Brian Martin, "Conclusion", in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 249-263.


Brian Martin


Several of the key themes raised throughout the collection are highlighted: types or levels of participation; the questions of whether participation is genuine or not and whether it is a good thing; the contrasting processes of technologies shaping participation and of participation shaping technologies; and methods for restricting and fostering participation. This chapter ties together the different perspectives used by the authors without attempting to fit them into a mould.

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The authors in this book deal with a broad range of technologies, from toys to rockets, and cover diverse issues concerning participation. While each author deals with a specific case study, there are some themes that can be traced through several chapters. In this concluding chapter, I discuss four such themes:

Addressing the way the authors deal with these themes does not provide any definitive answers, but it does offer a useful window into ways to address key questions involving technology and participation.

Types of participation

Several of the authors give examples of different types, levels or arenas of participation involving technology. For example:

One usual classification of levels of participation assumes that the key question is how much participation occurs, from manipulation at one end to citizen control at the other.[1]

Ladderof citizen participation

8 citizen control
7 delegated power
6 partnership


degrees of citizen power

5 placation
4 consultation
3 informing


degrees of tokenism

2 therapy
1 manipulation



This sort of classification is especially helpful when looking at something like town planning in which a substantial group of citizens is affected by some decision, such as choice of transport infrastructure, which has far-reaching implications. It assumes that government is centrally involved in decision making, for example manipulating, consulting or delegating power to citizens. Only at step 8, citizen control, is government not in the picture. Thus this classification might be called the ladder of government-mediated participation.

A toy or a tomato, unlike a transport system, is something that can be bought and used by an individual. This often involves some sort of choice, which can be interpreted as a form of participation, though many important choices are made before consumers become involved. Participation in relation to consumer products might be thought of in terms of a set of stages, such as the following.

Stages of market participation
  • G investment
  • F design
  • E production
  • D marketing
  • C sale
  • B purchase
  • A use
In a fully differentiated market, different people are involved in each stage: toy corporations invest, designers design, factory workers produce, marketing specialists advertise, retail outlets sell, parents buy and children play. Analogously to the ladder of citizen participation, the bottom stages of market participation--purchase and use--are very limited compared to the top stages of investment and design. In a unified market, in contrast to a differentiated one, all or several stages are combined, such as when people make their own toys or grow their own food.

Government-mediated and market-mediated participation are two ways of conceptualising types of participation, but there are other dimensions as well. Edmond and Mercer deal with the specific issue of whether juries--a notable mode of citizen participation--should be used when complex technical issues are at stake. The jury can be considered to be one stage or step in a sequence of law-mediated participation, ranging from formulating law, passing it, administering it and so on, down to the low-participation end of the spectrum, such as being a recipient of law as a defendant. Marshall notes that in space exploration, one type of participation is advocacy; Gosden notes a similar role in the mental health field, namely advocacy by families for psychiatric intervention to deal with certain family members. This advocacy might be considered to be analogous to the marketing function in the market-mediated stages of participation, but the market is not all that good a model for understanding either space exploration or psychiatry. The implication of these examples is that no single ladder or staircase is likely to be adequate for classifying types or levels of participation in a range of different fields. Each field deserves close attention to determine the types of participation and how they may best be classified.

"Real" participation

There are various rationales for participation.[2] Edmond and Mercer note that the "dominant rationale for the continued operation of the `modern' jury is as a check to political and judicial tyranny." Gosden shows how varying interpretations of human rights, codified in international law, are used to justify different types of participation. Marshall also refers to international law in assessing participation in space exploration. Roberts notes that competitive advantage is the rationale for high-technology incubators and that the goal of innovation is used to specify who participates. Birkeland gives a more general picture by describing four ideal-type participatory planning models, namely technocratic, liberal, radical and ecofeminist. Each one has its own rationale for participation, respectively drawn from utilitarianism, liberalism, critical theory and feminism.

Even when formal rationales are not spelled out, it is apparent that all the authors believe that participation is important, especially for groups that have less power. The assumption seems to be that people should have some say in decisions that affect their lives. The question is not whether to have participation, but who, how and in what circumstances.

Participation on its own is not enough. Varney notes that participation is inadequate to meet democratic goals if it is "not tied to broader struggles for social justice and for equality of resources and opportunities." For example, participation does not necessarily equalise power.[3] Solomon argues that participation is only truly democratic when there are equal opportunities for participation or representation (representational justice), requiring equitable distribution of social, economic and political resources (distributive justice) as well as recognition of cultural differences (recognition justice).  Therefore, it is vital to analyse the nature and circumstances of participation.

