home / theory / What is participation?

What is participation?


There is no single and easily understandable definition of participation; absent any universal understanding, readers are encouraged to embrace the fact that its meaning is contested, that opinions are sometimes conflicted, and that its theory and practice may be contradictory. What matters is your experience and those with whom you engage in a participation project. If, in compiling this Handbook, we had asked a range of youth workers, community activists, civil servants, policy makers, politicians, or even young people, for their definition it would only represent part of the rich heritage and diversity that is Europe; local realities, culturally nuanced, informed by experience, and honed within the political and social contexts. We offer a brief overview of the concept of participation, both positive and negative, from Europe and beyond, to challenge, reinforce, and stimulate debate and reflection about the practice of participation within your local reality; exploring principles, acknowledging criticisms, reflecting its role as protest, and examining participation in practice. The Handbook is not a definitive statement on participation but rather a contribution to the literature; there is much more out there to read. Reading about participation can only take you so far, but then you must get active. As you go through this Handbook you will see various quotes offering opinions of participation, they are not exclusive; What would you add?



It is generally accepted that the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified in the world. Acknowledging that ‘child’ describes all persons up to their 18th birthday, the Convention offers an unambiguous international benchmark of minimum standards relating to children’s civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights. Its basic premise is that States should use it as a framework within which to evaluate their structural provisions: to examine the impact of all legislation, policy and practice as they affect the rights of all children and young people. At the heart of the Convention is the principle that:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. (UNCRC, 1991: Article 3.1)

At a pan-European level, participation is taken seriously as an integral part of social policy:

Participation in the democratic life of any community is about more than voting or standing for election, although these are important elements. Participation and active citizenship is about having the right, the means, the space and the opportunity and where necessary the support to participate in and influence decisions and engaging in actions and activities so as to contribute to building a better society. (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, 2003: 7)

Rather than pathologise or problematize young people, this definition accords them the status of community asset, with a right to be heard on matters that affect them; and an expectation that appropriate structures will be in place to enable young people to critically engage at all levels. Much earlier in their history, the Council of Europe published a document that defined participation:

The right of young people to be included and to assume duties and responsibilities in daily life at local level…the right to influence the processes of their lives democratically. (Boukobza, 1998: 10)

For the oft-quoted Hart (see Ladders of Participation in this Handbook), participation could be easily defined:

The process of sharing decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives. It is the means by which a democracy is built and it is a standard against which democracies should be measured. Participation is the fundamental right of citizenship. (Hart, 1992: 5)

Such apparent simplicity masks a web of complexity and sophistication that requires a little deconstruction. Regarding ‘sharing decisions’ implies a power relationship and that in turn leads to a need to identify who has the power, how they acquired it, and why. The whole concept of ‘community’ is a potential minefield, not only describing who is included but also questioning the dynamics of the definers; and thus leads to speculation about the engagement of those without the community. The understanding of ‘democracy’ has many facets, so clarity of terminology is critical. Describing anything as a ‘fundamental right’ suggests that other rights are less important and constructs a hierarchy. The term ‘citizenship’ may also be contested since many who feel excluded from society may be beyond the conventional reach of those agents that wish to engage in ‘participation’ – that latter term is, as this chapter will demonstrate, not so easy to define. Hart’s contribution proves a useful starting point from which to embark on such a quest; reflecting on its elusiveness will hopefully lead to clarity of understanding, definition, and purpose. Participation is not a panacea but rather a complementary practice that should be handled with care.

At its simplest, ‘participation’ can be taken to mean ‘taking part’. But if we look closely at the word we can see that the first four letters say ‘part’: to be part of something suggests being integral to its construction and purpose; being part of a greater whole; to operating in collaboration with others in something bigger than just one’s self; being a partner in sharing responsibility for both decisions and actions; being active not passive.  Successful community engagement requires that all parties are actively involved: in how decisions are made; in developing a coherent strategy; in identifying achievable targets; in delivering meaningful outcomes. Through the processes of participation those involved migrate from being passive consumers or users of services to decision-makers and co-creators; their personal and collective journeys being achievements in and of themselves. Sharing in decisions and actions fosters increased community cohesion; sharing in collaborative achievements deepens the bonds of social capital. This combination of strength and power is an alliance that threatens contemporary hegemonies; resistance is to be anticipated and must be addressed with responsibility.

Participation is an exercise in contesting power relations; who has it, who controls it, who wants it. Control is usually concentrated within a small elite cadre; participation is founded on the principle of a broader, more collective, more co-operative dynamic. Power, when it can be identified, is not easily or readily relinquished; for Cooke and Kothari “articulations of power are very often less visible, being as they are embedded in social and cultural practices.” (2001: 14). The authors offer a range of critiques of participation practice, particularly in the field of development, and have a salutary message:

It is also the case that acts and processes of participation…sharing knowledge, negotiating power relationships, political activism and so on…can conceal and reinforce oppressions and injustices in their various manifestations. (2001: 13).

It is suggested that there is a gap between the rhetoric and reality of participation and that it should have a purpose (Cairns, 2006). The connector between policy and practice is politics; the physical manifestation of the interpretation of words and ideas married with a considered engagement of real time implementation. In this Handbook we have confined ourselves to exploring participation principally from the perspective of those who work with young people on an equitable basis; throughout the Handbook readers are invited to substitute alternative interest groups, for example, residents, users, clients, wherever we refer to young people – subject to a recognition of the power dynamics in any given situation.

