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«doi: 10.1111/tsq.12062 The Sociological Quarterly ISSN 0038-0253 IS PARTICIPATION WITHOUT POWER GOOD ENOUGH? Introduction to “Democracy Now: ...»

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doi: 10.1111/tsq.12062 The Sociological Quarterly ISSN 0038-0253


ENOUGH? Introduction to “Democracy Now:

Ethnographies of Contemporary


Francesca Polletta*

University of California

This introduction to the section Democracy Now: Ethnographies of Contemporary Participation

sketches a contemporary enthusiasm for participation that reaches across business, education, popular culture, and politics. The article tries to account for what makes this enthusiasm new and begins to sketch its implications for what people want and expect from their political and economic institutions.

On a July day in 2002, 4,500 New Yorkers and I gathered in a giant convention center to deliberate over what to build on the site of the former World Trade Center. Few of us had any expertise on land use planning or architecture. But we were devastated by the terrorist attack and wanted to help heal the wounds of 9/11 by helping to rebuild the neighborhood that had been destroyed. “Listening to the City,” as the forum was called, allowed us to do that. Seated at tables of 10 with a volunteer facilitator at each, we reviewed plans for the site, discussed options for housing and transportation, and tried to reach consensus on recommendations for rebuilding authorities. Periodically, we registered our preferences on digital voting pads, which tallied the results on giant Jumbotron screens. When the screen revealed that most of us disliked all the official proposals for the site, we cheered.

Observers hailed this “21st-century town meeting” as an exercise in people- powered democracy. “At each table, they debated in a sober, thoughtful, civil way,” New York Daily News columnist Pete Hamill marveled. “We have a word for what they were doing. The word is democracy” (Hamill 2002:8). Hamill’s enthusiasm has been shared by observers of similar exercises in “public deliberation,” in which ordinary citizens meet to make recommendations on issues ranging from local police–community rela- tions to the federal deficit (Nabatchi et al. 2012). And the enthusiasm goes further. In fields as diverse as education, business, advocacy, and local governance, there is a new confidence in the ability of ordinary people to help make the decisions that matter.

There is another view of public deliberative forums, however, and of contemporary forms ofparticipation more broadly. In the case of Listening to the City, the dissenting view was voiced by Michael Sorkin (2002), an architectural critic who also participated in the event. He was not enthusiastic. As the day wore on, he wrote later, he increasingly *Direct all correspondence to Francesca Polletta, Sociology, University of California, SSPA 3151, Irvine, CA 92697; e-mail: polletta@uci.edu

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felt like a delegate in a “1950s Soviet Party Congress” (Sorkin 2002:67). The options for how to develop the site had been determined in advance and they were basically identical. When the master of ceremonies for the event gave a “brief pep talk on how the meeting was democratic as all get out because ‘in democracy, the people have a chance to speak!’” Sorkin had had enough. He stood up and yelled, “Buuuuuulllllshiiiiiiit!

Democracy means the people have the power to choose!” His “tiny act of insurrection went completely unnoticed” (Sorkin 2002:67), he commented ruefully. And, in fact, we did not end up really choosing. The designs that we so disliked were shelved, and new ones were drawn up. But the new ones still had the huge amount of commercial space and relatively little housing that we had objected to. Then the governor ended up deciding which design to choose, and then the site’s leaseholder overruled his choice (Polletta and Wood 2005).

Critics like Sorkin ask whether public deliberative forums really count as democracy. The people get to speak, but they have no control over the final decisions that are made. Indeed, critics argue, grand spectacles of public participation may make it that much easier for backroom decision making to carry on as usual, unscrutinized and unchallenged. Just as so-called flat management in business ends up putting workers in the position of monitoring each other’s performance, in a constant Panopticon-like state of surveillance, so participatory democratic exercises in governance have been charged with allowing people to “choose” just which cost-cutting measure will be imposed on them. Again, participation comes in lieu of power (Lee, McQuarrie, and Walker 2014).

Certainly, democracy, especially in its participatory forms, is an idea that is as manipulable as it is meaningful. Consider the 2008 Obama Internet campaign, widely celebrated as a grand experiment in bottom-up democracy. As Daniel Kreiss’s (2012) behind-the-scenes study of the campaign makes clear, the Obama “brand” was about the transformative possibilities of grassroots participation. The Obama campaign was not. Centrally and hierarchically organized, relentlessly focused on “money, message, and mobilization” (Kreiss 2012:4), the campaign’s Internet division figured out how to persuade supporters to donate millions of dollars and thousands of hours of volunteer time while supplying the ever more precise data that allowed campaign operatives to target their fund-raising appeals. A staffer who was in charge of writing engaging proles of Obama’s supporters was deliberately kept insulated from the rest of the campaign. Getting “too close to the sausage making,” his boss told him, would make the ring of people power in his posts seem less authentic (Kreiss 2012:137).

Grassroots lobbying, to give another example, now involves a vast industry dedicated to getting ordinary people to send prewritten e-mails and letters to congressional representatives in support of corporation-friendly policies (Walker 2009). Grassroots, indeed. But I wonder whether the people who are sending those e-mails think they are participating in a bottom-up democracy. What do people want and expect of participation? If their expectations are stunted, why is that the case? Is participation without power seen as good, or is it seen as better than nothing? And what about the people who put on the participatory spectacles, who launch team management initiatives, 454 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Francesca Polletta Participation without Power organize deliberative forums, and work in empowerment projects? What do they expect and want of participatory initiatives?

