Which types of knowledge empower civil society? Does empowerment of one person, require another to relinquish some of their power? Are participatory processes a means or an ends? These are some of the challenging and most poignant questions that emerged out of the discussions and debate that took place at the ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’ workshop, in Paris, over 1 & 2 February, 2019.
Around 35 people from across Europe gathered together for a two-day workshop entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society through Participatory Investigation’, organised by the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) , Doing It Together Science (DITOs), Institut francilien rechereche, innovation, société (IFRIS), Pour une alliance science sociétés (ALLISS), Laboratoire interdisciplinaire sciences innovations sociétés (LISIS) and Living Knowledge Network (LKN). The workshop brought together a very diverse range of professionals from NGOs, universities and freelancers, working in participatory research, citizen science, science participatives and social innovation. The purpose of the workshop was to explore what role NGOs played in these participatory investigative processes, and how their involvement in these processes could help deliver empowerment. The workshop was organised around keynote speeches, panel discussions and three parallel workshops that ran across the two days, addressing different aspects of the empowerment question; ‘Governance of spaces and places’, ‘Trajectories of participatory investigation’, and ‘Empowerment of civil society through research cooperation.’
Discussions over the course of the two days raised a number of important questions and debates, which I share here for you to raise as discussion points with other colleagues and peers working around these issues.
They say “Knowledge is power”, but are all types of knowledge powerful?
There are a growing number of examples, certainly within citizen science, which are demonstrating the empowering impact that enabling citizens to collect their own data can have on addressing issues that matter to them. The case of lead water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, is one of those examples, where scientists supported citizens in collecting data that they could then use as evidence against government, regarding the quality and safety of their water supplies. In the case of Flint, Michigan, this data collected from across the community, by citizens and scientists alike, provided evidence in court, that led to legal rulings that the water supply and infrastructure should be changed. But the reason that this data was empowering was because it was collected to standards that were considered scientifically legitimate, and because the involvement of professional scientists in the process created a sense of credibility around the data.
This is a curious point when we consider the interest of including and valuing different types of knowledge through participatory research processes. They say “Knowledge is power” but traditional knowledge, local knowledge, lay knowledge, intuitive knowledge, experiential knowledge (and many others), are not considered to be legitimate forms of knowledge within the very public forums that communities need to be influencing to create change. So whilst empowering communities through the generation and access of knowledge is something that citizen science and participatory research processes can offer, unfortunately this is largely limited to empirical knowledge.
And because empirical knowledge has the most power and recognition in westernised societies, currently, we should be careful when we work to try to increase the value and legitimacy of these other types of knowledge not to lean towards using empirical knowledge to validate these other forms of knowledge. By doing so (I would suggest) we will simply perpetuate the hierarchy of empirical knowledge as the ultimate and superior form. I can’t however, right now, offer examples of how to validate and increase the value of these other types of knowledge – comments and suggestions from yourselves are welcome below.
But we must also recognise that in some circumstances (some people might argue, many circumstances) scientific knowledge has limited power. It won’t take you long to think of an example of a situation where scientific evidence collected and verified in a scientifically legitimate way has been ignored or disregarded within the policy-making process, in order to fulfil other economic or political agendas. This means that whilst citizens can gain some power through access to empirical evidence, giving them the power to engage in dialogue with policy-makers, there is not guarantee that that knowledge and power will be transformed into action and change that the citizens may be looking for. The action and change part of the process is something much more social rather than empirical, and requires a complex negotiation of motivations, drivers, resources, politics, time and place and many other social factors.
Does empowerment of people, require other people to give up their power?
One interesting debate that emerged in the workshop was whether the empowerment of citizens requires scientists and policy-makers to relinquish some of their own power. Some delegates argued that empowerment only came from the powerful relinquishing their power over situations, giving some of their power to the less-powerful. This case is argued on the basis that the powerful hold access and control over decision-making processes and are therefore in the position of deciding not only what people can and can’t do, but also who can and can’t influence decision-making processes. Those powerful individuals are the ones that get to make the decisions and choose who to let in and who to exclude from policy-processes. The argument goes that in these scenarios the only way in which the dis-empowered can engage in these processes is if the powerful, firstly allow the dis-empowered to participate and secondly, give up their sole control over the decision-making processes, giving some of their control and influence to those who are dis-empowered. The matter or empowerment is therefore in the hands of the powerful.
However, other delegates argued against this case, discussing power in terms of an infinite resource where more and more can be generated, and where the powerful don’t need to give up their power, but the dis-empowered can gain more power. In this case the dis-empowered gain power through education, the development of infrastructures and resources, and the building of social networks, through which they can start to have influence. This empowerment therefore comes from the structure of society and the individual citizens and communities capacities to galvanise and build social structures that enable them to influence processes.
Where do your thoughts lie in relation to this two sides of the argument and what influence does this have on the way in which you work in participatory processes and in civil empowerment?
Are participatory processes a means or an ends?
Another interesting idea that emerged, which is worth raising, is the matter of whether a participatory process should be considered as a means or an ends? One delegate raised the point that whilst participatory processes are really valuable, we don’t want to be ‘just having nice experiences’, what we actually want is to be able to create change. And that the value and purpose of these processes should be to create change and positive action in the world.
Of course being able to deliver action and change through these processes is a brilliant achievement, but it’s also worth considering the value of participatory processes as an ends in its own right. Because by simply working to see more participatory processes taking place, you work to create a scenario where participatory processes are a more normalised form of social organisation and dialogue. By achieving this goal you have ultimately created action and change by creating a more citizen engaged and democratic culture, which is a significant achievement in itself. A caveat here, however, is that this is only really of value if the processes are genuinely participatory and that all actors that are involved have an influence on the process and the dialogue.
We need to be clear when working in participatory processes whether that process is a means or an ends, and be clear to those who we are engaging what we intend the outcomes of the processes to be.
These represent just a couple of the tensions and challenges that were raised in the workshop on ‘Civil empowerment through participatory investigation,’ and demonstrate that even as a professional community engaged in this type of work there is not one agreed mindset or approach to this type of work. But I don’t think that we necessarily need to ‘resolve’ these tensions and come to an ultimate and ‘correct’ conclusion on any of these matters. This diversity of perspectives leads to a heterogeneity of practices which brings strength and resilience to the way in which we work and the impacts that we can have as a collective. But also this diversity of perspectives leads to tensions and debate within the community which ensures that we don’t become complacent and dogmatic in our thinking, but also creates a fertile forum for creativity and innovation.
I’d like to a say a big thank you to all the partner organisations for organising this workshop and providing the opportunity to engage in very rich and thought-provoking discussions, with such a diverse group of people.