Reflections on the Participation Paradigm

When researching the literature on participation and participatory exercises, a quote by Redclift on ‘sustainable development’ comes to mind: “Like motherhood, and God, it is difficult not to approve of it” (Redclift, 1993, p.3). Participation is cited with many benefits, such as empowerment (Irwin, 1995; Brulle & Pellow, 2006), increasing legitimacy of decisions (European Commission, 2001), better understanding of the local context and hence better policies (Chamber and Blackburn, 1996), better management of the risk society we live in (Jasanoff, 2003) and of the relationship between science and society (Nowotny et al., 2001). However, there are also many difficulties surrounding the concept of participation which deserve attention, and many assumptions underlining the participation debate that must be uncovered, rather than keeping a simplistic model of participation which does not necessarily represent reality.

Having an MSc in development means that I have been conditioned into the ‘participation paradigm’ in which the simple assumptions are that:

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation
  1. There are two types of actors: central actors (experts, government decision makers, NGO workers, scientists) and local actors (those with specialist, local knowledge but far removed from the decision-making process).
  2. There are different types of participatory activities, presented by Arnstein (1969) to range from manipulative/tokenistic participation to citizen control and empowerment. This ladder is now generally recognised as being one-dimensional and simplistic. Nevertheless the basic assumption behind all ladders and tables and figures is that more participation leads to more empowerment of the local actors, better communication changes in the status quo, greater commitment to the process, greater legitimacy of the process and learning amongst the actors.

However there are some difficulties with this ‘participation paradigm’. First, despite decades of academic interest, the concept of participation remains unclear because there is no clear definition; “the term participation is used in a very general fashion, and is presented almost as an end in itself (Jasanoff, 2003), without any critical discussion of the precise aims to be achieved and the methods to be used to achieve these ends” (Felt & Fochler, 2008, p.489). The abundance of participatory mechanisms and definitions create research problems. Rowe and Frewer (2005, p.258) list over hundred participatory techniques and create a simplistic typology for participatory mechanisms based on the flow of information; whether it goes from the central actor to the local, from the local actor to the central or flows in both ways.

Participation is defined top-down by (social) scientists

This typology is presented as an important step towards developing a theory on which participatory mechanisms are most suitable/effective for different sets of situations with different aims. Whilst the systematic activity provides insightful information, it also presents another flaw in the participation debate uncovered by Felt & Fochler (2005); the meaning of participation is defined top-down by social scientists and public policy makers. Due to this contradiction, misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions exist about participation. Two will be discussed shortly.

First, it is assumed that ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’ participation  equates empowerment and will thus be welcomed by the public. Whilst doing research on the impacts of the regeneration of East London surrounding the Olympics, I was exposed to the ‘participation fatigue’of the public. People expressed that they were tired of being consulted, because

Participation fatigue

whilst they gave their inputs, bureaucratic structures are too rigid too take into account their wishes. For example, many people wanted to keep the Hackney Marshes the wild, unkept space it is, but the local council had received two million to regenerate it and had to spend the money, thus hired architects and pushed pathways, lights, six million pound changing facilities near the soccer pitches and everything else the community resisted.  It could be argued that this participation fatigue is due to the participation not being done in a meaningful way. However, empirical evidence based on a meaningful citizen participation exercise facilitated by Felt & Fochler in order to analyse bottom-up meanings of the concept of public participation found that:

The assumption, so strong in the academic and political debate, that participation will a priori be welcomed by citizens, only partially stood the test of our empirical experiment. It did so only on a very abstract level, for ‘participation in general’, which means for the abstract idea of ‘the public’ ‘participating’ ‘in science’. However, as we aim to demonstrate, as soon as any of these three black-box terms became more concrete in the interaction, a variety of versions of ‘participation in particular’ came to the table. These are much more diverse and controversial than their general counterpart and may acquire different meanings (2005, p. 489).

These findings reaffirm that like God and motherhood everyone agrees on the concept of participation and recognises its benefits on an abstract level. However, as scientists working with the public, it is important to also be aware that participation is a concept that has been defined top-down without community participation and that scholarly assumptions surrounding it may not hold. Citizens may not welcome participation because they are wary due to experiences in the past, or do not want to be seen as representing the entire community. Felt & Fochler (2005) recorded that the citizen participants felt deeply uneasy with the possibility of being seen as ‘the’ representatives of the public, hence even meaningful, empowering participation will not necessarily be welcomed by members of the public.