The essays in this special issue tackle these questions. Each of the authors trains close ethnographic observation on a setting in which participation is valorized. Nina Eliasoph’s (2014) setting is the world of empowerment projects: nonprofit programs that are funded by a mix of government, foundations, and corporations and are aimed at helping disadvantaged people by giving them the tools to transform their lives. Nina spent years observing and volunteering in several empowerment projects and she shows how much they draw on a participatory ethos. Organizers believed that they would develop leadership among the young people with whom they worked by treating them as leaders. Rejecting the rigid rules and roles of bureaucracy, their organizations

would be “open and undefined and up to you to decide ‘whatever’ ” (Eliasoph 2014:

467). Nina explores organizers’ efforts to put those values into practice in a context of tight funding cycles and constant demands for measurable success.

The civic engagement specialists whom Caroline Lee (2014) studied saw themselves as carrying the participatory democratic values of the 1960s into a new era. Giving ordinary people the opportunity to weigh in on the decisions that matter would create better policies as well as more engaged citizens. Rejecting the “adversarialism” (Lee

2014) of their activist youths, civic engagement specialists valued the opportunity to bring deliberation into corporate settings as well as nonprofits and local governance.

The ideological work that civic engagement specialists did to make those settings all seem the same is the focus of Caroline’s article.

Alexandra Michel’s (2014) investment bankers likely had no memory of the 1960s.

When Alexandra began interviewing them, they were young, largely nonpolitical, and

hard driving. When they talked about participation and autonomy, they were uninterested in those terms’ political meanings. But they prized the way their work was set up:

their freedom to set their own work schedules and the egalitarian ethos that substituted teams for workers and bosses. Even as they worked 120-hour weeks, they bragged about the freedom of their workplace. Alexandra unravels the puzzle of autonomy in that context, in part by tracing bankers’ experiences of work over the course of 12 years.

Many of the people who staffed Obama’s 2008 Internet campaign came from the technology industry of Silicon Valley. They were entrepreneurial and impatient; they prized informality and good ideas. They saw in the Internet campaign an opportunity to harness the tremendous energy of Obama supporters and they gave supporters responsibilities that campaigns before had always reserved for paid staff. Daniel Kreiss (2014) explores the relationship, sometimes fraught, but more often cooperative, between supporters and campaign staffers.

People in all these settings valorized participation, equality, informality, personal relationships, and individual autonomy. Bureaucracy was the enemy. It prevented things from getting done, stifled creativity, created cogs in an organizational machine, ignored the value of local knowledge and initiative. To be sure, in none of these settings did people actually have control of the decisions that mattered. Corporate and 455 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Participation without Power Francesca Polletta municipal decision makers could ignore the recommendations that came out of the public forums Caroline describes. Investment bank directors could fire underperforming analysts. The young people who joined empowerment programs had no input into whom the programs targeted for funding or what staff did with the funding. The Obama supporters who contributed time and money did not have a say, really, in any decisions campaign staffers made. Participatory democracy was more a style or sensibility, an aspiration that was pursued alongside a recognition of the limits to giving people full control of decision making. The authors ask, then, about this aspiration or style. Where did it come from? What consequences did it have? And what limits did it come up against?


Before I underline a few themes in the answers that the authors give to these questions, I want to provide some additional historical context for the participatory sensibility the authors describe. It is, in important respects, profoundly new.

Bureaucracy and the things that go with it such as expertise, formal rules and procedures, and hierarchical and centralized decision making have periodically gotten a bad name. This is not just among radical activists committed to enacting a radically free, caring, and egalitarian society in the here and now: radical pacifists in the 1950s, new leftists in the 1960s, feminist and antinuclear activists in the 1970s, and most recently, Occupy activists (see, e.g., Leach 2013). Dissatisfaction with bureaucracy has extended much further. During the Progressive Era, a movement of intellectuals and activists who eventually won support from Congress and the White House developed deliberative forums around the country. Ordinary people, many of them newly arrived immigrants, met evenings in public schools to discuss issues ranging from local budget decisions to national immigration policy, sometimes directly with local officials and candidates (Mattson 1998). In another participatory moment, when federal planners devised new antipoverty initiatives in the 1960s, the notion that the poor would not be involved in the initiatives’ administration was unthinkable. As observers wrote at the time, “the days when poor people would passively accept what they were given were numbered everywhere” (quoted in Sirianni and Friedland 2001:37).

Antibureaucratic animus periodically has swept business as well as government. In the 1960s, at the very time that new leftists were scathing in their denunciation of graysuited and conformist corporate “organization men,” those same organization men were touting the virtues of radical democracy. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1964, management guru Warren Bennis (with sociologist Philip Slater) argued that democracy had become a “functional necessity,” and that the most hidebound companies were now trying to “humaniz[e] and democratize large-scale bureaucracies” by encouraging emotional expression, an indifference to rank, and a faith in “consensus” rather than coercion or compromise as a way to deal with conflicts (Slater and Bennis 1964:52). By the 1990s, facing the pressures of just-in-time production and impressed by Japanese firms’ collaborative style, many American businesses adopted participatory 456 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Francesca Polletta Participation without Power forms of work organization (Vallas 2006). Indeed, in 1992, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of private sector employees were members of work teams (Osterman 1994).

So, enthusiasms for more participatory, egalitarian, and informal modes of administration have been a periodic feature of American political and economic institutions.

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