how can we collectively cultivate knowledge and share it in a way that seems meaningful and useful and compelling to us, not only as individual thinkers and knowers and doers, but also collectively, in a way that allows us to be with each other, that allows us to build the societies we want, to build the good society as it were?

Behind this whole conference, I think, is the largest question of all – the notion that what we want is a good society – but how do we define what a good society is? 

The conference participants here today are saying that the good society is one where we have some sort of authentic participation, where people can feel a part of it, and think that it is real. Where they are engaged in the same sharing and in precisely that creative work of figuring out what we know together.

Sometimes that process institutionalises it. And we have to deal with the institutions: they deal with us on a day-to-day basis. So knowledge production is, for me, the starting place; it’s our point of departure for understanding about this collective ability, this collective ability to know, the collective ability to act. It depends first and foremost on individuals being able to identify groups that they want to be affiliated with. So affiliation really matters, and the kind of knowledge you have shapes the forms of affiliation you are going to engage in. 

Nick: How does the notion of ‘public-ness’ fit into this?

Leah: Public is a word like participation: it’s got so many facets to it.  In the United States, we use it in at least two very different ways; public meaning ‘government’ and public just meaning ‘open to everybody’. But take the distinctions between the public and civic life, for example, or the Habermasian idea of what exists between the private life and the state, that’s one way to think about it.

As a media scholar, it’s obvious that the modes of communication and the systems and infrastructures that we use, the tools, the ways we form our relationships, our institutional formations, our own practices of communication and gathering information, all of these have to be taken into account in the making of any public.

But crucially, to be effective, they have to intersect with interpersonal relationships and social structure; who we know and who we can rely on, what our role is and where we place ourselves in society. 

It is never just a question of a public being created because we all got the same message. A public is truly created when we act. We may get messages together, but we may get conflicting messages, or we may take those messages, reinterpret them, mess with them again and send them back out into the world in modes that maybe the originators wouldn’t recognise. So communication and information technologies play a big role in this but they are not the drivers. The drivers are our own communicative action. That creates the public, and then we use the tools we have at our disposal.

This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.


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