Several of the authors make a point of distinguishing between "real" or genuine participation--what the author considers to be worthy of the term "participation"--and sham or pseudo participation. This is most forcefully argued by Beder, who explores how public relations exercises can be used to give the appearance of citizen participation without the reality. Birkeland draws a contrast between citizen-level participation and the institutional framework in which this participation occurs. The framework--for example, existing infrastructure, government planning bodies and powerful corporate interests--may make the choices at the level of the citizen trivial. The bigger question is the choice of institutional framework.

Both Varney and Monk point out that consuming goods in a market--purchasing toys or food--is an extremely limited form of participation, though a more active stance is possible such as through boycotts. Varney contrasts purchasing toys with participation in play, which she considers much more significant. Monk contrasts purchasing food with producing it and with involvement in processes to ensure sustainability of food systems.

To contrast real participation with pseudo participation is obviously to make a value judgement, namely that the real is better than the pseudo and that participation is a good thing. Such value judgements are present throughout discussions of participation. The ladder of participation, for example, both describes and implicitly passes judgement. Few people would consider "manipulation" to be a neutral term, and a common presumption would be that it is better to be higher on a "ladder of participation." Indeed, the word "participation" itself is laden with many connotations and presumptions.

Therefore, it is refreshing that Monk argues that some sorts of participation are not desirable. Major stakeholders, such as agribusiness corporations, already have a major impact on food systems, and increased participation by them may be harmful to the environment. More generally, Monk argues that even with "wide scale rural participation in sustainability projects and rural improvement projects, there is no guarantee that through such practices the environment will be better served." He says that to serve the environment, participation must be within an "overriding cultural ethic," otherwise participation may harm sustainability. Similarly, Gosden sees advocacy of mental health services by families of mental patients as potentially harmful of the human rights of some patients, and Marshall sees advocacy of space exploration as potentially contributing to imperialistic exploitation of outer space.

Thus the questions of who participates and whether participation is a good thing are closely related. Participation may be at the expense of disadvantaged people or environments. Beder obviously sees the "participation" of public relations firms as harmful to genuine citizen participation and the environment. Varney makes an analogy between fascism and the market: "Constituents under fascism were swept into a show of solidarity with the regime which had constructed a short, simplistic, superficially exhilarating agenda while trammelling any mechanisms for a more meaningful participation." These examples suggest the need for a way of classifying participation not just in terms of amount but also in terms of consequences.

The mutual shaping of participation and technology

Technologies can influence the quantity and quality of public participation in decision making, as shown in Carson's case study of the telephone in local government and Solomon's case study of the lap-top computer. Conversely, public participation, or the lack of it, can affect decisions about technology, as in Beder's example of the hazardous waste incinerator. These two sorts of influences are commonly called "shaping" in many writings about technology.

Many studies of technology and society have focused on the social impacts of technology, such as the impact of new weapons on military strategy, the impact of the automobile on travel patterns and the impact of television on people's beliefs. This approach is sometimes--but not necessarily--connected to an assumption that technological development is largely autonomous of society.[4] In other words, it is thought that technologies are invented and applied on the basis of inherent possibilities, such as the laws of physics and properties of materials, and the constraints of cost and feasibility. If technology is autonomous, then it is obviously important to see what impacts it will have.

In the last couple of decades, technology scholars have increasingly looked in the opposite direction, namely at the impact of society on technology, a process that is commonly called the "social shaping of technology."[5] The social shaping approach can broadly be said to include studies in the constructivist vein, which use one theoretical framework or another to examine social processes that mould technologies into what they are. Indeed, so fashionable has the social shaping approach become that impact-of-technology studies are often seen as passé and theoretically inadequate, because they do not problematise technology.[6] A resolution may be possible in the form of the idea of "co-shaping." The picture is that technology and society mutually influence each other. Theoretically, this is a more inclusive model than either impact-of-technology studies or social-shaping-of-technology studies. Nevertheless, for convenience it can still be quite useful to focus on one shaping process, setting the other to one side for the time being.

In relation to the issue of technology and participation, the debate about social shaping concentrates on one aspect of society: citizen participation. The three chapters in the first part deal with the influence of technologies on participation. Varney looks at how toys influence children's learning of participation skills, Carson looks at the role of the telephone in participation at the local government level, and Solomon looks at the impact of computers on activities of international non-governmental organisations. From these studies, it is apparent that technologies can affect participation in a wide variety of ways, not just in the most obvious ones such as mass media influences on elections. Participation can also be affected in other ways.

These are but a few examples of the numerous ways in which technologies can shape participation. Obviously there is scope for much more investigation. One important question for such studies is which technologies, or which designs of a particular type of technology, are useful for various degrees and types of participation.

