What is participation anyway?

"Participation is the informed, autonomous and meaningful involvement of a community in influencing decision making and action."

Family Fortunes Top 5 Participation Words

This blog is at least in part about participation – so I really ought to have a definition. I've got a post on the go that explores what I mean by participation in more depth, but lets start with just getting a sentence sorted out for now. Ok – so the sentence above a bit wordy – but I think it captures quite a lot of what I mean by participation. I scribbled this definition down yesterday when I was asked to come up with my top 5 words to describe participation.

Unfortunately that definition gave me at least 7 words:

  • Informed
  • Autonomous
  • Meaningful
  • Community
  • Influence
  • Decision-making
  • Action

But cut down to the 5 I was asked for I ended up with:

  1. Informed
  2. Meaningful
  3. Influence
  4. Decision-making
  5. Action

Perhaps with a little more work I can really get a clear sentence to put across what I mean by participation. But that's a few weeks off – so I'd love to hear from you:

What is your definition of participation? If you had to choose five words to describe participation what would they be?


(In case you'd noticed I've been slightly slower on blogging since the end of August, fear not, Tim's Blog is not dead… just time-constrained and with many posts-in-the-pipeline-held-up-by-philosophising (a common affliction) which should make it here sometime soon…)

8 thoughts on “What is participation anyway?”

  1. I find myself at odds with definitions of youth participation. Cynically I think its Just another term for an old fashioned thing called community work. on the other hand I can see that what people aim to achieve through participation is based on a more modern concern which is making democracy work although I think the concern that people are involved & contribute to their communities is not new.

    Where I see real value in youth participation is in the structure & focus that it gives to work with young people – something sorely missing in the generic youth service & although participation work plays only a small role in the wider youth services I think it will increasingly become more significant.

    Through the focus on helping young people effectively participate in society I think there are amazing opportunities to help young people develop hugely valuable skills & qualities, and by ensuring this there really is a possibility to build a stronger society. Unfortunately the personal development aspects tend to be overlooked in favour of the issues’ or the ‘mechanics.

    I agree with all your ‘five’ but for me personally its about just one. . . . people !

  2. Hey Mike/Laura

    Thanks for the comments. It’s definitely tricky to find a clear definition of participation (I’m not sure that’s due to it being a heavily contested term… rather an over-used and too-broad term – yet one I’m still keen to extract some meaning from.)

    Reflecting on Mike’s comments, I think I’m drawn towards drawing up an explanatory dichotomy between:

    Participation as personal


    Participation as political

    The reflections run as follows:

    Participation as personal‘ is about people. It is about building a stronger society through equipping people to act keeping their individual autonomy and the needs of the community in a creative tension. It is about providing meaningful structures that allow individuals to direct their energies. It builds the social structure from the participation on individuals.

    Participation as political‘ is the democracy-focussed side, concerned with getting the best decisions. Concerned with establishing better social structures to support people as individuals and as members of communities to better-achieve self-development

    At this point (while I realise I can’t escape my constructivist tendencies) it seems that these are two approaches (from opposite sides) to one goal (big moral import here I’m afraid…): ‘better’ communities where individuals can achieve greater self-development.

    Ok – so before I wonder off onto a philosophical tangent – back to the key question:

    If participation is part of ‘old fashioned community work’ (or at least shares the same aims) – is it worth talking about it distinctly at all?

    I think so. Participation in practice brings it’s own methodologies and practices to the table – and puts a stress on different aspects of the community development toolkit.

    Not all that is called participation does this well, nor is there one coherent discipline in participation – but I think there certainly is a unique contribution brought by ‘participation people’. And I’ll see what I can do about making that case a bit further in future blog posts…

  3. I love your question and the notion of this blog. I believe youth can “participate” and I love my job because I get to advocate for the feedback from our Lab Members as I represent their ideas to our huge company (Alcatel-Lucent) as it develops the next generation of technology products. Is it perfect – probably not – but I do think I strive to make sure their voices are heard and that they do “influence” as much as possible.

  4. Tim – great blog. Not many places one can find deep thoughts on participation and neat little guides to social media! On definitions of participation, whether it is usefully different … I’m not sure any more. I think it only works as a sub-set of collaboration … that is, all parties have to want it to. It’s pretty easy to get a fix on what is NOT participation that way.

  5. great blog!

    Participation sometimes is contextual, thus depending on different circumstances….however it involve capacity and awareness creation to the communities to capitalize on the available opportunities.

  6. Thanks a lot. Well i do ask my self a question, why should i participate? Or is because i will benefit out of that or i do participate for the reason of involvement? So i can add on a definition by saying, participation is the process which ensures all members of a given community or society to take an active part towards a given activity in order to achieve a desired objective. Any activity done under the sun has its motive or a target. So i do think we participate because we want to achieve someting. From Moshi University College of Co-operative and Business Studis, Tanzania. (Student)

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