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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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Empowerment project staffers worked in a world not of their own making. As much as they rejected the impersonalism and inflexibility of bureaucracy, they were still accountable to funding agencies that were bureaucracies. As much as the funding agencies themselves sang the praises of local knowledge and initiative, they also insisted on quantifiable results delivered on non-negotiable deadlines. Accordingly, organizers fell back time after time on the “no-brainer” projects that were unqualifiedly helpful, if not especially creative or engaging, and whose results were easily measured (for example, in pounds of donated merchandise collected for veterans). Or they focused volunteers’ energies on raising funds to keep the organization going.

Nina’s article makes clear the difficulties of sustaining islands of participatory democracy in a sea of bureaucracies. But Nina also notes that staffers forewent opportunities to school their charges in a different kind of leadership. They did not encourage the young people to begin to see the institutional world in which they existed as sending mixed messages about what counted as success. They did not encourage the young people to reflect on the merits of competing against organizations representing seniors or immigrants for a bigger cut of the limited pie of support.

The volunteers did learn, nevertheless. They learned to ignore organizers’ declaration that everything was “open and undefined and up to you to decide ‘whatever,’ ” and instead pick up on organizers’ hints as to what they should be doing. They learned to talk about themselves as social problems (“I’m involved instead of being out on the streets or taking drugs or doing something illegal” [Eliasoph 2014:486]). They learned both to recognize hypocrisy and to accommodate it.


Nina’s organizers were unwilling to dwell on the contradictions of the institutional world they inhabited. Their can-do enthusiasm is surely another part of the mantra of today’s participatory initiatives. But its flip side is a deep discomfort with political 461 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Participation without Power Francesca Polletta conflict. Caroline’s civic engagement practitioners, for example, proudly described their evolution away from adversarialism as maturity and cautioned each other against using words like “justice” or “empowerment” lest it alienate conservatives.

Daniel describes a much broader anti-partisan ethos, one that has become a taken-for-granted aspect of American politics. Journalists and pundits routinely rail against partisanship, as do party politicians. Indeed, even a delegate to the Democratic National Convention expressed that discomfort. She wanted to share her experiences of the convention on Facebook, she told Daniel, but she tried, she said, “not to get too political” (Kreiss 2014:539). If you cannot be political at a party convention... !

But party politics is all the things that contemporary participatory democratic talk is not. It is negative, indeed, sometimes uncivil. It unfolds in giant convention halls and hotel rooms. It has little of the intimacy of deliberative forums or the excitement of connecting with strangers across divisions of interest. Yet it is in and through party politics that ordinary people can have genuine impact on the policies that matter, Daniel points out. This is not only in the sense that there are real divisions between the parties and whether Democrats or Republicans win elections actually matters deeply to people’s lives. It is also in the sense that parties are no longer single organizations.

Rather, they are constellations of advocacy groups and civil society actors. Citizens’ participation in these groups and networks shapes party platforms as well as parties’ expectations of the candidates it nominates.

Daniel compares participation in party decision making with participation in the 2008 Obama Internet campaign. In some ways, the Obama campaign, unlike party conventions, embraced the participatory style of the moment. Freewheeling and informal, campaign staffers drew the line between volunteer and staff high on the organizational chart. Volunteers could access voter files; they organized canvassing events; and they were given free rein to stage fund-raisers. But this did not mean that supporters had anything like substantive input into campaign strategy. And Daniel argues that that was okay—for everyone involved.

Some staffers wanted to give supporters a longer leash than others did. And there were occasions when supporters demanded input that they did not get. But that was rare. Most of the time, supporters accepted that the bottom line was winning and that staffers knew better than they did what it took to win. It would have been manipulative to tell supporters otherwise, one staffer explained. The fact that the campaign rhetoric sometimes suggested otherwise—the talk, for example, about supporters’ “ownership” of the campaign—may be evidence of differences among the staff. Or it may reflect the extent to which a participatory rhetoric has become so conventional that people are capable of distinguishing between participation with substantive input and participation without it, even when the words are the same.

Either way, Daniel argues, the problem is not that supporters did not control the Obama campaign. The problem is that contemporary ideas about what participation should look like—nonpartisan, short term, and satisfying in the moment—may discourage people from participating in the party politics where they can actually have an impact.

462 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Francesca Polletta Participation without Power


Daniel’s article, like the other three, relies on deep and sustained ethnographic immersion. Each author spent years in the field. Their research also took place in multiple sites as well as over long periods. I want to underscore how valuable this has been.

Alexandra’s longitudinal study allowed her to trace the long-term effects of flexible work practices and ideologies on workers, effects not only on their career choices and self-described levels of satisfaction but on their physical health. It also gave her unique access to the ways in which institutional logics diffuse: In this case, carried by investment bankers from investment banks to the places they went to work after they burned out in banking. Daniel’s observations of participation in a Democratic national convention as well as in the online component of a presidential campaign allowed him to compare the modes and limits of participation in the two sites. (His current project, on Internet use in Republican campaigns, will give us even further insight into the extent to which understandings of participation are bounded, in this case by political party.) Caroline’s observations of civic engagement practitioners in multiple settings, interacting variously with potential clients, participants, and colleagues, permitted her a deep and empathetic understanding of how practitioners struggled, often creatively, to square competing institutional logics. But it also gave her insight into how practitioners sometimes minimized the conflicts between those logics. And following empowerment project staffers from project meetings to fundraising dinners and back again gave Nina access to the strikingly constrained character of empowerment talk. Ethnography allowed the authors not only to get at what participation means for today’s knowledge workers, civic engagement practitioners, political operatives, and nonprofit staff, but also to see just how limits to participation are set.