Ivan Illich has used the term "convivial technology" to refer to technologies that enhance people's control over their own lives while minimising opportunities for domination by those with power, money or expertise.[7] (Rather than the expression "convivial technology," a more descriptive term is "participatory technology.") For example, Illich argues that vehicles that can travel more than about fifteen miles per hour reduce social equity by reducing mobility for those without access to high-speed transport.[8] One need not endorse Illich's particular conclusions to accept the importance of technologies in shaping opportunities for participation. Varney, Carson and Solomon each are concerned with this process.

The remainder of the chapters in the book deal more with the other side of the picture, namely how public participation--or the lack of it--shapes technology. These seven chapters demonstrate the diversity of ways in which this can occur.

One thing that is apparent from these studies is that there is no natural or normal way for participation in decisions about technology to occur. Participation is something that develops as a result of social struggle. Vested interests commonly seek to get their own way by restricting participation by their opponents, using various rationales to justify this. Participation is fundamentally an issue of power.

Participation influences what technologies are adopted and how they are used, but once technologies are introduced they subsequently shape behaviour and beliefs, including opportunities for participation. For example, communities are involved, to one degree or another, in decisions about buildings and roads. Once buildings and roads are constructed, they facilitate or constrain people's ability and interest in participating. Citizens have some say in whether a toxic waste incinerator is built. If one is actually built, then opportunities for citizen participation in toxic waste policy are more limited than if no such investment had been made. Such examples give an idea of processes of "co-shaping" in which societies and technologies influence each other.

The mutual interaction of participation and technology can be considered to be a facet of the wider issue of structure versus agency, which can also be cast as institutions versus individuals. Which should be considered primary: structures such as social class, gender and technological infrastructure or the ability of individuals to make their own choices? Both are involved, so the question really is about the best starting point to analyse society. Do we begin by looking at, for example, social class as a patterned set of relations that shapes behaviours and beliefs, and then look at the way that individuals adapt to or challenge these relations? Or do we begin with the individual as an autonomous entity and then look at how the choices of individuals lead to patterns of behaviour and the creation of institutions?

In assessing studies of toys, Varney criticises the usual approach of looking primarily at the agency of the child, namely at children's ability to adapt toys for their own purposes. Instead, she focuses attention on the toy industry and its marketing use of stereotypes in promoting certain types of toys, which then influence children's play. Varney would acknowledge the agency of the child but believes that it is important to become aware of the role of social structures--in this case corporations and the market--in creating the constraints within which agency operates. Similarly, Birkeland acknowledges activities used by planners to foster participation but says that such strategies "are slow to change the broader institutional framework of decision making, which can subvert the positive results gained through participation." Like Varney, Birkeland thinks it is important to look at structures--"the broader institutional framework"--and not assume that agency is enough to conquer obstacles to participation.

These case studies show that the choice of how to study the issue of participation is a value-laden one. Both authors argue that a focus on agency can divert attention from more important processes. It is possible to imagine other cases in which a focus on structures may divert attention from important opportunities at the level of the individual. The main point is that both need to be addressed.

Restricting and fostering participation

Nearly every author deals with methods or processes that restrict public participation. Carson provides the visual image of the "wall of constraints," which includes structural, intrapsychic, interpersonal and cognitive constraints as well as absence of skills or knowledge. Classifying the methods of restricting participation given by all the authors results in a considerable list.

Technological restrictions. The nature of technology can "build in" restrictions on participation. For example, when food is produced industrially at remote locations, most people can only make choices as consumers. The overstructuring of toys is essentially a way of embodying certain choices for children in the physical form of the toys. Technological restrictions are often unnoticed because technologies are just "the way things are." Food, telecommunications, energy and transport are among the technological systems that can restrict participation.

Exclusion. Some people are excluded from participation in one way or another. Lack of access to technology is one way, as in the case of nongovernmental organisations without computers and email. Most of the population lacks realistic opportunities for space travel simply because resources are not available to send more than a tiny minority into space. Some exclusions are based in law, as in the case of patents that restrict access to certain technologies in the food industry. Other exclusions are socially crafted, such as the failure of the Inquiry into Human Rights and Mental Illness to invite people alleged to be mentally ill. Government innovation policy is typically formulated by politicians and government bureaucrats with input from corporate elites, effectively excluding other groups. Exclusion is perhaps the most obvious way to restrict participation, and so is easy to point out. Hence there is usually a need to justify exclusions, which leads to the next method for restricting participation.

