Conceptualizing Participatory Processes at Multiple Levels of Analysis


The concept of participation has been employed to address social dynamics at varying levels of analysis. Under modernization theory, including the work of Daniel Lerner, the idea of participation was employed in characterizing media consumption (media participation) along with participation in democratic political institutions. Political scientists like Samuel Huntington debated, among other things, whether the liberties enjoyed in democratic governance outweighed threats to national stability during periods of rapid growth and change. In early post-modernization theory, the idea of participation as dialog was employed, by Paulo Freire and others, to analyze both interpersonal interaction and community development processes. Since that time interest in, and use of, participatory processes have proliferated in a variety of neighborhood, community development, social movement, and other middle level social change efforts, including some that operate via social media. Not all uses employ the same assumptions. Can participation be used as a means to advance predetermined ends, or should it be reserved for processes in which participation is the end goal? What does it mean to “scale up” participation? Is this possible? Does participation require any specific sets of norms as a prerequisite, or alternatively can all sets of socio-cultural norms support participation? Today with the increasingly urgent threat posed by global warming, and globalization pressures of other kinds, global forms of civic and political action are increasingly treated as processes of global level participation. The concept of a political public sphere drawing on the work of Habermas, as well as some of his critics, is one, but only one, of these. Citizen representation in multilateral organizations, global social movements, and other forms of cosmopolitan action are also treated as participation. Following questions raised by international relations scholars like David Held, what forms might global governance take? Is this approximated by the current network of multilateral organizations, global trade regimes, and international rights groups? Do these international institutions limit or enhance human autonomy? If international rights are to be pursued, what value systems should be employed in determining the content of these rights? What forms of sanction or enforcement in the face of rights violations should be considered? What forms might be feasible? The paper will review theory and research in participatory communication ranging across levels of analysis from micro level to global change, including historically relevant formulations of participation from non-western societies. It will analyze previous conceptualizations and report on both current practices and theoretical treatments. The paper will ask what can be gained by theorizing participation in a manner that, at least in some respects, conceptualizes social change at all levels of analysis simultaneously.