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Fallacies and Phases of Participation

On Participation

In his essay Falacias de la Participación, Alfonso Vásquez describes three phases of participation in an organizational process:

  1. "Participation in the origin, at the point when decisions begin to made and meanings are generated.
  2. "Participation in the processes as they unfold, the conditions and limits of that participation having been elaborated ahead of time.
  3. "Participation in the results, including in the benefits or losses in the case of wealth generation."

Vásquez points out that all of the people involved in the process participate in one way or another, so terms like "employee participation" (or student participation) are tautological. The question is how is what is the character of the participation and how is it organized.

Vásquez notes that most employee participation schemes focus on the second, operational, phase – participation in carrying out or developing a process that has already been imagined, designed, and initiated by a group or individual, with goals and assumptions already determined. In most cases, the operational participants have little or no part in the results (phase three), or, if they do, it is only for the purpose of incentivizing operational participation.

Against this paternalist form of participation, Vásquez proposes the "emergence of self-organized forms" in which people participate in all three phases. In the context of a workplace, the creation of self-organized forms would require a thorough transformation of the processes of management and production and the relationships between the various players, especially workers and management.

From three phases to six...

Borrowing from the popular education spiral (Educating for a Change), I would divide participation in an organizing and/or educating process into six phases:

  1. The gathering of people and the initial organization of spaces of participation;
  2. The imagination and generation of ideas;
  3. Analysis and strategic planning;
  4. Action, the doing of the project;
  5. The results of the project, including determining how they will be used;
  6. Evaluation and assessment of the work done and initiation of next steps

As the authors of Educating for a Change point out, the process is not linear, but progressive/recursive, we move back and forth between phases, not always in sync with one another, thus the need for constant discussion and consultation as we move forward. In fact, it may be useful to think of these as coordinates, as much as phases.

At each phase the pattern of participation is shaped by the relations between people which take an initial form in the gathering phase, but are reproduced and/or altered in each phase.

Taking all of these phases, or coordinates, into account, we can look at patterns of participation in an organization in a way that is relevant for purposes of cultivating and verifying the practice of democracy and self-organization. This is useful for diagnosis but also for design of any organizing project. In each phase -- who is participating? In what ways? With what authority or power?

Perhaps this is also a good framework for organizing a collection of participatory activities designed to promote and practice democratic self-organization.

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(Miguel Abensour, in La Communauté Politique des "tous uns", comments on Hannah Arendt's critique of Plato's conception of politics and the metaphor of the Cave, which Abensour sees as disastrous. What Abensour rejects, following Arendt, is the domination of the philosopher over those who can't see, the ignorant who can only be expected to participate in the execution or operation of the design made for their good (by the philosopher). It would be interesting to compare the Cave to the illustration by Miguel Marfán for the covers of Técnicas Participativas para la Educación Popular, in which we see that the self-organization process begins with the human relationship and moves through a series of steps to collective action.)

Vázquez, Alfonso. 2001. “Falacias de la Participación.” La empresa participativa: una visión sobre el papel de las personas en las organizaciones. Cluster del Conocimiento.