Involving others: from toolkit to ethos (Naomi Millner)


Involving others: from toolkit to ethos for a different kind of democracy
Naomi Millner 3 September 2013

About the author:
Naomi Millner is a political and economic geographer, with a background in migration issues, the study of social movements, and the geographies of new political formations. She is interested in applying cultural and political theory to understand changing relations of power and knowledge in a globalising context. She is currently a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, as well as working as a volunteer in refugee organisations and popular education initiatives.


Authority is a capacity to inspire trust. This is what marks a participative inquiry apart from the liberal models which consult others, but never fully recognise, nor invite, their intelligence.

Here’s the scenario: you are a group of individuals, concerned with the housing issues in your area. You are aware of dozens of empty buildings in various states of disrepair, whose only prospects are eventual redevelopment by private firms. Together with a group of activist friends, you begin to imagine how acquiring one of these buildings might form a hub of autonomous organising in the area. One of these derelict buildings might be the basis for a community centre with a difference, a centre of collaborative learning, a space for people of different walks of life to encounter each other. The problem is, you don’t know if that’s what the other people in the area would want. There’s no history of autonomous organising there. Local residents you have spoken to are interested, but haven’t really thought about the idea before. Some are positively against the idea, fearing that it will bring ‘black-clad anarchists’, graffiti vandalism, and increased crime to the area. How can you begin a process that involves more than just those in your social group? How can you ensure the process which takes place properly attends to the opinions and desires of others invested in the area, without losing sight of your vision?

Wall drawing by Jorge Rodriguez Gerada on a building in Barcelona, Spain. Photographed by Shawn Lipowski.

Countless models, techniques and ‘kits’ have been created to enable decisions to be made more collaboratively. The aim of these resources is ostensibly to introduce democratic openness into a situation which risks sidelining dissident voices or alternative interests. For example, a group of scientists might use a ‘participatory’ approach to come up with a solution to the repeated flooding of an area that draws on the personal experience and knowledge of local people. Rather than presuming that scientific studies will give rise to the best solution, this approach acknowledges that there are many aspects of the problem which will be hidden without a more diverse array of knowledge-producers. In another example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is interested in funding initiatives which use participative approaches to develop poverty reduction schemes. The idea here is to allow the experience and insights of people who have experienced poverty to drive the formation of solutions, as opposed to theories conceived at a remove from the actual realities of poverty.

But in each scenario there is a problem to be faced. Whoever initiates the process has an interest in the question, place, or project at stake. Those invited to take part may have no interest, or a very different interest in the same object. To involve others in such a process whilst also maintaining integrity to this dissonance, something more than a set of techniques is required. A set of techniques can only lay out a recommended set of steps for action. It can’t ensure attention to minority voices, or guarantee that an equitable process will take place. For these reasons, participatory approaches have been extremely susceptible to incorporation into corporate and commerce-oriented agendas. The idea of participation is an attempt to respond to the ‘democratic deficit’ in the contemporary western world – a lack of opportunities for everyday individuals to be substantively involved in decision-making or social change. However, the language of participation can be used without any commitment to equality. It is possible to ‘consult’ a local population before a large-scale property development, and to tick all the ethical boxes, whilst keeping the planned design working firmly in the interests and pockets of the developers.

So how can we take back a language of participation? Beyond a tool-kit, participation requires an ethos if it is to play a part in equitable social transformations. An ethos is a set of values which are embodied into repeated practice. Rather than reducing a participative process to a model which can be reproduced with lip-service, the ethos asks certain commitments and dispositions from facilitators, and involves them in a wider project for which the name is ‘democracy.’

Democracy in this sense is not the same thing as the political system which, in the UK, means that we vote to have someone to represent us in the House of Commons. Instead, it is a body

Stencil art in Madison, Wisconsin. Photographed by David Drexler.

of political values which have developed through a long history to try and give rise to more just and equitable ways of organising social life. For example, anarchist and environmental social groups have devised a repertoire of ‘radical democratic’ practices which address less visible hierarchies of speech and listening, such as ‘consensus decision-making’ and co-operative financial structures. Such techniques address the way that, in contemporary society, knowledge too is produced through processes which recognise the capacities of some over others. Knowledge is often produced in a manner which reproduces and sustains existing power imbalances – whether across a given society, or within a particular social movement. For example, on issues of sustainable agriculture today, scientific evidence is increasingly trusted and brought into the domain of international policy-making. But the experiential knowledge of peasant-farmers around the world, who have farmed sustainably for centuries, is rarely recognised.

