How to ensure meaningful public participation in governing matters of collective concern? With the growth of distrust and alienation between citizens and established political institutions, it is urgent to improve democracy by finding new ways of involving citizens in decisions that shape their lives. This project makes a counterintuitive turn to look for new modes of public participation in informal practices creatively employed by citizens to contest governance arrangements, especially in settings where they are discouraged from doing so.

Scholarship traditionally defines public participation as dependent on making issues public, i.e. visible and debatable, whereas informality is considered dysfunctional and anomic, not least to democracy itself. Therefore, informal practices that involve working around formal procedures and public spaces, and depend on remaining invisible, have not been explored as modes of public participation. This project is a comprehensive study of public participation by means of informal practices.

It takes a qualitative approach inspired by the ethnographic ‘rear-mirror’ methodology to comparatively investigate local (Russian healthcare system) and global (pharmaceutical industry) sites where non-democratic situations abound and identify how informality mediates participation in health, a domain personally relevant for many citizens because their lives are at stake. We will elucidate the effects of this mediation and elaborate the theoretical significance of conceptualising certain informal practices as public participation. This project will offer a fundamentally novel insight into the impacts of informal practices on formulating and addressing matters of collective concern, enable discerning a wider spectrum of participatory modalities, and open up new avenues of democratisation.


This project employs a case-based, qualitative comparative approach to study informal participation in health and its implications. The list of all subprojects is available in the Subprojects section.

Local versus global: the first line of comparison is drawn between local (the Russian healthcare system with its strict top-down organisation) and global (the multinational pharmaceutical industry, notorious for its non-transparent agenda-setting) sites. This comparison is to juxtapose the shapes of informal participation employed by the different communities discouraged from engaging with matters of their concern, and, in this way, to understand how informality functions in different contextual scales. The focus on the settings hostile to public participation is to unveil what is done about matters of shared concern when ‘making things public’ is not an option or is not effective.

In vitro versus in vivo: the second line of comparison is drawn between degrees of procedural organisation. This project uses the terminology of Callon and co-authors to distinguish between in vitro participation performed in controlled laboratory-like settings and more spontaneous in vivo participation emerging ‘in the wild’2,33. The circumstances of the first kind characterise participatory openings created from the top, with pre-defined boundaries between what is open for intervention and what is not, and embedded opportunities for steering citizen input. The circumstances of the second kind characterise more bottom-up action, driven by those concerned with particular issues and not respecting the confines of the official