Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: Participation has long been considered a fundamental pillar of democratic governance, a means of expanding citizen voice and access to decision making. Indeed, “participation” has become something of a “keyword” in late capitalism, both a normative guide to practice, and seen as a beneficial public good in itself. In recent years, we have witnessed a proliferation of modalities of public participation across sites and scales, from local focus groups, citizen juries, and participatory budgeting, to vast digitally-mediated public consultations dependent on new media and Web 2.0. The enthusiasm for participation is far-reaching in public governance, civil society and private industry where it has been variously embraced as a key element in design thinking, a tool for fostering social innovation, and redressing problems of democratic deficit. It brings with it a growing industry of methodologies such as affirmative inquiry, collective sense-making, and co-creation, as well as expert consultants who are called upon to apply their specialized knowledge to elicit (and manage) certain forms of authentic, creative, and meaningful participation (Lee 2015, Wilf 2016).
Yet, what “participation” entails is neither pre-determined nor universally agreed upon. In practice, the elicitation of “participation” is highly regimented and reliant upon and productive of certain forms of sociality, characterized by new norms and interactional frameworks. Public participation--despite the hype of revolutionary access afforded by new media-- is also not new, but has emerged in concert with and in contrast to historical antecedents, often from the radical left (Kelty 2017). Today however, particular deployments of participatory models that mediate relationships between elites, institutions, and ordinary citizens may actually mask or give rise to new erasures and inequalities in late-capitalism (Lee, McQuarrie and Walker 2015).
This panel seeks to answer Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza’s (2017) call for more ethnographic investigation into the “paradoxes of participation” and its linkage to the conditions of late capitalism by bringing together research on the technologies, practices, experiences and political consequences of the burgeoning array of participatory practices that increasingly characterize planning, governance and innovation in both public and private sectors. In bringing together diverse case studies on the applications and invocation of “participation” in spaces of religious activist projects, territorial reform, language planning, nation branding, and professional development, we seek to explore how, for instance, participation is locally understood and organized, as well as by experts trained in its cultivation, how participatory strategies travel and are taken up in diverse contexts, and how calls for engagement in the public sphere and in the private sector may reify structural inequalities.