Participation and Action Research

Because participation is often treated too generally, it is worthwhile both to differentiate and contextualize the concept in ways that can help action researchers triangulate the overall direction of their projects. Participation can be viewed from different perspectives. We have chosen three: the first is built on power and control, the second framed in light of an epistemology of polit­ical positioning, and the third is structured around the pragmatics of work­place realities.


As a point of departure, we think a good source is the analytical typology on participation created in 1969 by Sherry Arnstein. Its multiple dimensions are depicted in Figure 17.1.

A valuable contribution of Arnstein’s analysis is to treat participation broadly by including everything from manipulation to citizen control and then to differentiate the effects on power relationships. For example, people can be said to participate in manipulative situations but, from the point of view of power, they are nonparticipants in the social outcomes created. Whatever else it does, this typology makes it clear that participation is not always a virtue.

Arnstein’s typology begins with manipulation and therapy. There is an expert or a power holder present, and the people subjected to their will are par­ticipants in a set of situations. However, from the political point of view, these are nonparticipative approaches because the goal is for the experts or leaders to get the “participants” to do as they are told. The emphasis is on authority and public relations (and often on patriotism, civic pride, and other such hot button feelings).

The first step toward political inclusion involves what Arnstein calls “informing.” This can be developed in many ways. At the lower limit, it involves authorities and leaders in meeting or otherwise communicating with their employees or constituencies and telling them what is happening. In many cases, this kind of communication is a one-way street. An example of informing could be the chief executive officer of a major corporation gathering the employees and informing them that 5,000 jobs will be cut over a period of time.

The next kind of participation is “consultation.” Here, either voluntarily or by legal mandate, those in authority engage in a “consultation” with the legiti­mate stakeholders. This can involve meetings, public inquiry forums, meetings with citizen’s committees, and so on. While this kind of consultation makes those in authority more available to questions from their constituencies, for the most part such meetings are heavily orchestrated and controlled. They often have an adversarial tone and involve a good deal of ‘ ‘spinning” of infor­mation by all the parties.

In Arnstein’s model, the next kind of participation is “placation,” in which certain members of the affected stakeholder groups are picked out and incor­porated into the communication networks of those in power. This channels stakeholder opinion through individuals selected by those in power and also often co-opts potential leaders of stakeholder groups into the plans of those holding power. Power holders can learn a good deal this way, and some infor­mation about what they are doing and thinking can pass on to the stakehold­ers as well, but the role of the stakeholders in making determinations about what is to be done generally is minimal.

In a more robust form of participation, there is a “partnership” between the stakeholders and the power holders. They have made a choice to jointly constitute working groups and to otherwise share information, analysis, and power with each other. In this case, there is a redistribution of power from the apex to much broader levels of the system, and decision making takes on joint characteristics.

Arnstein’s next type of participation is called “delegated power,” and this involves actually giving stakeholders the majority position in making decisions that affect their interests and welfare. This not only puts the stakeholders in charge of the process but also makes them accountable to themselves, the leaders, and others in the community for the quality or rightness of their deci­sions and actions.

Finally, Arnstein describes a situation of “citizen control,” in which those directly affected by any decision, condition, or action are completely in charge of planning, making policies, and taking actions to affect their own situation and that of the broader collectivity of which they are a part.


In an article entitled “The Consequences of Worker Participation: A Clarification of the Theoretical Literature,” Greenberg (1975) forms another taxonomy that is useful for understanding participation in work organization. Greenberg integrates participation, attitudinal and behavioral effects, and social and political consequences in his discussion. He creates four typologies he identifies as different schools of thought.

The first strand is management-centered thinking, in which participation is expected to be low intensity and narrow in scope. The focus would be on enhancing morale and increasing the efficiency of the operation. The goals for participation are identical to the company’s, and the result would be to improve the overall operation of the plant.

The second strand of thinking is humanistic psychology. The intensity of participation is expected to be very high, but with a fairly narrow scope. The effects are seen in improved mental health and in the well-being of the participants. The effects are also seen in improved performance of the organization.

