Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part IV)


Your question here about whether a Lynch Mob would be participatory is a compelling one. Frankly, I am still trying to work through your question to my own satisfaction. Your position gives you a more stable vantage point from which to address this. But if you accept, as I do, that the goal should not to automatically assume that all participation is going to be progressive, if you accept that there is a continuum of different degrees of participation, and if you assume there is a blurry boundary between interaction/expression and participation, then you are left in an uncomfortable position right now.

You are correct that any formal or mechanical notion of participation poses some problems as we deal with right wing populist movements around the world. For example, there is strong evidence that the alt-right is using debates among fans of Star Wars, and other recent franchises (Ghostbusters, say) which have sought to move in more inclusive directions, to identify and recruit angry white male fans into their cause. And my friend, Tara McPherson, is researching Neoconfederate and white supremicist groups and finding that they are similar recruiting from gaming platforms. Fandom and gaming are both spaces I have read as central to what I describe as a more participatory culture. In some ways, these groups, whatever their politics, are helping young people bridge from the expressions associated with participatory culture and involvement in some political process. So, what allows us to discount them as participatory? I know, not your problem to address.

Or consider another example. I am really interested in a media event that occured in Forsyth County, Georgia, which was a so-called “sundown town” -- no Blacks lived there and they were not safe if they remained in the county after dark. (A white supremicist lynch mob had cleared out all of the black residents in the 1920s and as of the 1980s, none had moved back). Civil Rights protestors were directing national attention towards this segregated city and early in her career, Oprah chose to make this issue a focus of her program. She made a controversial decision to only allow people who lived in Forsyth County into the studio audience, much to the outrage of the Civil Rights leaders and protestors who had come in from elsewhere. When the episode aired, we got the spectacle of Oprah as the only black person on the set, dramaticizing more powerfully than anything else could the exclusion of blacks from the county. Inside the studio, the locals engaged in heated debates around the issue of being a white only community.  

Most showed some form of racism but within the terms of the conversation, there were real notable disagreements and these dissenting views were tolerated within the norms of the community. This group would ultimately make the decisions which impacted this policy. (Today, by the way, Forsyth County is a multiracial/multicultural community with demographics that look very much like all of the other counties in this part of Georgia.) Is this process participatory? It cuts to your question of who gets to participate, I think, since by one definition, the members of the community were allowed to participate where-as by another definition, there are visible acts of exclusion going on here. I often use this example to think through the issues we are both raising here.  

Your focus on participatory ethics gives us one path forward, and that’s why it interests me so much. If we develop an ethical definition of participation, then the fact that those who were excluded from membership within this community -- by force in some cases — were not allowed to participate surely limits the quality of participation, even if by a mechanical definition, the event follows participatory procedures and is in fact broadly inclusive within a narrower definition of what constitutes the community. This is why the other distinctions we are both proposing may be helpful.  From my opening post, we have: 

Participation in what?

Participation for whom and with whom?  

Participation towards what ends?

Participation under what terms?  

Participation to what degree? 

From your recent post, we have: 

What makes participation possible?

What is the level of participation?

And what does participation then do?  

There is a certain amount of overlap here, as well as a few nuanced differences. For example, “participation towards what ends?” describes motives while “What does participation then do?” focuses on results. “What is the level of participation?” and “participation to what degree?” are pretty interchangeable, unless I miss a more nuanced distinction. I love the “what makes participation possible?” question since it points to the issue of causation or at least the conditionality of participation, a question I had not included in my list. But it seems possible that the two lists could be merged, which would give us some ways to define different kinds of participation with a high degree of precision, even if I hold onto some messiness for descriptive rather than prescriptive purposes.  

