Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on the tensions in participatory social change processes

This week’s readings center on the importance of participatory social change strategies, the inherent tensions, and its potentials for social transformation. In the opening section of Chapter 9 of Communicating Social Change, Dutta (2011) draws upon Habermas’s (1989) concept of “openness, dialogue, and inclusiveness” as important tenets in participatory social change processes. The assumption is that such openness creates equal opportunities for community members to deliberate on a relevant issue to them.
Drawing from the dynamics in our Hunger and Food Insecurity Coalition community project thus far, I am wondering how inclusive a participatory social change process can be. For instance, there are active and passive community members in the coalition. At our last meeting for instance, community members suggested having a “face for their proposed campaign against stigma” often associated with the hungry and food insecure. According to the community members, such person must be vocal, passionate and dedicated to their cause. In a sense, the face of the campaign will exemplify their leader. My concern is that if such move is operationalized, and the single individual becomes the spokesperson, be it a celebrity, or notable individual in the community, will this be considered inclusive? I am struggling with such concept, because to me it sounds more like the Diffusion of Innovation that involves the use of opinion leaders to diffuse an innovation, a concept that has come under heavy criticism by participatory scholars on the grounds that it negates the agentic decision making powers of community members. According to postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars, such elitist approach erases the voices of the subaltern from discursive space. My worry is that will such “face representation” by a single individual not antithetical to the goals and objectives of participation? Is such approach not similar to strategies used by social marketing campaign planners criticized for its top-down nature? As I ponder over the concept of spokesperson for the hunger project, I ask the following question:

1. Will the hungry and food insecure unconsciously erase its own voice from the discursive space by using a spokesperson?
2. Also given the tensions in participatory processes which Dutta eloquently captures in the chapter, I ask, is equal or inclusive representation feasible? If not, what is the way forward?
I am also wondering if the cyclical process in participatory decision making is strength or a drawback of participatory processes.
I am also weary of the empowerment based framework that purports to “empower” community members as a strategy to encourage their participation in social change processes. I think that there is a delicate balance between empowerment and marginalization. Given our previous conversation on symbolic representation and meaning, the word empowerment connotes unequal relationship between the “expert” knower, and the community as infant to be empowered. Again, I ask, is such bifurcation not antithetical to the tenets of participatory social change model?

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