What is Participation?

Participation–as a concept and as a practice–ranges from the frustratingly vague to the strangely precise. It is a currency of legitimacy in the contemporary era as well as a problematization of the relationship between individuals and collectives stretching back hundreds of years. It’s been studied empirically in a surprising number of domains, often without much if any overlap. Our project is born from the latest wave of participatory enthusiasm–from Free Software and crowdsourcing to Occupy and the Arab spring–but it takes a grander view, and aims at a more ambitious understanding of the concept and its manifestations today and in the past.

Part.lab currently investigates participation in two ways.
1) Birds of the Internet.
The birds of the internet project started as a “bird guide” to forms of participation on the internet, social media and mobile technologies. Our research now includes a database of 102 case studies, a method of collectively evaluating and interpreting the case studies, and a set of experiments for exploring those evaluations using different techniques of clustering and visualization. The project wavers avowedly between qualitative and quantitative approaches. Our current questions include: What are the key and universal elements of participation, and how do they manifest themselves in concrete cases? How is participation structured empirically today? What modes, styles or rationalities of participation appear today, and how do participatory projects move among these modes? How is participation related to innovation or discovery?

In addition to querying participation as such, the birds project is also an investigation into the relationship between social science inquiry (qualitative and quantitative) and software development. “CASE”– the Comparative Anaysis and Study Environment is a software framework created by Seth Erickson in dialogue with the project, and intended to provide researchers with a novel tool for analyzing, evaluating, comparing and visualizing cases of a phenomenon.

2) Heteronyms of participation.
Participation has taken multiple forms and undergone innovation and critique in many different domains. The heteronyms project seeks to capture and understand as many of these different instances of participation: from worker participation and so-called “Industrial Democracy” to participatory democracy in the 1960’s, to neoliberal forms of employee engagement in the 1990’s to participatory culture in the 2000’s. The number of “heteronyms” (a term borrowed and adapted from Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms) is large, and can include some surprising variations– participation mystique in anthropology or Calvinist theories of participation in the trinity, for instance. The goal of this project is to think through participation as a problematization of the relationship of individual and collective, instantiated in different practical forms throughout history. It is primarily an historical and theoretical project, but it constantly informs our inquiry into contemporary participation as the latest problematization.

The National Science Foundation:
Grant #:1322299
“VOSS:The Comparative Analysis and Theory of Participation in
Socio-Technical Systems” 2013-2016
[PDF of grant proposal]
Grant #1025569
“Public engagement in networked virtual organizations and its effects
on discovery and innovation”
[PDF of grant proposal]

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