Your question of “What makes participation possible?” suggests ways expression/interaction may enable deeper forms of participation (or may keep participation alive as an ideal even during times of repression). Here, I am thinking about the work of Yomna Elsayed who participated in one of the conversations in the series and also contributed to an earlier exchange about popular religion. She’s interested in mapping the democratic potentials within Egyptian popular/participatory culture following the collapse of the Arab Spring uprisings there. She sees critical voices emerging through anti-fandom, popular music, internet humor, and memes, which may not be overtly political, but do allow young people to form alliances and express oppositional perspectives on the values underlying the current power structure in their country. Within cultural studies, these practices has all the markings of cultural resistance but it has not yet coalesced into a formal political movement and would not meet your definition of participation in that they do not get to collectively participate in decision-making. Yet, if a new resistance movement emerged there, it might build on the foundation that such cultural expressions provide, just as earlier cultural practices (more-so than Twitter or Facebook as specific platforms) helped to foster the preconditions for the Arab Spring. For me, expressions are one of the cultural factors that shape the civic imagination and make participation on a more political level possible. 

Now, can we do similar work in terms of identifying some of the ethical norms essential to create what you describe here as a democratic culture? I’ve focused on not working to exclude others from meaningful participation. A second norm which might seem definitional of a democratic culture is a willingness to accept the outcome of democratically arrived decisions, something we are not seeing much of in America today, where Trump has sought to actively negate every law or policy that Obama passed and refused to enforce or promote those which remain on the books. And we might point to an obligation to defend rather than delegitimize democratic institutions and practices. What else would you add to the mix?


Let me start with the dilemma that your last reply starts with, and that we have been talking about for a while: The limits of participation. It is a very simple question that has been the starting point of my theoretical work: When does participation stop being participation? As you know, I find it hard to accept that every human action is labelled participation. Once that assumption is accepted, then the unavoidable question becomes: Which human interactions are outside participation?

One of the dilemmas that comes out of this simple question is the democratic limit of participation. My argument is that participation is a concept that loses its meaning if it is pushed outside democratic culture. Of course, there are many grey zones, and there, the discussion is famously complicated, but that should not spoil the fun right now. There is one important addition, and that is that we need to distinguish between progressive politics and democracy. It is implicitly present in your last reply, but I want to emphasize this distinction, because I think it is important. As you write, there is now ample evidence that participatory logics can be activated by a wide variety of political ideologies, and that is not the exclusive territory of progressive politics. This, of course, is combined with the realization that civil society is not necessarily progressive, and not even necessarily democratic. Some have proposed the term 'uncivil society' for this, but this idea segregates civil from uncivil society, which is sort of missing the entire point. Even then, it was about time that we got all this documented and made explicit.

But all this to say that I do not want to locate the cut-off point, the point that decides about the limit of participation, with progressive politics, thus excluding democratic-conservative politics from participation. I do think that it is perfectly feasible, and actually for me almost too obvious to mention, that we can combine conservatism and participation. I see democracy as a site of permanent struggle between a wide range of democratic ideologies, and participation has to be part of this, otherwise we would theoretically create one gigantic (progressive) echo chamber. I think that this cut-off point lies elsewhere, for instance when social interactions becomes antagonistic, and an enemy is created, even if the "us" is characterized by the most intense decentralization of power. These scenarios also include symbolic violence, in its many variations, which places, for instance, racism outside democratic culture, exactly because of its violent nature.

Of course, this is my stepping stone to the ethical discussion, but let me wait, and bring out one more complexity, that is also part of our limits-of-participation discussions. Again, this is one of the more troubling sides of defining participation. My argument would be that participation only occurs when (members of) a dis-privileged group becomes privileged through the participatory process. This question was one I was working on with a couple of great teams of Uppsala University students, who, in a wide range of case studies, always got confronted with these dilemmas. They looked at restaurants, churches, and so many other places, and the question that kept on coming back was: Who is part of a dis-privileged group, and who thus gets empowered through the participatory process? In an article with Derya Yüksek, about participatory contact zones and conflict transformation in Cyprus, we analyzed the role of youngsters in a Cypriot bi-communal education-related project, called the Cyprus Friendship Program (CFP). Here, and especially in the theoretical part, we really spelled out that discussions about youth participation need to be grounded in the idea that youngsters have a weaker power position in society, for instance, through the logic of adultism, and thus can become empowered through participatory processes. We can also turn the argument around, as I would never label the decision-making processes of elites participatory, especially when they find themselves in more or less the same power positions. I often use the example of a meeting of media company executives, which I do not consider a participatory process. But, if a union representative would be invited to that very same meeting, it would actually become participatory process (at least in my eyes).

