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A review of Enrique Peruzzotti’s presentation “From civil society to mediated politics. Towards a comprehensive theory of democratic participation”

16 Jun 2010



Enrique Peruzzotti has been a visiting research fellow at UNRISD since September 2009. His work examines civil society and the relationship between different forms of participation and democratic representation. On Tuesday 8 June 2010, a few days before the end of his stay, he presented his research to fellow staff. A book based on his research is in the works.

Individuals have to associate with one another in order to become effective as citizens. Enrique started by summarizing the debates over how to define civil society itself, then he outlined what he defined as the three main conceptual approaches to the study of civil society and participation: the social capital model, the public sphere model and the pressure group politics model.

Each of these approaches focuses on specific types of participation involving specific actors. By doing so, each provides a partial understanding of participation, which by itself is inadequate. A more differentiated theory of participation is needed to account for the diversity of civic initiatives that form civil society. The individual forms of participation, emphasized differently by the three models, can be viewed together as the multiple participatory layers that comprise modern civil society.

Civil society does not have a unified logic nor can it be understood as a single actor. The concept instead presupposes a diverse universe of actors, types of collective action and ways of associating—some of which are opposing but nevertheless coexist. Political initiatives that combine actors and resources from multiple layers have a greater chance of being effective than those that rely on a single one. The weakening of any of those layers would inevitably deprive the others of an important social and political resource. For example, initiatives that combine resources from professional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), informal publics and grassroots protest movements are more likely to achieve success than if each of those actors were working alone.

Enrique then focused on the dominant approach to democratic representation. Political representation is often merely the “business of elites”, and participation is commonly reduced to the occasional electoral mobilization of isolated voters. He argued that the distinctive feature of a representative democracy is not the holding of elections but the establishment of an institutional setting that allows citizens to influence the dynamics of representative institutions on a continuous and regular basis. He said there was a need to develop and re-create mediating structures between the state and civil society to facilitate the participation of civil society in the public policy arena. The existence and strength of the connections between the three participatory layers and of participatory arenas with representative institutions should be the yardstick to assess the quality of a democratic regime.

There are some problematic approaches to participation in the field of development studies, according to Enrique, one of which is the technical and depoliticized approach to assessing participation. The focus of efforts seems to be more on transforming the practice of developmental agencies and the people that work there, rather than engaging with the broader issues of power and politics that shape outcomes in real life. He also pointed to a failure to engage with the issues of power and accountability between development agencies and their beneficiaries. Citizens should have the right to participate in and make social, civic and political claims from governing powers. In brief, he suggested that the debate should move away from the top-down approach of the developmental state or the bottom-up approach of the participatory development models to focus on the mediated field of politics that bridges state and society relations.