Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Participation, Power and Democracy: Exploring the Tensional Field between Empowerment and Constraint in Action Research

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Participation, Power and Democracy: Exploring the Tensional Field between Empowerment and Constraint in Action Research

Article excerpt

The question of how to understand and approach the relationship between participation and power in Action Research is widely contested. Drawing on data and experiences gathered while taking part in a value-creation pilot in Norway (2007-2010), this paper seeks to fill a general void in the literature in terms of exploring the relationship between participation, power and democracy in participatory Action Research. The findings suggest the necessity of overcoming traditional dichotomies between pragmatic-constructivist and power-knowledge approaches to Action Research. By acknowledging the co-existence of both consensus and dissensus as natural parts of any development process, this paper argues that a more reflexive, democratic and actionable approach can be taken in navigating the unfolding tensional field between empowerment and constraint.

Key words: participation, dialogic Action Research, democratisation, power/knowledge, Scandinavian work-life tradition

1. Introduction

Recently, the under-explored relationship between participation and power in dialogic Action Research has been placed back on the agenda (Kristiansen & Bloch-Poulsen, 2011; Fricke, 2011). The overall perspective presented by Kristiansen and Bloch-Poulsen (2011) is to bring participation, as an 'enactment of power', into the centre of the dialogic, organisational Action Research process and into Action Research that is understood as participatory. This implies focusing on how power is enacted and carried out in concrete contexts. The relationship between participation and power is understood in terms of the on-going struggles between the participants involved in 'defining reality' (Kristiansen & Block-Poulsen, 2011, p. 348). Fricke (2011) criticises this 'one-dimensional' approach for being too pessimistic, arguing that it takes a too-general, formal and narrow view of both participation and power. According to Fricke, a distinction has to be made between participation and democratic participation, which Action Research is (should be) concerned with:

...organising dialogic participation processes, in which all members of an enterprise or of the participating group develop their ability to take part in defining reality. The more the Action Research process succeeds in giving participants a voice, the more the initial distribution of power changes (Fricke, 2011, p. 384).

This dispute reflects the age-old epistemological controversy regarding how to understand and approach the relationship between participation and power from a démocratisation perspective (see also Flyvbjerg, 2001; Gaventa & Cornwall, 2008). Translated into practical settings and seen from an Action Researcher's point of view, this implies operation in an unfolding tensional field between empowerment and constraint (Kristiansen & Bloch-Poulsen, 2011).

The purpose of this paper is to contribute to this valuable discussion. Drawing on data and experiences gathered during participation in a valuecreation project in a large-scale, national R&D programme called 'Creating New Assets in the Cultural Heritage Sphere' in Norway (2007-2010), the aim of this paper is to explore the challenges, dilemmas and tensions that emerge when conducting open-ended participatory Action Research in practice. It seeks to fill a general void in the literature in regards to exploring the dynamic relationship between participation, power and democracy in participatory Action Research. Secondly, by acknowledging the co-existence of both consensus and dissensus as natural parts of any development process, it is argued that a more reflexive, democratic and actionable approach can be taken in order to navigate the unfolding tensional field between empowerment and constraint.

In the case of the Value Creation Pilot Hammerdalen (VCPH) (2007-2010), a regional partnership was established between the property owner and a private company, Treschow-Fritzoe (TF); the municipality of Larvik (ML); Larvik Museum (LM); Larvik innovation, industry and competence centre (LL); Vestfold County Council (VCC); and Vestfold University College (VUC). …

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