Tyranical participation: The need for an institutional perspective

In a recent post I explored some criticisms of PAR by those with a positivistic standpoint.  In this post I examine some of the criticisms of participatory approaches as experienced in the field of development.  Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari* argue that, in this field, there has been an inexorable spread of participation as an approach that has produced tyrannical effects resulting in illegitimate and unjust exercises in power. They cite a number of problems including:

  • simplistic assumptions by proponents about the rationality inherent in participation and the irresponsibility of not participating;
  • an emphasis on the importance of informal networks while the actual work is with formal organizations;
  • collective decisions are vulnerable to group dynamics – risky shift (group members take more risky decisions than they would have taken as individuals), the Abilene Paradox (where people second-guess what they think everyone else wants when the opposite is the case), groupthink (ingroup dynamics lead to evidently bad or wrong decisions being made) and coercive persuasion (manipulation of group members towards a particular outcome);
  • a naivety of assumptions about the authenticity of motivations and behaviours in participatory processes;
  • how the language of empowerment masks a real concern for managerial effectiveness;
  • the quasi-religious association of participatory rhetoric and practice;
  • how an emphasis on the micro-level of intervention can obscure and indeed sustain macro-level inequalities and injustice.

Frances Cleaver* explores in depth the role organizations and institutions play in causing some of these problems. He argues that advocates of participation are strongly influenced by discourses on the “new institutionalism” – the idea that institutions can help to formalize mutual expectations of cooperative behaviour and identify the sanctions associated with deviance.  However, the focus on institutions is towards formal practices – contracts, committees and property rights – and most commonly conceptualized as organizations: a form, Cleaver argues, that is visible, analyzable and amenable to intervention and influence.  The downside of such an approach to institutions is that it:

  1. ignores the “informal” practices and interactions between people that often take place outside of formal organizations and “that the interactions of daily life may be more important in shaping cooperation than public negotiations”;
  2. can misread “meaningful participation” – for example, if participation is assessed in public meetings in terms of individual (verbal) contributions this may be counter to local norms and practices. Cleaver provides an example of Tanzanian women who were seen to not participate in public forums as much as men but who explained how they nominated representatives to speak for them;
  3. can result in problematic notions of community  that are often conceived as a “natural social entity characterized by solidaristic relations” where ideas of  “conflict, negotiation, inclusion and exclusion are occasionally acknowledged but little investigated”.  This ignores the interplay between “solidarity and conflict, shifting alliances, power and social structures” and feeds into a myth that communities are capable of anything if their latent capabilities can be mobilized;
  4. misses the opportunity to see a person “positioned in multiple ways with social relations conferred by specific social identities”. This can mean that it may be more beneficial for some not to participate. For example, some women in Nepal gained by not participating in an irrigation association where clear gender roles were dominant, opting instead to operate outside of the organization where they could act without censure or detection.

A strong emphasis on participation of individuals and their potential empowerment is not supported by convincing analyses of individual positions, of the variability of the costs and benefits of participation, and of the opportunities and constraints experienced by potential participants.

Understanding institutional dynamics – enduring social phenomena (Hughes, 1936), the persistence of which depends on systemic conditions that automatically reward compliance and penalize noncompliance (Jepperson, 1991; Phillips, Lawrence & Hardy, 2000) – appears essential not only to explore individual motivations to participate but also to explore how the structures and practices that privilege some and disadvantage others are sustained . If, as Cleaver states, there is “little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of participation in materially improving the conditions of the most vulnerable people or a strategy for social change”, then exploring and articulating the “institutional work” of creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006) may be critical in understanding the relationship between participation and social change.

*Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (2001). The case for participation as tyranny. In B. Cooke & U. Kothari (Eds). Participation: the new tyranny? (pp1-15). London: Zed Books.
*Frances, C. (2001).  Institutions, agency and the limitations of participatory approaches to development. In B. Cooke & U. Kothari (Eds). Participation: the new tyranny? (pp1-15). London: Zed Books.
Institutional Theory References (To be added! – available on request)


3 Responses

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Hi Simon,

    great blog, even though I might want to argue a bit with you.

    Some of your readers might be interested to know that there was a rejoinder to the tyranny book, called Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation, edited by Samuel Hickey and Giles Mohan, also published by Zed.

    Keep it up.


  3. Thanks Bill for your encouragement! Will check out the book and would always welcome further comments about any aspect of the blog – especially where you think I am really missing the point!

    Many thanks, Graham

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