Social science and participation
Social science and participation

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Social science and participation

Taking part and ‘having a voice’

Participation is about taking part in something that either directly or indirectly involves you in wider social networks. Participation is widely considered a good thing in so far as it enables people to exert influence over the processes that shape their worlds. Having a ‘voice’ in processes that matter to you is also important. Not all forms of participation are considered equally significant in this respect. People disagree about the value of different forms of participation and not everyone is equally able to participate in all of the activities that help them express their opinions and exert influence.

Activity 2 looks at what sorts of activities might be considered to count as participation in the sense of giving people a voice, and also at how these activities might be understood to be differentiated in the ways already discussed.

Activity 2 Do you do any of these things?

Timing: Allow 10 minutes for this activity

Have a look at the list of activities below. Think about which, if any, you have undertaken in the past year.

Do you think these activities are similar or would you divide them into different groups or categories? Think about whether they might be classified as ‘political’ or ‘civic’ activities.

Note down some of your thoughts in the text box below.

Written a letter of complaint about public services in your area
Helped to run a club
Volunteered to help people in need
Joined in a campaign to improve your local area
Attended a public meeting
Signed an online petition
Joined a book club
Played sport in a team
Voted in an election
Attended a religious service
Signed up to a social media platform, such as Twitter or Facebook
Joined a trade union
Taken part in a protest or a march
Voted in a reality television show
Stood for election to a political body, a civic organisation, or a club
Served on a committee of an organisation locally or at work
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Some of these activities are forms of ‘political’ participation in a conventional sense. Voting in an election, signing a petition or joining a union might fall into this category. These activities also exemplify participation as a means of expressing one’s voice, individually or as part of a wider collective organisation.

In contrast, joining a book club, playing sport or attending church are all ways of participating in wider networks, but they are not primarily political. Nevertheless, they can certainly be thought of as ways of participating that are important in people’s lives and enable them to express valued aspects of their identities such as a faith commitment, an enthusiasm for football or a passion for learning. This second set of activities might be thought of as forms of ‘civic participation’, that is, as ways of taking part in the social life of local communities, towns and cities, nations or international networks that extend far beyond the narrow concerns of politics as conventionally defined. You will consider other possible ways of categorising activities in the next section.

The distinction between political and civic participation is not necessarily clear cut. Levels of civic participation might be related to the capacity of people to express a voice in political arenas. Some social scientists have argued that a society in which there is a wide range of non-political social activities is likely to also have a high level of participation in political activities. This idea was most famously proposed by the US political scientist Robert Putnam (1995).

So we can see that there are complex relations between forms of participation in which people express their identities, passions and enthusiasms, and those forms in which they express their political interests and demands.


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