New forms of political participation: what's new, if anything?

David Marsh

Professor Marsh is the Director of Research at the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Sadiya Akram

Lecturer in British Politics, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London

There is no doubt that the nature of political participation is changing in liberal democracy. At first, many researchers argued that the main feature of this change was an increase in political apathy. To support that view, they pointed particularly to a decline in voting, where it was not compulsory, and in political party membership; often together seen in terms of a process of partisan de-alignment.

However, more recently this view has been critiqued, with many suggesting that political participation has not declined, rather the forms that it takes have changed and that the mainstream literature underestimates the extent of these changes.

Perhaps the key issue in the literature revolves around how large, and how fundamental, the changes in political participation have been. Most mainstream approaches see the decline in traditional forms of political participation as the key problem that needs to be addressed. In doing so, they often see other forms of ‘political’ participation, particularly, but not exclusively, those where the Internet is the main ‘repertoire’, as being ‘inauthentic’. From this perspective ‘authentic’ action is collective and involves face-to-face interaction; so much online activity is dismissed as ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slackivism’. In contrast, our view is that there is a significant difference in the new forms of political participation which goes beyond Norris’ (2002) identification of new agencies, repertoires and targets. This is an argument particularly strongly developed by Bang (2009, 2011), who contends that, in ‘late modernity’, the interaction between citizens and political authorities has been changing in a way which, in part, is reflected in these new forms of participation.

For Bang (2009, 2011), in late modernity, individuals are seen as more reflexive and risk-taking. As such, individual identities are no longer linked to pre-constituted interests/organisations, such as class and political party affiliation. Instead, individuals are free to debate and choose their identity; an identity which is fluid.

Our point here to is that this different take on the nature of, and reasons for, new forms of political participation provided by Bang and others suggests that there have been more fundamental changes than those highlighted by Norris and others. The Policy Studies Special Issue that we co-edited (published Dec 2015, Vol 36 [6]), is dedicated to the topic of new forms of political engagement and addresses these issues. In the Introduction to the Special Issue, we identify four key debates, which in our view shape our understanding of both new and old forms of political engagement:

1) how we conceptualise the ‘political’ when talking of ‘political participation’;

2) how we can conceptualise the links between connective and collective action and online and offline ‘political’ activity;

3) the relationship between duty norms and engagement norms and between project identities and oppositional or legitimating identities;

4) and the putative rise of what Henrik Bang terms as Everyday Makers (EMs).

No one collection could deal with all the issues discussed above, but the contributors to the volume have addressed these different aspects of the literature and have used different methodologies to approach the issues raised, all the work reflects what we have termed the more critical literature on approaches to understanding alternative forms of political participation.

Ariadne Vromen, Brian Loader and Michael Xenos examine the political engagement of young people, drawing upon representative samples of 16–29-year-olds in Australia, UK and USA to address widespread claims that it is individualised not collectivist, issue-driven, not ideological-driven and post-materialist, not materialist. They show that there is a complex interdependence between individualised, everyday understandings of economic change and an identity-based politics of equal rights.

In contrast, Francesco Bailo focuses on the online environment within which much contemporary political participation is occurring. In particular, he analyses the discussion forum of Italy’s Five Star Movement. He applies network analysis to map the relations between forum users and develops a typology which allows for a better understanding of how these online sights of political engagement operate.

The next two articles deal with the very interesting Spanish case. Michael Jensen and Henrik Bang compare those involved in the Indignados, involved in the 15 May 2011 demonstrations, now termed 15M, with those involved in the nationwide strike organised by the trade unions thirteen months later. Using theoretical insights taken from Bennett and Segerberg, and Bang, they utilise big data methods analysing tweets to compare the discursive differences between the two groups of activists.

Simon Tormey and Ramon A Feenstra analyses the reinvention of political parties in Spain over the last few years in the aftermath of 15M. Using content analysis and interviews with almost a hundred activists and party members, he analyses the characteristic of these new parties and considers their impact on democracy in Spain, and indeed beyond.

Mark Chou, Jean-Paul Gagnon and Lesley Pruitt’s article broadens the discussion of what can be regarded as political participation. They explore the capacity of participatory theatre to be an alternative site of political participation, surveying three applications of participatory theatre and show how they can prefigure a more participatory political community.

Pia Rowe provides another example of the way in which we need to broaden our understanding of the political and political participation. She provides a case-study of MamaBake, a small, Australian, women-only, group using Bang’s discussion of EMs as the frame. She examines the ways in which MamaBake is political, arguing that the organization members exhibit many of the characteristics of EMs, showing that in many cases the ‘political is personal’.

If we accept that political participation is changing, we must also, in our view, accept that the problem is less apathy and more alienation from politics as it is practised in the formal political arena. There is ample evidence in our Special Issue that people are involved in politics, particularly if we move beyond a narrow arena definition. Further, we must also accept that some of this activity may involve engagement in a broad movement, like Occupy or the Indignados, while other activity may be small scale and often largely social, if with the capacity to become political, like MamaBake. However, we would argue strongly that this activity is political and cannot be ignored.


This article first appeared on The POP Politics Blog, and can be found here: https://poppoliticsaus.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/new-forms-of-political-participation-whats-new-if-anything/

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