What Do We Know About Participatory Cultures: An Interview with Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Part Two)

As you note, the term, “participatory culture,” can be seen as emerging from the cultural studies tradition, but there is also a strong history of writing about “participatory politics.” Are these separate conversations? What might these two strands of research have to say to each other?

The participation conversation is a very broad one, and rightly noted, one that has ebbed and flowed across the centuries.  Rather than the concept of participation, it is the dominant focus of the participation that is unique to the time period – political participation, economic participation, social action.  Of course, even when one topic dominated the push for participation, thousands of smaller participatory cultures also thrived around issues such as crafting, gamesmanship, agriculture, and invention.  The communication technologies of this century have simply divided and amplified the topics allowing many more participatory cultures to flourish in unison.

Some have argued that all cultures are by definition participatory. What distinguishes contemporary forms of participatory culture from their predecessors within, say, folk culture?

Participatory cultures are not new.  They are simply the most recent manifestation of human’s desire to be a part of something. One of the reasons there is so much attention placed on participatory cultures now is that they are starkly contrasted by the postmodern theories that immediately preceded them.  Postmodern theorists valued resistance, disruption and divergence, while participatory cultures value contribution and collaboration.  Today’s participatory cultures are both uniquely new and comfortably traditional venues – like returning to your family home for Thanksgiving to find your bedroom is the new home office.

 

Writing about participatory culture poses a different set of questions than writing about audience resistance, a concept that dominated cultural studies a few decades ago. Resistance to what? Participation in what? What are some of the current models for describing what people “participate” in when they are part of a participatory culture? Is participatory culture necessarily a collective phenomenon or does it make sense to talk about participating as an individual?

The concept of audience resistance played an important role in cultural studies, but the notion of resistance seems almost quaint when one considers the nature of political, economic, and cultural power in the early 21st century. As individual citizens, each one of us is situated within multiple power networks.

In many instances (e.g. the physical borders of the nation-state, the globally dispersed contours of global capitalism), power relationships are imposed upon us at birth. We might be proud to be Americans (or Chinese or Canadians), but our national pride is a lucky accident. The physical coordinates of our birthplace and the citizenship status of our parents determine our initial location in the networks of state power. Financial power networks are also imposed upon us; we are born into capitalism. We might choose to remedy the shortcomings of the economic status quo by building alternative exchange networks (e.g. farmers markets, cooperatives, gift economies, remix culture), but it is almost impossible to completely subtract ourselves from the domination of global capital.

The good news is that we can also situate ourselves in political, economic, and cultural power networks of our own choosing. This is hardly a new phenomenon – Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated free associations in Democracy in America as far back as 1835 – but the emergence of the global Internet and affiliated communication technologies has accelerated our ability to create alternative networks from the ground up at the same time that we work to transform dominant institutions.

Is participation necessarily a collective phenomenon? To the extent that we participate in networks with other human beings, there is always a collective dimension. We engage, we share, we mentor, we feel connected, and we care about what other members of the community think. This is necessarily social.

However, the decision about which networks we select as meaningful outlets for participation is almost always an individual decision. If we truly value participatory culture, we must recognize the right of individuals to choose to not participate.

 

Pedagogical concerns remain central to these discussions, if we are to insure that the widest possible range of people have access to the skills and resources they need to meaningfully participate. What insights might the book offer to educators who want to bring more participatory practices to schools, libraries, and other public institutions?

 

The difficult part about participatory pedagogy is that educators must be willing to relinquish absolute control over the conversation.  For a very long time, especially in Western educational settings, teachers were situated at the top of hierarchical learning models. In educational participatory cultures, learning does not necessarily happen quickly, it is not delivered in a tidy, self-contained package, and it certainly does not conform to government standards.  Learning emerges from the conversational and collaborative journey; it is not located in “the correct answer to the teacher’s question.” Members of participatory cultures find their own way to solutions, often not by the most direct or conventional paths.

Your book discusses practices such as participatory budgeting which involve the interface between citizens and governments. What has been the track record so far for such initiatives? What are the biggest challenges in opening existing institutions to greater forms of democratic participation?

Neither of us are experts in participatory budgeting, but we were encouraged to see related panels at the SXSW Interactive Conference this year in Austin. For example, one panel focused on participatory budgeting and the use of crowdsourcing to determine how government funds should be spent.  To date, most of the successful initiatives have taken place in Latin America and Europe.  It was heartening to see similar discussions in the United States.

 

Aaron Alan Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University. His research interests include participatory culture, intergenerational gaming, and wearable computing. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series Reality Hackers: The Next Wave of Media Revolutionaries. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. He is also co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

Dr. Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Her research addresses the boundaries of speech in media and participatory cultures as well as the ethics of this speech.  Jennifer is the author of the 2010 book Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment and co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).