For the Oxford English Dictionary, participation is 'the action or fact of partaking, having or forming a part of'. In that sense participation could be either transitive or intransitive; either moral, amoral or immoral; either forced or free; either manipulative or spontaneous
Majid Rahnema, 1995: 116
Participation in development and communication is often presented as a normative principal to which to aspire. Maximum participation carries an assumed status of maximum benefit. Participatory theory tends to focus on the structure of projects or campaigns, assuming that with a sufficiently participatory framework and approach, the campaign will have the desired impact. Many forms of participatory theory regard the actual participation of the beneficiary community as an end in itself. In this essay I shall present a critique of what is often an uncomplicated celebration of participation. I shall focus on the points of intersection and gatekeeping within the case study to show that:
- A participatory structure is, in itself, not sufficient for 'success'.
- The personal motivation, leadership and vision of participants is fundamental to project sccess. This role can best be described by drawing on Antonio Gramsci's (1971: 5) concept of organic intellectuals. These people have the capacity to organise society and all the complex elements of the social structure. They create"the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class"- in this case, the capacity to empower. They do require a sound structure in which to express these qualities fully, but without these individuals, or organic intellectuals, the structure alone is insufficient regardless of its horizontal power relationships.
- There are instances within a project where participation is inappropriate or possibly detrimental to the overall success of the campaign.
- That the notion within participatory theory that participation means a horizontal flow of involvement, communication and power is inadequate.
The case study, Project for Health and Sanitation Education (PHASE), is neither horizontal nor vertical in communication and power relationships. It is multi-layered, inter-referential, and cyclical. At any number of points of intersection of two or more groups or individuals, there is the possibility either for empowerment and access, or obstruction. This power is not limited either to funder or intended beneficiary, but characterises the entire communication development process. Through the case study I shall illustrate the argument that relationships of power are more organic, more elusive, and more human than is suggested by the standard criticism inherent in the participatory paradigm.
Communication is a complex process that works within an… intricate network of intentions, interpretations, social relationships, power structures, standards and values.
Elaine Epstein, 1997: 29
I shall begin with a brief description of PHASE, the context within which it was developed, its process and structure, target audience, and impact intention. I shall then describe the different elements of participatory communication and development theory; cite examples from the case study to illustrate where the theory conflicts or concurs with the empirical data; and conclude with a synthesis and critique of the above. I should state from the outset that the purpose of this critique is to situate participatory methods within the fluid, complex and often unpredictable nature of human interaction.
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