- Double-BoundPutting the Power Back into Participatory Research
Oceans of ink have been spilled in recent years on the promise and perils of public participation in scientific and technological policymaking. H. M. Collins and Robert Evans recently argued that studies of experience and expertise, aimed at supporting Science and Technology Studies scholars to better perform boundary work between experts and the public, should constitute the “Third Wave” of science studies.1 Michael Lynch and Simon Cole explain, “repeated calls have been made for research that intervenes in public controversies about science and technology . . . Such proposals have become so prevalent, and so central to programmatic objectives in STS, that is fair to say the field has undergone a normative turn.”2 Of course, all of this recent normative technoscientific boundary work is informed by the (often unacknowledged) contributions of feminist sociologists of knowledge who have vociferously insisted, since the early 1980s, on developing better (that is, both more just and more true) accounts of the world created by science and technology. But as committed to extending technological decision-making as many of us are in theory, sharing control of our own research agendas and our institutional resources with nonacademic members of social movements and local communities still seems to befuddle us, to make us defensive and wary.
All the fuss and confusion produced by recent debates about participation make perfect sense when you consider the political-economic context of the shift to participatory practices. Participatory methodologies have become hot topics because these practices currently serve to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the state under globalized neoliberal regimes. For example, community development block grants, a key strategy in government devolution since the 1980s, were justified by arguing that program funding is more effective and efficient when decision-making is shifted to more local levels (a key premise in grassroots participatory organizing). The Personal Responsibility [End Page 107] and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA—otherwise known as welfare reform) reframed social welfare in terms of individual empowerment and personal responsibilities in order to justify state withdrawal from providing for the social welfare of its citizens, rejecting the call of new social movements for recognition of group rights and entitlements. And more recently, George W. Bush has argued that the traditional responsibility of government to care for its most vulnerable citizens should be transferred to faith-based organizations, because these programs are more attuned to local nuance and cultural specificity than the federal policy-makers.
We should be deeply suspicious of participatory practices that displace macrosocial analysis, neglect the extra-local, eviscerate the state’s commitment to social welfare, or heighten emphasis on personal or individual responsibility under the guise of “empowerment.” Though the participatory practices I discuss here, like popular education and participatory action research, arose from radical social movements the world over, in recent years, the libratory potential of participation has often been unrealized or rerouted. States and supranational organizations such as the World Bank have co-opted the strategies—or at least appropriated the rhetoric—of social justice movements themselves. An apt name for this co-optation process has been suggested by Margaret Ledwith: “hijacking the language of liberation.” The co-optation of participation dovetails with the individualization of social welfare, “transforming rights into responsibilities by transferring the collective responsibility of the welfare state to the individual, the family and community as moral responsibility.”3
And yet grassroots participation should be a feature of any genuine democracy and is vital to the democratic production of knowledge. In my own studies at the intersection of Women’s Studies and Science and Technology Studies, examples abound of how those most affected by scientific and technological innovations are least consulted about their construction and deployment. This is so much the case that a number of social movements spawned in the US in the past fifteen years—including environmental justice, community supported agriculture, fair trade, reproductive justice and independent media—have arisen with the specific goal of challenging technocratic decision-making in areas as important to human life as clean water, breathable air, safe food, human rights to communication, and ability to self-determine one’s reproductive destiny...