Postdevelopment & Participatory Action Research

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the seventh post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The second post in this section briefly discusses postdevelopment theory and participatory action research.

Postdevelopment theory can be seen to also chime closely with critical theory and post-structuralism in terms of its interdisciplinary nature which ‘borrows from postcolonial analyses of the uneven balance of power in the world, and poststructuralist rejections of modernization theory and its paradigms of “progress”’ and its focus on development as perpetuator of ‘uneven distribution of power, legitimacy, knowledge, and capacity, thereby undermining the very project of producing a better (fairer, more egalitarian) global community’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 773). Postdevelopment theory is deeply critical of ‘ways in which indigenous knowledges, livelihoods, and economies of the “Third World” are delegitimized, devalued, stolen, and subjected to the dominance of “the West” under a banner of ‘international development’ that masks an agenda ‘of domination and control’; constructing ‘the Third World as “deficient” and “backward”’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 773).

As McKinnon explains:

‘Using the idea of development-as-politics as a starting point, new postdevelopment approaches and strategies might be formulated around Laclau’s understanding of hegemonic politics. At the core of these new strategies would be a recognition that there is no point where the process of hegemonic struggle can cease and one hegemonic formation becomes complete. The incompleteness of any hegemonic formation presents both opportunity and challenge. On the one hand it allows us to see the weaknesses in the systems we may struggle against; as a hegemonic formation, global capitalism, for example, must always be viewed as an incomplete and ever-transforming entity [but also… [posits] that incompleteness applies equally to the hegemony that proponents of participatory development might be working for. Taking incompleteness as a grounding condition for any such movement for social change necessitates an explicit acceptance that there is no end point to the work of development and no perfect tool that can ever bring such an end into being’ (McKinnon, 2007, p. 782).

Whilst this perspective is a contribution to ongoing discussions around participatory postdevelopment, it is also an outlook that could equally apply to social inclusion agendas in Western countries and to future directions for socially engaged art in both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ places.

Participatory action research (PAR) is another approach that is often used in both ‘developing’ countries as well as in ‘disadvantaged’ communities in the West, particularly in the US. It is founded on a desire ‘for a sustained critical social psychology that engages in interdisciplinary discussions of and inquiry with social movements and solidarities, group relations, and dedicated interdependence; a social psychology that challenges the dominant belief that self-interest and self-protection are basic human motives’ (Fine, 2012, p. 417). PAR seeks to ‘reenter critical discussions of what could be and resist reinscribing what is’ (Fine, 2012, p. 417); it is a form of social psychology that positions itself as being capable of researching ‘the complex and circuited lives of persons nestled within global and local inequality gaps… to generate compelling evidence relevant to social theory, policy, and social movements’ by offering community-led alternatives ‘to the dominant narrative of motivated self-interest, defensive identity politics, and the inevitability of inequality gaps’ (Fine, 2012, p. 418). Fine’s description of an exciting interdisciplinary PAR project that often utilises artistic practice to achieve public recognition – the Public Science Project – perfectly illustrates the PAR approach as:

‘Rooted in the social psychology of justice studies… our research projects are designed collaboratively to document, contest and reimagine the social psychological dynamics and consequences of circuits of dispossession and privilege: the policies, ideologies, institutional relationships, and social dynamics that move across place and over time to redistribute and naturalize the upward consolidation of wealth, control, and class power while undermining, destabilizing and containing low-income communities of color… In order to theorize how these circuits move through and across young bodies and communities, our research projects aim to be deeply historic, theoretical and participatory, committed to the study of circuits (not just “victims” or “perpetrators”) of injustice and resistance, designed in collaboration with activists, organizers, interdisciplinary colleagues, and youth, who gather evidence for reconstructing theory, informing policy and feeding social movements and organizing campaigns’ (Fine, 2012, p. 429).

Participatory action research doesn’t recognise its connections with socially engaged arts practice as fully as it perhaps should. The Public Science Project’s work with Illuminator, a mobile outdoor projection ‘activator’ and associate of the Occupy movement, together with the participant-led data collection and analyses involved in the collaboration, are an exemplary case of critical interdisciplinary participation with radically democratic results.


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