Rethinking the Concept of Effective Participation: Are Minorities Similar to Women?

By Toivanen, Reetta | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Concept of Effective Participation: Are Minorities Similar to Women?


Toivanen, Reetta, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


The slogan 'participation of minorities' has long been a powerful concept in the vocabulary of human rights activists. Today it is also embraced by politicians and other actors promoting democratic developments in European societies. Those who propagate the concept of 'effective participation of minorities in public life' stress how important it is to include potential victims of discrimination from a very early stage within the decision making processes that affect their lives. In fact, proponents argue that allowing minorities to participate in a full and effective manner in societal power structures is the solution to overcoming discrimination and inequality. This concept is becoming increasingly widespread, especially in legal and other materials developed by intergovernmental organizations.

Keywords: participation, minorities, critical theory, minoritization, Europe

This contribution discusses the concept of effective participation of minorities in public life from a feminist perspective, and raises questions about the widespread assumption that the problems faced by minorities will fade away as soon as increased rates of inclusion are achieved. Building on assessments by critical and feminist theorists,1 it is argued that participation always means (evidently) that, in order to be allowed to take part, one has to adapt to the hegemonic2 system steering the process of participatory praxis. People wishing to participate must find the correct "modus" of self-representation in which the right to participation may be claimed. This modus must be understood and acknowledged by those already inside the sphere, as fundamental problems arise when those wishing to participate in society on an equal footing have to give up at least parts of their original agenda before they can become acceptable to those holding power and when minority representatives have to ask what the price of participation will be. Is it fair to expect of minorities that they voluntarily pay that price? Do minorities really choose to participate?

The first section discusses what we can learn from feminist critique. Can a feminist account provide analytical tools for rethinking how the concept of effective participation, as employed by intergovernmental organizations, is used? The following section examines how the different organs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe (CoE), as well as the European Union (EU), use the concept of effective participation. Using a feminist reading of the documents, it will be argued that the concept of 'participation' is clearly employed as a problem-solving tool. The assumption seems to be that programmes and projects motivated by goodwill from both the governments and minority representatives are enough to overcome invisible and visible barriers in participatory praxis. The solutions presented or proposed by the intergovernmental organizations, however, often fail to address the fact that minorities are already a part of all societies and have already influenced the formation of those societies, albeit from a marginalized position as the 'others' - the ones against whom the majority has been able to build their understanding of 'who we are' (Hogg and Abrams 1988; Liebkind 1992). In conclusion it is argued that participation is a concept that should be rethought, taking into account the aspect of fairness. Participatory rights and praxis can only be assessed within their specific contexts. There are no simple solutions to the problems experienced by minorities. Supporting minority participation is a good start, but the issue requires greater critical assessment across the range of different cases. There should be more awareness about what society actually wishes to achieve through minority participation.

The public sphere and the problem with participation

Critical social theory and feminist theories share certain basic assumptions which can help us to understand the situation of the oppressed and the subordinated.

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Rethinking the Concept of Effective Participation: Are Minorities Similar to Women?
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