James Ensor, Christ's Entry into Brussels

What is Participatory Democracy? Theory, Activism, and Power

Instructor: Nara Roberta Silva
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Since its first formulation in the early 1960s, the concept of “participatory democracy” has come to take on multiple meanings—some of them complementary, others conflicting. Promoted by a wide variety of theorists, activists, social movements, and political parties, conceptions of participatory democracy range from deepened civic engagement to procedural reform to the wholesale transformation of the liberal-democratic system. For some, participatory democracy is an organizing ethos, a set of values for building community space that sits outside of, or counter to, prevailing institutions; for others, it’s a definite political project, one aimed at radically reconfiguring the state and reallocating institutional power. What is participatory democracy? What unites, and divides, its various understandings? And, to what extent does it offer a compelling vision of change for a society wracked by social and economic turbulence and the highly unequal distribution of political and economic power?

In this course, we will explore varying conceptions of participatory democracy, asking: if democracy is “the rule of the people,” in what ways can participation shape and affect its dynamics? What are purposes, and limits, of participation itself? What forms can a participatory democracy take? What concept of the people, the demos, undergirds a participatory democratic program? We will read from both classical democratic thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and J.S. Mill, and contemporary movement theorists, such as Francesca Polletta and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, as we assess the viability of a participatory theory of democracy and the institutional forms a participatory democracy might take. We’ll examine differing conceptions and democratic projects across cultures and geographies, including participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies, and anarchist-inspired initiatives. Finally, we consider various critiques of participatory democracy. How does it account for hyper-inequalities in wealth and economic power? Is participatory democracy indeed a substantive alternative to conventional liberal democracy, or an intensification of its neoliberal logics? How does participatory democracy fit within a vision of sustained social change?

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 14 — December 05, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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