In the context of youth and community work the use of the word ‘participation’ is very specific: it is a practice rooted in a philosophical and political interpretation of work with young people, and within communities, that is intrinsically concerned with power relations; with issues of access to power and power structures; of considering and enabling an agenda that seeks to challenge and change the world around us, be it local or global, for the common good. Such a critical approach inevitably involves the identification and exploration of the inherent conflicts, tensions, and contradictions that exist between policy and practice. This active interpretation is concerned with participation being a critically engaging process; rather than one of being an uncritical and passive participant, or consumer, of an organised activity; it is so much more than simply taking part, of just doing or being.

Participation in the youth and community work context is as much about the process as whatever tangibles develop or are achieved. This process is challenging, complex, sometimes messy, but ultimately rewarding when real change occurs. Not all change is necessarily external but may equally relate to development and change within the group, or indeed the individual.

Participation is not about simply creating active and compliant citizens to meet a political objective but is a discrete process that educates and enables young people, and their communities, to critically analyse and understand the social construct of power structures; enables the identification of how to critically engage with these structures, processes, and people; and empowers, through the appropriate acquisition and application of knowledge and skills, to create real and sustainable change in society.

Participation is not an end in and of itself; it is a process that engages, educates, challenges, and transforms. Nor is it acceptable to say that it is an intrinsic good; unless accompanied by some critical reflection on both its purpose and function it remains aspirational but without context. Further, it requires a concomitant analysis of the society within which it, the policy, the process, and the practice, is located. If participation in civic life is conceived as a social good, then it follows that any concept of voluntariness may not be seen as optional, may even be seen as counter-cultural, or worse still subversive.



A considered study of participation from a youth work perspective is offered by Farthing (2012); they posit a robust analysis of what has, for many youth workers, been an almost sacred-like rubric for many decades. In analysing participation, Farthing constructs a typology of justifications and a set of critiques:

That participation can be seen as desirable for its rights fulfilling capacities, its ability to empower young people, to achieve efficiency in services or to support youth development…{Secondly]…three critiques of youth participation; a radical critique that suggests participation is an undesirable form of social control; a conservative critique that suggests it is ill-advised, and; a secular critique that suggests that participation is an unwarranted, obfuscated missionary tendency. (2012: 72)

Farthing concludes that far from empowerment, participation “reinforces the very power relations it claims to challenge through complex, less visible manipulations.” (2012: 79). There are other, equally trenchant, criticisms but this is a Handbook not a textbook!



If we accept that participation is more than simply taking part in something but critically involves active engagement, we are confronted with an inevitable question: How is this manifest? Basically, the engagement is with people, within a process, towards a desired outcome, and that has social benefit (see the example of Lewisham Young Advisers in Case Studies in the Handbook). Within that short sentence there is contained several complex and inter-related dynamics: inter-personal relationships require skillful nurture and negotiation; navigating complex processes demands honesty and fortitude and no little strategy; achieving equitable outcomes is predicated on seeking consensus; and identification of any social good accrues from authenticity and humility. These intangibles elude simplistic measurement: meetings can be noted; decisions can be codified; attendance can be quantified; policies may be written; but qualitative analysis proves much more fluid. Because of variable influences, the efficacy of alliances (of peoples and ideas) should be considered over time rather than simply in the short term.

We would suggest that the key to successful civic participation by any party is harnessing the critical components of community capital: the experiences, knowledge, skills, resourcefulness, and creativity of everyone. Engagement in community action can be perceived by some as protest; this should not be feared but rather embraced as a challenge. The example of Brighton and Hove (see Case Studies in the Handbook) illustrates the power of combination, of young people, youth workers, and local groups, forming an informal alliance to successfully challenge decisions about services for young people.

This section is deliberately short because the practice that matters is yours.


Final comments

It would be easy to consider participation as an end in itself; that just involving people as participants is all that is required. The participatory process is presented as one of aspiration, access, escalation, progress, and achievement; that starting from a desire, or expectation, one moves through successive phases to reach a perceived conclusion.

In our youth work experience, which spans over seventy-five years, projects that seek to be participatory in practice have to be both real and authentic; they must not be a mere sham and should contain hallmarks that demonstrate that they are genuine. There should be a real evocation of a care for the engagement of young people; any project should illustrate how it respects their voices; and there should be a commitment to positive change. Neither the product nor the process is always easy either to define or deliver, but critical engagement can bring truly transformative results.

Engagement in the process of participation is a time-consuming activity and can be intellectually challenging for all involved. It offers a lifetime of learning and continual questioning. For these reasons, we strongly advocate critical reflection and supervision – processes well known to professional youth and community workers.

We conclude with a pertinent remark from our good friend, Tony Taylor, “Put simply, youth work is education for democracy…democracy is the politics of hope, a belief in the potential of human creativity.” (Taylor, 2012: 125).

Wherever and however you are involved in participation, what matters is what you do; just remember to enjoy yourselves!



  1. Is participation an essentially ethical practice in and of itself, which acknowledges its political construct, whose educative role relies upon a transformational process?
  2. Does participation, whether at local, regional, national, or international level, enable young people and youth workers to engage with issues of equality, identity, social justice and development?
  3. Just how authentically do policy makers engage; how realistic is it to expect that they can?
  4. If you are engaged in a participation project, is it autonomous, and authentic, and is it effective?
  5. Based on these Questions, how does participation look from your perspective?
  6. What will you do about these issues in the next three months?



Warning: Use of undefined constant page - assumed 'page' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/ebonlt/domains/ on line 68