And that brings me to our questions and lists. I think it is fairly easy to integrate both lists, and I agree with how you are approaching this integration (including your emphasis on messiness). But the previous paragraphs also bring me to suggest one more question: Who becomes empowered through the participatory process? Or, in a slightly more complicated language: Which members of a dis-privileged group find their power position strengthened through the participatory process? And if I may go back to my 12-step model for participatory analysis from 2016, I would also suggest these questions: In which context is the participatory process situated? And, maybe more importantly, what are the differences in the sub-processes that together make up a participatory process? The latter is important, I think, because one thing that I have seen in different research projects, is that participatory intensities can be quite high in one room, and much lower in another room, even if it is all about the same house.

These are, of course, analytical questions, but they are important, because there is a need for more reflection about participatory analysis. Still, now that we are talking about questions, I have two more (related) questions, that have been fascinating me: Why does participation matter? And what drives people to keep on engaging in these participatory processes, especially given the power mechanisms, that do not welcome maximalist participation? My curiosity resulted in the decision to edit a special issue for the Portuguese journal Comunicação e Sociedade ("Communication and Society"), together with two Portuguese colleagues (Ana Duarte Melo and Fábio Ribeiro). Related to the Participatory Communication Research (PCR) Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), this special issue had as remit to at least offer a few clarifying thoughts on why participation matters. The special issue is expected to come out in 2020, so we'll have to wait for a bit, and there is still a lot of work to be done, in order to figure things out.

And all this finally brings me to the ethical discussion. As I wrote a bit earlier, my starting point is that the ethical is constructed through the struggle between different normative frameworks (that is where Ernesto Laclau's influence on my work kicks in). At this stage, the ethics of selfishness and selectivity seems to be winning, but that is not a reason not to try to champion an alternative normative framework. My first proposal would be that participation is ethical in itself. This might sound obvious, but I think this has not been elaborated sufficiently. Actually, the ethical is problematically absent in contemporary Western political discourse as a whole. That is one more reason why we should explain that the redistribution of power is deeply ethical. Dis-privilege, in all its variations, ranging from the economic exclusion of poverty, over exclusions from public spaces to the exclusions from governing, is simply an unethical phenomenon, because it violates and damages the principle of universal equality.

My second proposal would be to argue that particular characteristics, can, firstly, intensify participation, and can, secondly, prevent that participatory procedures (or what you call the mechanics of participation) become disconnected from the ethical. The ensemble of these characteristics is what I would call participatory ethics. One place to start, slightly unusual for me, I must confess, would be the (normative dimension of the) ideal speech situation (ISS), as developed by Habermas. It is based on (1) the right to gain access, (2) the right to question, (3) the right to propose, and (4) the right not to be coerced. Of course, the critiques on the ISS are/were considerable, but I still very much like the ethical and rights-based dimension of the ISS, as a tool to develop a participatory ethics. But using my own conceptual language, I would also have to say that these norms behind the ISS are mostly related to access and interaction ethics (with the exception of the fourth one, which refers to autonomy).

So there is a need to add more characteristics. I would like to propose three other sets of characteristics, even if these are only snippets of ideas. The second cluster is the acceptance of the hegemony of democracy. Of course, the exact realization of democracy is object of legitimate socio-political conflict, and there should be a radical embrace of diversity, but there is also a need for the acceptance of the idea of democracy to become integrated in this normative framework of participation. A second cluster is related to the respect for democratic procedure and institutions. These are the issues you refer to, ranging from the acceptance of micro-level decisions to the acceptance of democratic institutions. But, and the "but" is important, this respect should not be blind. In this discussion, I believe that there is a lot to learn from the model of delegative democracy, which has the built-in principle to revoke the mandate of representatives, if they stop functioning properly. I think this is an idea that we can use at micro and macro/institutional levels. And finally, there is a need for an ethics of care, which I would translate in a collective care and responsibility for the participatory process itself, and in, secondly, the care of all participants for all participants.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).