The development of participatory methods marks an effort to respond to this imbalance of access to resources and a recognition of unacknowledged capacities. Yet close examination of such techniques reveals that participation today is being adopted into policy-making and planning in ways which further disempower those with a stake or interest in a particular problem. Once it has been reported that members of a local community have been ‘consulted’, plans for an urban generation scheme may be placed on a fast-track, and even given a ‘green’ status. As an ethos, a participation agenda asks for more: it entails a set of commitments which make the interests of invested parties vulnerable and open to change. By making clearer the values which are in question, the ethos also makes the participation agenda more robust and resilient against commercial co-option.

An ethos of trust

Democracy in the making of knowledge or of decisions is a key aspiration for ‘participative’ methodologies. This means allowing all those with a stake in a problem or question to speak back to the process from its beginning to its end. But how can others be invited into a process in a manner which moves beyond the superficial? Take the case outlined earlier. Your group wants to involve others. But do they want to participate? Do they know they want to participate? It can be difficult to convince people to take part. Once a group or process has been established it can be even more difficult to simultaneously pursue a goal (for example, to create an architectural plan for a disused building) and make space for participants to disagree, or introduce their own ideas. Part of an ethos for participation entails an act of giving trust. Only when the facilitator of a participative process actively trusts the current knowledge and abilities of those taking part can a solution be created which is able to successfully invite participants into a process, and move beyond the framing or interests of a narrow group of people.

There is a story which shows the meaning of this act of giving trust. The story is told by the political thinker Jacques Rancière in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster.Here Rancière follows the lesson learnt by the historical educator Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840). Jacotot was a distinguished academic, popular with his students, whose long and eventful career should have made him immune from surprises. He was once a passionate subscriber to this technique of ‘explication’ for teaching – of progressing students from more simple to more complex contexts. However, he is by chance converted to new methods when, in exile in Belgium, he is approached by a number of Flemish-speaking students, who beg him to teach them as well. Speaking only French, Jacotot cannot invite them to his classes – but he acquires for each person a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s Telemaque, recently published in Brussels. Through a translator, he instructs the students to learn this text for themselves, repeating it over and over. Without much confidence in the experiment, Jacotot is nevertheless sufficiently astonished by the results for him to abandon a canon of methods he has preserved for decades. When he asks the students to write down their thoughts on their readings, the students not only proficiently articulate themselves in French, but express their thoughts on the first half of the book with astounding coherence. Jacotot grasps at once that despite his firmly held convictions, the students are capable of learning quite independently of his intelligence. From this moment he abandons the ivory towers, and goes amongst the country’s poor, conducting a series of further experiments to discover how he can actualise his new discovery in such a way that all may realise what lies already within their power. This is the lesson that anyone can teach. It consists only in an act of legitimising the learning which is already taking place, outside the language of the academy. This discovery, he realises, does not need to be explicated; ‘it sufficed only to announce it’.

The point of the ‘pedagogy’ – the art of teaching and learning – that this example draws out is that intelligence lies everywhere. To involve this intelligence in a properly democratic way is to understand it on a plane of equality. To involve this intelligence in a properly effective, ‘participative’ way is to learn how to make explicit our own interests in the specific problem at stake. Rather than presume the interests of others

Engraving of Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840).

we need to recognise the presence of diverse interests and forms of knowledge. A process which moves beyond a liberal, woolly lip-service to participation is thus a process of facilitation, where the problem identified forms a beginning point, an opening, but the solution is to be created through a reiterative return to redefining the problem. What does this mean for the vision which first inspired the process – must it be entirely surrendered? The key is to frame the problem in the initial stages in such a way that it resonates with the existing concerns of others. This requires a period of research on the part of the initiating group – conversations, encounters, and the creation of an interested ‘public’ in a particular object, whether this be a physical space, a barrier to collective life, a neighbourhood. The object must be larger than the problem identified, so that a diverse audience can be brought together from the perspectives of their own interests and investments. However there is still a place for leadership, and for a ‘holding’ of the problem, in this process. The goal of leadership is to create a structured space-time of engagement from which a journey of inquiry can emerge as a response to the initial problem. This requires a commitment on the part of the facilitators to suspend their own hopes, views, and intelligence with regard any possible solution, whilst continuing to exert their ‘will’ in fidelity to their initial inspiration to act. Jacotot didn’t give up on his role as a ‘pedagogue’ – someone wilfully engaged in a process of shared teaching and learning. But through his experiments he learnt that he must refrain from relying upon his own intelligence to convince his participants of the nature of the problem, and invite them instead to play their part in defining it. This commitment brings values of trust, listening and openness to the centre of an ethos for participation.

