It is possible to participate in a brutal event – such as gang rape, lynching, an ethnic cleansing operation – or in a humanitarian event – fund raising, collective adoption, sacrificing oneself in an exchange of prisoners.
Whatever the moral judgment might be, these and other innumerable others are all forms of participation, since the individual acts together with other people. The meaning that the concept of participation assumes in social sciences differs however from the common meaning, whether the meaning is extended to also include negative and positive actions, or referring only to these.
Free from all prejudicial moral assessment, the concept of participation is referred to involvement in the various spheres of social life. Hence one speaks of religious, cultural, trade-unionist, or political participation and more still. On each occasion there are many possibilities for participation, as many as the forms of participation: possibilities that are more or less restricted or extended and more or less diversified form of participation. Hence there could be an exclusive or an inclusive participation, or one that is informal or formally codified.
Whether different societies are compared, whether one addresses this society’s internal systems such as associations, institutions and organisations, the important differences therefore concern: a) the variety of spheres one participates in, b) the opportunities and bonds in this participation, c) the forms of participation. One can for example simultaneously participate in family life as well as in economic and political life, or – as often has happened to women – only be part of family life. Participating in active economic life, for example, may be a privilege reserved to certain castes, classes or ethnic groups, or a right acknowledged for all citizens.
As far as modalities are concerned, one can for example participate in politics in direct or in delegated forms. It is clear that the possibility, intensity and forms of participation are determined by history. This should induce one to control the tendency to judge other social-political contexts as inferior simply because they are different from our own. It is a mistake, as well as an illusion, to expect liberal democratic practices in an agricultural-pastoral Afghan community, as it is to expect widespread communitarian practices in the City.
Nonetheless, it is a good idea for the necessary relativism not to be absolute, but rather moderate, when considering a universal datum or a historical event. The universal datum means that participation is always determined both by culture and by power; this prevents one from seeing in it the spontaneous expression of a collective group, or, on the contrary, the manipulated manifestation of domination. The historical event is globalisation, which, putting in communication the most different societies, generates promising opportunities and the difficult problems arising from multicultural coexisting.
At the centre of the problem involving participation there is therefore a dual relationship: that between the individual and the collective community and the one between the individual and the role. It is in fact discouraged, or on the contrary encouraged, depending on whether the personal identity is monopolised or not by a collective identity or a position-role. Participation is therefore both a conflictual sector and a stake in play. Historically it is a conquest: the result of a never-ending battle between individual autonomy and power, whether this power is economic, political or cultural. There is also the fact that it appears as the contribution an individual provides to the development of associated life.
Hence the practice of participation requires two conditions: a) the reduction of significant inequalities (the creation of an area of equality is necessary: one only participates among equals) and restrictions imposed by social control, so as to provide space for the free expression of individuality; b) containment of the penetration of the ethos and the practice of competitive individualism within the participative arenas. The first condition is linked to the possibility for the subject to access and freely participate – within a specific context of social bonds and cultural influences – in a multitude and a variety of spheres and ways of life, selecting and combing these according to a personal project. The second condition is linked to the possibility that within the framework of the participative experience, private interests are put aside, thereby favouring commitment for the public interest.
It is clear how nowadays the first condition is critical and decisive in the world’s geo-economic and social areas that are less modernised and secularised, and how the second condition is critical and decisive for those that are more modernised and secularised. The process that can allow these two challenges to be addressed and won – although never in a definitive manner – is known as democratisation. The result of this process, neither static nor fulfilled, is democracy. In this context there is today, as in and even more than in the past, an intimate link between pluralism, democracy and participation.