Unseen participation? Impressions from the project panel on EASST conference

Olga Zvonareva

Principal Investigator

Jul 9, 2022

On July 7th, the panel “Unseen participation? When the uninvited shape matters of collective concern” took place during the EASST-2022 conference. The InPart project team convened this panel to explore practices of participation under adverse circumstances.

The panel drew on an understanding that participation can go beyond talk-based and officially-designated formats. For a long time, studies of participation have focused on more formal, organised, and staged participatory events. The main line of analysis has been to check how a specific participatory exercise measures up to particular democratic ideals. STS scholars have been criticising this focus on isolated events and evaluative methodology. As this critique developed, it became possible to think of participation differently. Not only as individuals coming together and talking, preferably detached from their bodies, experiences, and circumstances to be able to think dispassionately - beyond their own interests and about the common good. Rather, it became possible to also think of participation as mundane activities, such as selecting and using particular technologies at home; as a process that does not tap into pre-existing interests and attitudes but brings publics and issues into being; as something that can be done without any stated political intention, simply as a daily, often caring, activities. For example, Ellen Stewart showed how community members developed and maintained a garden attached to a local hospital, improving a view for the patients inside, then allowing patients to venture out and do some gardening themselves or simply enjoy the experience of sitting outside, then bringing flowers for patients inside to arrange. These community members changed the services the hospital provides, and changed its territory. In fact, they changed the hospital itself through their daily activities, but did not think of their practices as participatory and actually denied they did anything political. Yet, we still can discern participatory potential of such practices insofar as they contribute to addressing collective concerns, although in an entirely non-heroic manner, and to the constitution of a shared world.

With this understanding of participation, panellists explored practices employed by those who find themselves uninvited or actively discouraged from participation. Most stories began with hostilities of some sort: medicines were not provided; new technologies were implemented without regard for local concerns; positive contributions into ensuring security or well-being were persecuted.

We saw a spectrum of strategies employed in such circumstances by those who were not invited or discouraged from participating. These strategies can be presented and grouped in various ways. One way of characterising them is in terms of relations between visibility and invisibility. Some strategies highlighted by the panellists are about making things public and highly visible through demonstrations, petitioning, and media. For example, Lotte Krabbenborg showed how citizens in the Eastern part of the Netherlands, excluded from the formal decision-making process on building biodigesters, became uninvited actors on the scene. Not receiving any response to their concerns, they moved from installing protest signs and going door-to-door with information to campaigning and challenging governmental plans in court.

Other strategies are about carefully balancing what is visible and what is invisible. Olga Temina discussed such balancing, using an example of patient organisations in Russia. They publicise some activities such as participating in advisory bodies and writing reports and open letters. Meanwhile, they hide others, such as drug sharing in the context of persistent shortages, positioning themselves as dealing with ‘purely social issues’ and avoiding any hint on having anything to do with politics. Still other strategies are about hiding as much as possible. An example was provided by Sabrina Rahmawan-Huizenga and colleagues who spoke about a hidden soup kitchen, where a resident of a low-income Dutch neighbourhood provided meals to their fellow residents in need. Continuity of this form of caring depends on remaining hidden from regulatory scrutiny.

Furthermore, panellists’’ research suggests that we can also think of different ways in which participation is visible and invisible. First, one and the same set of practices can be visible and invisible at the same time, depending on the perspective taken. Some city-making practices could very much be visible to local residents but remain out of sight for city administration. Second, there are different ways in which practices are rendered visible and invisible. Some are kept under the radar by strictly limiting a number of those aware of their existence; others are invisible due to being incompatible with a particular way of seeing. The latter situation was discussed by Beitske Boonstra, who showed how practices of making a city habitable by, for instance, decorating it with humorous paintings and by drawing attention to urban challenges through artistic expressions, were invisible to city administration. These practices are invisible in the sense of being uncountable. Due to not fitting key performance indicators, organisational goals, and bureaucratic logics, they do not exist for the city administration. Third, visibility and invisibility can be understood as related to acknowledgement. Aforementioned practices of making a city habitable may at some point come to the attention of city administration, but instead of being treated as participation, they are likely to be treated as nuisance.

Often, participatory practices under adverse circumstances don’t look like participation traditionally understood and their political character appears hidden, accidentally or intentionally, allowing their existence but also hindering their acknowledgement. It is, therefore, important to study more systematically and jointly reflect on the interplay of different kinds of visibility and invisibility delineated during this panel, their effects and also, theoretical and methodological issues involved in studying them.