Trust, listening and openness

Trust is not only a matter of realising and legitimising the capacities of others. It also means establishing a ‘space of trust’ in which participants feel their involvement is structured and their contributions are respected. Establishing spaces of trust mean that individuals can feel confident to speak out in ways they are not used to, or take risks which make them feel vulnerable.

I have another story to show what this looks like in practice. It is drawn from my research with young people in Bath and Bristol who were not in education or training. They were enrolled in ‘access’ courses to get back into education, and I was working with a research project that was testing and developing models for enhancing individuals’ capacities to learn. I worked with a group of teenagers who had left school without gaining any qualifications. My task was to adapt an inquiry-based learning process, designed by researchers for other groups, to enable these individuals to become aware of their own existing interests and knowledge, and the connections between these interests and existing fields of knowledge. In the process, each individual identified a place or object which fascinated them. One person chose Cheddar Gorge, the last place she remembered being truly happy with her family, before her parents split up. Another chose a picture of himself visiting a famous racing car demo, and sitting in a red Ferrari, since this had inspired his interest in racing. A third chose the quarry she had visited for free parties at which she felt most herself. Each person then created a project book in which the object was documented, measured, revisited, and studied. After this, I worked with them to draw out and write down key questions which had arisen during the documentation process: how was Cheddar Gorge formed? Had anyone ever lived there? What do we know about its past?

In individual supervisions we linked these questions with areas of existing study, and each person was supported to develop the skills to find out their own answers, and share them with the group.

The project surprised me with its successes. One boy chose ‘the Sun’ as his object and ended up making a connection with a local astronomer to view the Sun through an optical telescope. Although the boy was profoundly dyslexic, he created a Powerpoint presentation for the group introducing them to the physical and astrophysical specificities of the Sun, and involving them in his questions about its chemical composition. But when I asked the group about why and how they had each produced such brilliant work, opening new intellectual avenues for themselves, they surprised me again. It wasn’t so much the methodology, they said, as the personal trust that had been developed through individual meetings that had encouraged them to take the risks with their involvement, and the small steps we had taken along the way. Feeling heard and feeling safe made them feel able to go along with the process, although most confessed they hadn’t really seen the point of it until they were quite a long way in. The quality of relationships and the trust invested in them was more important than the techniques for participation.

The Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite.

Trust in others and spaces of trust are best established when the participative process is seen as one of inquiry. There is a problem at stake identified by the facilitator, and others are ‘co-investigators’. To bring of their knowledge and experience to the inquiry, sufficient intermediate steps must be made for links to be made between participants’ own invested interests, and those of the facilitator. The facilitator acts as a ‘learning guide’ or pedagogue during the inquiry, and structures the intermediate steps. However he or she does not have the final framing of the problem – that belongs to the group. This calls for a reiterative process in which the facilitator actively listens to what is emerging from the exercises, and allows it to build into a collective sense of momentum. Active listening in this sense means attending to the responses – visceral, linguistic, and tentative – of the group to draw out emergent directions. From this point the facilitator will be in a position to rearticulate the problem and remaining parts of the inquiry process, in a way resonant with this momentum, and to make it explicit and accessible to participants. This requires a difficult level of openness to disagreements, new tensions, and unforeseen directions. However it will result in an affective, felt sense of ownership within a given group, and will allow for the development of a solution which far exceeds the imagination and experience of the facilitator(s).

Authority as the capacity to inspire trust

What is the place of ‘authority’ within the collaborative relationship between the facilitator of a participative process, and participants? Authority, then, is not about coercive power or a manipulation of others for personal interests. Authority is granted to a teacher, government official, or leader, when others recognise and value the tradition or experience which set that individual apart. The facilitator of a participative process has authority when those involved invest them with a certain distance, or ‘outside’ status. Science has authority in an investigation when it is accorded the weightiness to govern and influence decisions. But within an ‘ethos’ of participation there is another layer to add to authority. Authority is a capacity to inspire trust. This is what marks a participative inquiry apart from the liberal models which consult others, but never fully recognise, nor invite, their intelligence. By structuring an inquiry in such a way as to involve others and their experience in the making of knowledge, and by drawing these forms of knowledge onto an externally recognised platform of validation (eg. scientific practice), a facilitator is creating something which can be relied upon. This something reflects the interests of those whom the problem at stake concerns and it can be compared and translated into the languages of science and policy-making. In this sense an ethos of participation can take part in the making of democratic forms of knowledge, which can be trusted for guiding new ways of governing and organising social life. Beyond tokenistic representation this is a matter of remaking the social through authoritative, trust-full relationships.


This article is part of an editorial partnership called ‘The Struggle for Common Life’, which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.