4: Participatory practice in a non-participatory world

To resist co-option by the powerful and being drawn into tokenistic, or even tyrannical, projects, participatory workers must systematically reflect on the lessons of the history of participatory work. (Wakeford, 2016)

Participatory practice over the last decade

So, is the way of thinking explored in the last chapter coming to the fore and challenging the status quo? Well, yes and no. Over the last decade there has been a remarkable increase in the adoption of the idea of ‘participation’ in a wide range of sectors and organisations. ‘Involving people’ has become a common mantra in areas as different as health research, urban planning, food security, social work and broadcasting. Ironically, the decline of the state and the imposition of performance measures by neoliberal governments, such as the need for universities to demonstrate the impact of research, has pushed some previously reluctant institutions to seek, at the very least, the opinion of their ‘customers’ and, at the best, the active involvement of those who have a stake in the outcomes of their endeavours in decision-making. The advent of social media has encouraged this trend with its ease of gauging opinion and giving access to people, allowing commentary on the actions of those in positions of power. This has created an expectation of involvement, although the level of that involvement is often superficial. There is rarely in-depth critical reflection or dialogue. Indeed, neoliberal corporations have hijacked involvement and turned it into consumer opinion. Community engagement has become the watchword of both private and public sector institutions keen to validate their actions or their products.

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