Attacks on competence. There are various arguments that can be used to justify restricting participation. When science or technology is involved, a very common argument is to say that people lack competence to make decisions. This is because science and technology are commonly seen as areas requiring expertise. There is often an unwarranted slide from the need for operators of certain technologies to be highly skilled to the conclusion that special knowledge or skills are needed to make judgements about policy. Brain surgeons and pilots do indeed need expertise, but that does not mean that specialised expertise is needed to make judgements about health policy or transport priorities.

This issue of competence is central to Edmond and Mercer's chapter. Their title, "The politics of jury competence," refers to the arguments about competence used to defend or oppose juries in complex technical cases. If the rhetoric of "jury incompetence" is effective, then juries can be barred from certain types of cases and public participation thus restricted. Birkeland, in her assessment of traditional planning and participation models, notes that they divide the population into two separate groups, experts and lay citizens. This provides the basis for arguments to exclude non-experts from decisions allegedly requiring expertise.

Divide and rule strategy. Another way of restricting participation is to analyse citizen opponents of a development and develop ways of winning over some of them while isolating the others. The strategy of public relations firms, as described by Beder, is essentially a process of divide and rule. This can be considered a way of restricting participation, although in essence it is a means of neutralising it.

Cultural barriers. Groups outside the dominant culture often suffer from a lack of recognition of their cultural differences, so that they have difficulty communicating in a way that can be heard by dominant groups. (In addition, disadvantaged groups may be restricted by social, economic, political and psychological barriers.) Solomon in particular takes up this issue, noting that computer systems embody dominant western cultural values of instrumental rationality that can suppress forms of communication that might better bridge cross-cultural divides.

Psychological barriers. Carson refers to "intrapsychic" barriers to participation. People may believe that they don't need or deserve to be involved, or that they lack the skills or knowledge to do so. Psychological inhibitions are a potent barrier to participation, for who can say that people are wrong when they say they don't want to be involved? Yet it should not be assumed that psychology is autonomous of social and technological factors. Varney argues that overstructuring of toys and storylines, combined with the privatisation of play which reduces collective interaction, socialises children in a way that reduces their capacity and receptiveness to participation in later life. This example shows that the technologies with which one interacts can affect one's psychological predisposition to participate. There should be nothing surprising in this. All sorts of technologies can affect the way people perceive the world. The suburban house reflects and reinforces the nuclear family, which shapes people's understanding of human relationships. The mass media of television, radio and newspapers, and their associated production processes and news values, provide the framework through which most people understand international affairs. Interactions with technologies, including such everyday items as light switches, cereal packets, shoes and cars, affect people's beliefs about what they can and can't do in the world. In these and many other ways, technologies shape psychology, which in turn affects people's willingness to participate.

Listing all the methods for restricting participation can be a bit depressing, but fortunately it also provides a convenient way to think of methods for fostering participation, namely by challenging, eliminating or sidestepping the restrictions. Here are some possibilities.

These examples show that there are many ways of fostering participation. If I had to give general recommendations based on these ideas, I would emphasise three imperatives. First, resist restrictions on participation, for example by countering arguments attacking the competence of juries. Second, go ahead and participate, for example by community activism or organic farming. Third, use appropriate technology, such as the telephone and open-ended toys.

Final comments

There is an enormous amount of writing about participation and democracy. Some of the authors have referred to bodies of theory: Carson to deliberative democracy, Solomon to communicative democracy, and Birkeland to technocratic, liberal, radical and ecofeminist planning models. Overall, though, this book is not centrally about theory but rather about raising important issues through contemporary case studies. Theory often becomes meaningful only when brought to bear in practical situations. It is used here with the aim of gaining practical insight into problems and possibilities of participation. Many of the authors have been actively involved in the issues they have studied, whether as commentators, interviewers or participants. Ultimately, both participation and technology are things that we do and use, rather than just think and write about.


Miriam Solomon and Wendy Varney provided useful comments on a draft of this chapter.

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[1]. Sherry R. Arnstein, "A ladder of citizen participation," AIP Journal, July 1969, pp. 216-224.

[2]. Carl Mitcham, "Justifying public participation in technical decision making," IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 40-46.

[3]. Mauk Mulder, "Power equalization through participation?" Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1, March 1971, pp. 31-38.

[4]. Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977).

[5]. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got its Hum (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985).

[6]. For a critique of the fashionable constructivist agenda, see Langdon Winner, "Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: social constructivism and the philosophy of technology," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 362-378.

[7]. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1973). See also Godfrey Boyle, Peter Harper and the editors of Undercurrents (eds.), Radical Technology (London: Wildwood House, 1976). There is a close link between the concept of convivial technology and the more widely known "appropriate technology."

[8]. Ivan D. Illich, Energy and Equity (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974).

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15 April 1999