Where do these essays leave us with respect to the prospects for democracy now? One message, perhaps, is how far short of popular control today’s participatory initiatives are. At the same time, I think we should take seriously Alexandra’s bankers’ insistence that they took pleasure in choosing to push themselves to work hard. And Daniel’s argument that Obama supporters did not want to own the campaign, campaign rhetoric aside. And the fact that people really liked participating in the deliberative forums that Caroline’s specialists organized.

You can call it false consciousness. But I think it makes more sense to acknowledge that there is satisfaction in working as a team, regardless of how much one can influence the team’s strategy. There is satisfaction in talking about important issues with people who are different from you, however much the talk falls short of changing policy on the issues. And there is satisfaction in seeing how productive you can be.

The question, though, is whether those experiences add up to democracy. To return to Michael Sorkin’s correction of the Listening to the City master of ceremonies 463 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Participation without Power Francesca Polletta about what democracy actually means, the interesting thing is that the emcee sold participation as democracy. And that no one but Sorkin seemed to mind.

Democracy is certainly a capacious term. But the articles in this section also ask us to think about which meanings of democracy come to dominate in a particular time and place. In our own era, has democracy, at least in its participatory versions, come to be understood primarily as an experience of openness, authentic connection, talk across difference? I am struck by the temporal boundedness of the episodes of participation the authors describe: the deliberation that ends when the specialists go home;

the participation that ends when the candidate’s campaign ends or when the grant funding for participation runs out; the autonomy that ends when the bankers just get too tired to keep going.

Compare, in this regard, the experience of participating in one of Caroline’s forums or Daniel’s Internet campaign or Nina’s empowerment projects with the experience of participating in a political party. Daniel points out that parties accept deep and intractable conflict as a feature of politics, not as something that can be, or should be, overcome. But parties also have a different temporal horizon than these other exercises (Tavory and Eliasoph 2013). They have been around and will be around. One measures one’s experience in the long term. Perhaps that also makes it possible to see one’s participation as aimed at a larger and longer-term set of goals, and to assess one’s participation in terms of advancing those goals. Certainly, political parties are an imperfect and incomplete model for what participatory democracy should be. But their orientation to the long-term contrasts with the time-bounded character of much of what passes today as participatory democratic. In this way and in others, the articles in this special section ask us to think about our contemporary common sense about participation and democracy—and to imagine alternatives.

REFERENCES Baiocchi, Gianpaolo and Ernesto Ganuza. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting as If Emancipation Mattered.” Politics and Society 42(1):29–50.

Bonabeau, Eric. 2009. “Decisions 2.0: The Power of Collective Intelligence.” MIT Sloan Management Review 50(2):45–52.

Collins, Lauren. 2010. “All Together Now.” The New Yorker, October 25, pp. 38–48.

Craig, David and Doug Porter. 2006. Development Beyond Neoliberalism? Governance, Poverty Reduction and Political Economy. New York: Routledge.

Delwiche, Aaron. 2012. “The New Left and the Computer Underground: Recovering Political Antecedents of Participatory Culture.” Pp. 10–21 in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, edited by A. Delwiche and J. J. Henderson. New York: Routledge.

Eliasoph, Nina. 2014. “Measuring the Grassroots: Puzzles of Cultivating the Grassroots from the Top Down.” The Sociological Quarterly 55(3):467–492.

Hamill, Pete. 2002. “Thrilling Show of People Power.” New York Daily News, July 22, Sports Final Edition, p. 8.

Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

464 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Francesca Polletta Participation without Power Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization.

Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kester, Grant. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context.

Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kreiss, Daniel. 2012. Taking Our Country Back: Crafting Network Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York: Oxford University Press.

——. 2014. “The Virtues of Participation without Power: Campaigns, Party Networks, and the Ends of Politics.” The Sociological Quarterly 55(3):537–554.

Leach, Darcy K. 2013. “Culture and the Tyranny of Structurelessness.” The Sociological Quarterly 54(2):181–91.

Lee, Caroline. 2014. “Walking the Talk: The Performance of Authenticity in Public Engagement Work.” The Sociological Quarterly 55(3):493–513.

Lee, Caroline, Michael McQuarrie, and Edward Walker, eds. 2014. Democratizing Inequalities:

Pitfalls and Unrealized Promises of the New Public Participation. New York: New York University Press.

Mansuri, Ghazala and Vijayendra Rao. 2013. Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?

Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Mattson, Kevin. 1998. Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Michel, Alexandra. 2014. “Participation and Self-Entrapment: A Twelve-Year Ethnography of Wall Street Participation Practices’ Diffusion and Evolving Consequences.” The Sociological Quarterly 55(3):514–536.

Nabatchi, Tina, John Gastil, G. Michael Weiksner, and Matt Leighninger, eds. 2012. Democracy

in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, Rasmus K. 2013. “Mundane Internet Tools, the Risk of Exclusion, and Reflexive Movements—Occupy Wall Street and the Political Uses of Digital Technologies.” The Sociological Quarterly 54(3):173–7.

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