Rescuing Participation

Nico Carpentier

"Rescuing Participation" is a visual essay that is based on the chapter "Participation, access and interaction: changing perspectives" of the book "New Media Worlds" (OUP, edited by Virginia Nightingale and Tim Dwyer). In this essay, the Visual Sociology Study group features Jeff, who takes us through the different stages of an analytical model on access, interaction and participation. In his search for the differences in meaning between those three concepts, Jeff's main objective is to flesh out the distinctness of participation, attempting to rescue it from semantic reductionism or even discursive replacement. Jeff (and the essay) argues that through the strengthened articulation of participation with power, we can provide participation with an analytical surplus-value. In doing so, we can avoid that a fundamental division in society - the division between the ‘control-haves’ and ‘control-have-nots’ - becomes normalised ever further.
Rescuing Participation

What do participation, interaction, and access mean? How has their meaning changed in the past decades, through the introduction of a new generation of media? What has happened to the concept of participation? What have we lost because of these changes?

And by the way, this is Jeff who will guide us through this story.

The four questions I just mentioned immediately imply that the meaning of these three notions is not stable, it changes over time.

And especially participation has shown to be vulnerable to these changes in meaning. Already in 1970, Carole Pateman wrote that 'the widespread use of the term […] has tended to mean that any precise, meaningful content has almost disappeared.' In the meantime, the situation has not improved, and some of the more interesting meanings of participation have now almost disappeared.

It is tempting to see this process as a neutral event or as an accident of history. A more critical analysis reveals that this is actually an ideological process, which aims to remove the more radical meanings from the concept of participation.

Arguably the strong emancipatory and potentially critical load of participation, which connects it to power and power imbalances, and which was in turn violently contested, eventually resulted in the softening-up of its meaning. As an old floating signifier from the sixties and seventies, participation has become vulnerable and is threatened by semantic reductionism or even discursive replacement.

This essay aims to come to the rescue of participation and the diversity of meanings that characterise it, by re-analysing old and new media theories and the relationships they create between participation and the two other key signifiers, access and interaction.

The main point here is that participation is strongly related to access and interaction, but also has something distinctive, something which allows us to differentiate participation from access and interaction. To discover these differences and similarities, we need to position participation in relation to access and interaction.

This method is not new. Already in 1969, Sherry Arnstein published her ladder of participation. And in the MacBride Report of 1980 a comparison was made between access and participation. In some other cases, one of these concepts became the focus of attention. For instance the diffusion of what we now call new media generated an extensive debate on access (through the discourse on the digital divide and its critiques).

If we look at these different theoretical reflections, and what they have to offer, we can put them to work, as building blocks for an analytical model, that combines these reflections on access, interaction and participation.

First, there's access. For instance in the discourse on the digital divide, access is seen as access to technology, to either produce or receive content. Access to especially on-line computers is seen as a main solution to bridge the digital divide. Having access to these on-line computers is claimed to ensure increased levels of information, knowledge, communication and other types of socially valued benefits. Despite the romantic-utopian nature of this discourse, access to media technology remains an important first layer of our analytical model.

However relevant access to media technology is, it is still only a part of the access story. If we look at the critiques on the way access has been defined through the digital divide discourse, we can come up with three more components of access: access to skills to use the technology, access to content that is considered relevant, and access to the content producing organisation. Together they form the second layer of our analytical model.

Technology as such is useless if you do not have the skills to operate it. These skills can be learned in a wide variety of ways, but having them is a very necessary condition that allows for actually using the technology. A second component is access to content which is considered relevant. Especially within our mediated societies, quite a lot of content has already been produced with the intention of making it available to a variety of audiences, or in other words, granting them access to this content. And there is one more component, as content producing organisations are still key players in this field. From a production perspective, access to these content producing organisations is crucial, as they are necessary to ensure that the produced content can actually be broadcast or published. Of course, there's a diversity of CPOs, ranging from semi-global mainstream broadcasters to alternative webplatforms and community media. From a reception perspective, access to these CPO is evenly important, not to ensure broadcasting or publishing, but to allow members of the audience to communicate their feedback on what they've been communicated before.

But access is only part of the story. These first two layers are the bottom layers, and conditions of possibility of both interaction and participation. Interaction thus provides us with a new and third layer. Similar to access, interaction has been used in a wide variety of theoretical fields, in for instance communication studies, sociology, literary theory and cultural studies. Not surprisingly, also this third layer has many components, as there are many interactive relationships possible. We can interact with technology, content, other users, media professionals and even with content producing organisations.

First of all, there's user-to-technology interaction. This type of interaction emphasises that access to technology is it itself not enough. We need to be able to (preferably skilfully) manipulate these technologies in order to generate something that vaguely resembles content. In doing so, we interact with these technologies.

We also interact with the content itself. Producing or creating content unavoidably requires interaction with this content, whether this process is about writing a text, making a video documentary, or using more artistic ways of production. Also at the level of reception, we interact with content. When we read, listen of watch to what the media have to offer us, we interpret these media texts, which is again a way to interact with them. Thirdly, media production (and reception) does not necessarily take place on an individual basis, but is quite often a collective endeavour. In these cases, the different people involved again (and unavoidably) interact with each other. Finally, we can also interact with mainstream media organisations (aka content producing organisations). This happens in some (rather rare) cases when non-professionals are involved in the production process. Interaction also takes place when content producing organisations organise feedback on already produced media output. This last element foregrounds more dialogical forms of feedback.

Having discussed the many meanings of access and interaction, one can only wonder about the distinctness of participation. The answer lies in the notion of power. If we return to Carole Pateman and her seminal definition of partial and full participation in her book Participation and democratic theory, we see that influence and power feature prominently. Partial participation is defined as: 'a process in which two or more parties influence each other in the making of decisions but the final power to decide rests with one party only', while full participation is seen as 'a process where each individual member of a decision-making body has equal power to determine the outcome of decisions.'

We now have a basis to claim that participatory processes are not only about granting access and facilitating interaction, but also about balanced power relations and co-decision making, which is the fourth layer of our analytical model. But with some notable exceptions (like the discussions on electronic democracy and new media), the concept of participation has lost much of these radical meanings that connect it to power. And it risks being equated with access and (especially) interaction.

Because of the emphasis on access and interaction a fundamental division in society tends to be normalised. It is a division between those who structurally control the interface, the media organisations and the content, and those who can only gain access to it and interact with it, those whose actions are constrained by the framework that has been created by the first group. In order to theorise and analyse the differences between the 'control-haves' and 'control-have-nots', and in order to reflect about the possible forms of resistance and the blurring of the boundaries between control and non-control (within a situation loaded with structural power imbalances), the concept of participation remains a necessary third component for any conceptual evaluation of traditional and new media.

Video by:
The Visual Sociology Study Group
Nico Carpentier
Marleen Meyvis

Text by:
Nico Carpentier

Text based on:
the chapter
"Participation, access and interaction: changing perspectives"
in the book
"New Media Worlds"
Edited by Virginia Nightingale & Tim Dwyer
OUP 2007

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