Third, Greenberg points out that in democratic theory, the intensity of the participation is expected to be very high and to span a wide range of social and political issues. Participation is anticipated to bring about increased interest in and understanding of public affairs. In addition. participation could lead to a greater tolerance for the viewpoints of others and for diverse ways of being. The broadest effect is the development of a civic-minded citizenry.

His fourth category is the “participatory left,” which expects participation to be of high intensity and to span a broad spectrum of societal and political issues. Participation would bring about a healthy work life, a growing desire for control, higher levels of economic activity, but combined with hostility to bureaucratic centralization and hierarchy. The ultimate effect of participation would be a nonelitist, mass-based revolution.


These distinctions are useful in real-world contexts. In a study by Levin ( 1984), the issue was to investigate the situation of participation in Norwegian industry. Instead of commissioning a survey-based study, the research was done in major companies in Norway’s dominant process industries and was based on in-depth interviews. The study revealed that the individual’s concept of participation was a consequence of his or her role and position in the orga­nization. Management believed that participation was important and useful because it was an effective move to pass information on to workers. It was also important because it provided management a knowledge base as it gave them insights into the workers’ way of thinking and acting.

This was a pure practical approach to participation, stripped of all ideo­logical commitments to democratic institutions. On the other hand, workers at the shop-floor level had a very limited perspective on participation, believing that participation was mainly useful in having an impact on the immediate and local working conditions. They reasoned from their experiences that, through participation, it was possible to influence concrete physical design of work­places, how the canteen should be designed and run, and so on.

A third view on participation was held by the trade unionists. Their posi­tion had ideological overtones; they argued that participation was an important source of remedial actions that could move companies toward industrial democracy. At the same time, in their daily work, this group was fully engaged in concrete, practical participation projects to improve the companies’ effi­ciency and in projects to improve general working conditions. The trade union­ist combined a view of participation that spanned from practical, everyday participative issues to dealing with the larger political issues in the companies.

The small sample of conceptualizations we have presented so far dearly shows that participation is a protean concept. Co-optation is an important issue both in Arnstein’s and Greenberg’s classificatory schemes, while this element is disguised in Levin’s conceptualization. We always need to ask whether a particular participatory process can be understood as co-optive. Ideological blindness will result if participation operates only at the level of talk (Brunsson, 1989) and not as action. Participation does not mean a thing if it does not lead to concrete results from creating enough power in the group to facilitate change according to the participants’ priorities.

These many dimensions of participation find their way throughout AR processes. No AR process is homogeneously perfect or uniformly carried out at the “best” level of participation. At every juncture there are weaknesses, and there is always room for enhancement. We think it is important for action researchers to keep an analytical eye on the variety of participatory processes taking place in their projects and to work strategically to keep enhancing the depth and scope of participation and to understand its genuineness in terms of concrete actions.

Though participation is generally lauded as a good thing, there are many voices raising legitimate criticisms of participation. Part of the problem is resolved when we understand that all of the different activities in Arnstein’s, Greenberg’s, and Levin’s models have flown under the flag of participation, and manipulative and cynical uses of what we would consider to be pseudo­participatory processes are quite legitimately criticized. When a group is told that an organization or government is engaged in a participatory process and their “input” is requested but that the decisions will be made after the “partic­ipants” have made their input, this process not only does not lead to democra­tization but often attempts to hide manipulation under the rhetoric of participation. For this reason, there have been many moments in recent labor history when labor unions, struggling with employers in a negotiation, have withdrawn from company-mandated schemes of participation (for example, work circles, total quality management, and so on) as a weapon in their nego­tiations. Union leaders recognize that such participation is, in fact, not about power sharing at all but merely about increasing efficiency, competitiveness, and the corporate bottom line.

Coerced pseudo-participation is commonplace in many situations and leads away from democratization. We have already mentioned Cooke and Kothari’s views on participation in this sense as a new form of tyranny (Chapter 13), and, though we find their arguments oversimplified, we think their picture of manipulative pseudo-participation in many international and community development schemes is accurate. Under such coercive conditions, resistance to participation can itself be a pro-democratization action. AR needs to take these critiques seriously and be less confident that participation by itself is an unabashed good thing. The specter of co-optation is always present.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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