Topic 4 The Participation Ladder

As has been discussed throughout this chapter, the concept of participation is a polysomic concept that is subject to multiple interpretations mediated by interests, by positions of power, by ideology, by values, by social position, by the position within administrative and organizational structures, etc.

The use or overuse of the concept is, therefore, varied; and its intensity, depth or radicalism, lose content to the extent that participation is understood more as an instrument to legitimize or accommodate oneself in positions of power (that is, to achieve one’s own ends), or it can gain intensity, depth and radicalism, if it is considered as a process, where what is significant is the process itself, participation itself understood as an objective in itself and not as an instrument to achieve private but public ends.

Consequently, multiple contingencies are presented, different ways of understanding the development of participation according to the degree of intensity of relational communication between the different parties.

To learn about the different levels of participation that exist (taking into account the two predominant approaches to participation, one more instrumental, the other more substantive or “bottom-up”), we suggest you use a tool that has been used by different agents and entities, and which is based on the proposal elaborated in 1969 by Sherry Arnstein and exposed in the article “A Ladder of citizen participation”.

Starting from Arnstein’s ladder of participation, Roger Hart developed a ladder proposal with eight steps or levels that allow the participation processes to be located: it is from the fourth level that authentic participation is considered to begin.

In this ladder, we see that what really determines people’s participation is the degree of decision they have in the process. And it tells us how it is possible to gradually move from almost complete passivity (being a beneficiary) to control of one’s own process (being an actor in self-development). This is valid both in the relations between the members of a community with public administrations, and within social organizations