A second assumption about participation concerns the common dichotomy between ‘instrumental’ and ‘transformative’ participatory approaches. Applied to the field of voluntary biological monitoring (VBM) instrumental participatory approaches are aimed at producing more data and simultaneously increasing legitimacy and publicity of conservation organisations, while transformative participatory approaches aim at participants controlling the process and simultaneously focus on learning among stakeholders, greater commitment to the environment and more ‘power’ to tackle environmental issues (Lawrence, 2006). In her assessment of five projects along the participation scale Lawrence shows how the dichotomy is a false one; instrumental data extraction participatory projects do occasionally lead to life changes in participants and changes in power status-quo’s by recognising local knowledge. The transformative participatory project did not challenge the status-quo, and although starting bottom-up it quickly became hierarchically organised by participants who acted entirely in economic self-interest and who did not shift their life priorities as happened in a badger watching instrumental participatory approach. “Personal change happens, but not as the main objective; in fact, it happens whether organisers intend it or not. So, while ‘consultative’ or ‘functional’ are still useful labels for certain kinds of participation, we cannot assume that they are not empowering” (Lawrence, 2006, p.292). Lawrence reminds us that the participatory paradigm’s ladder of participation cannot be correlated with empowerment or positive change.

As part of the Extreme Citizen Science research group, it is tempting to equate more participation with better outcomes for citizensbecause it is one of our aims. Most citizen science typologies are organised according to levels of citizen participation and reflect the dichotomy rejected by Lawrence; instrumental participatory approaches on the one end of the spectrum and transformative participatory approaches on the

Citizen science typology

other end (see for example the figure from Haklay, 2013). It is useful because project designs and processes are correlated with the level of citizen involvement, however we must be careful to assume more participation is better. Haklay reminds us that “Therefore, unlike Arnstein’s ladder, there shouldn’t be a strong value judgement on the position that a specific projects takes. At the same time, there are likely benefits in terms of participants’ engagement and involvement in the project to try and move to the highest rang that is suitable for the specific project”  (2013, p116) Haklay recognises that more participation is not necessarily better –e.g. sometimes citizens do not want to have a deeper level involvement but are content being sensors-  but at the same time there are traces of the participation paradigm; that we should always aim for more participation in projects because there are likely benefits.

The lessons about participation based on the empirical evidence of Lawrence (2006) and Felt & Fochler (2008) are important when researching public participation in science. Whilst citizen science practitioners may feel that they either have to focus on either data or on people;  this is based on the false dichotomy described by Lawrence, and assumptions uncovered by Felt & Fochler. The lesson I take away is that it is important to pay attention to the qualitative side of what happens in citizen science projects and research how the different projects bring about (unexpected) changes in people, feed their learning processes, and influence their motivation and participation. In this way we may further our understanding of participatory processes rather than affirm the top-down theoretical foundations of the participatory paradigm.


Arnstein, S. R. 1969. A ladder of citizen participation. Journal American Institute of Planners, 35, 215-224.

Brulle, R. J. & Pellow, D. N. (2006). Environmental justice: Human health and environmental inequalities. Annual Review of Public Health, 27(103), 103-124.

Chambers R, Blackburn J. (1996). The Power of Participation: PRA and Policy. Sussex: Institute of Development Studies.

European Commission. (2002). European Governance: A White Paper,  Brussels: European Commission.

Felt, U. & Fochler, M. (2008). The bottom-up meanings of the concept of public participation in science and technology, Science and Public Policy,  35(7), pp 489-499.

Haklay, M. (2013). Citizen Science and volunteered geographic information: Overview and typology of participation. In: Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge: Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in theory and practice. Sui, D., Elwood, S., and Goodchild, M. (Eds.). Dordrecht: Springer Science.

Irwin, A. (1995). Citizen Science. London: Routledge.

Jasanoff, S. (2003). Technologies of humility: citizen participation in governing science. Minerva, 41(3), 223-244

Lawrence, A. (2006). ‘No personal motive?’ Volunteers, biodiversity, and the false dichotomies of participation. Ethics, Place and Environment, 9(3), 279-298.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., and Gibbons, M. (2001). Re-Thinking science: knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Redclift, M. (1993). Sustainable development: needs, values, rights. Environmental Values, 2, 3-20.

Rowe, G. and & Frewer, L. (2005). A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Science, Technology & Human Values, 30(2), 251-290

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