Participatory development: from epistemological reversals to active citizenship

Mohan, Giles (2007). Participatory development: from epistemological reversals to active citizenship. Geography Compass, 1(4) pp. 779–796.



The past decade has witnessed the ubiquity of participation in governance across the globe, involving efforts to bring more marginalised people into the decision-making processes that affect them. At one level, there is an apparent consensus around the need to reconnect citizens with the policy process, which has seen experiments in different forms of direct democracy. Common to these experiments is changing epistemologies in terms of knowing what marginalised people feel and need. This article charts the rise of participatory governance and offers a critique of the epistemological assumptions that underpin it. A key critique is that changing epistemologies, by themselves, are no guarantee of more meaningful participation so that concerted institutional change is also needed. I argue that for participation to become more transformatory we need to see it as a form of citizenship in which political processes are institutionalised and people can hold others to account. This revitalised citizenship agenda is also spatialised in that peoples’ understandings of the world and the political channels available to them are locally differentiated and contingent. The conclusion is a call for more geographically sensitive empirical research on the unfolding of new forms of participation.

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