What does Participation Mean within our Organizations?

In the past few weeks we have been talking more about the Social Science and Communications theory of Participatory Communication as a way NGOs and aid organizations go into countries to promote a project. In looking at the 2009 World Bank’s “Participatory Communication Guide” by Thomas Tufte and Paolo Mefalopulos[i], we see that the notion of “Participation” in communication is something fairly novel in social sciences (including Communication, Political Science, Anthropology, etc.). What this phenomenon is trending toward is for an organization to go into the field with the goal of getting the local community to participate and gain a stake in the proposed project. This is contrary to the “old school” approach that it was “the white man’s burden” to simply bulldoze his way into a country without listening or enlisting help from the locals who knew the area the best.

In the articles “Communication, Power, and Counter-power in the Network Society[ii]” and “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance[iii],” by Manuel Castells and in the article “Civil Society and Public Relations: Not So Civil After All[iv]” by Mohan Dutta-Bergman, we see that social communication is supposed to serve as a type of public sphere where people can become engaged. The skills-based approach to civil society argues that public relations scholars and practitioners could contribute their skills in the creation of media systems and NGOs that would serve as the conduit of civil society by encouraging participation and dialog among citizens.[v] The problem with this definition of the public sphere is that it is very individualistic and there are problems with actual communication and other cultural barriers.

Now that we have been working within our chosen organizations for almost a week many of us have experienced Participant Observation and Participant Communication. The organization that my team and I are working with is the Auroville Institute for Applied Technology (AIAT). This is a vocational school that works with both free government-sponsored and fee-based courses. It serves only the rural youth from the surrounding villages. AIAT asked us to come in and assess the school. I have focused on entrance counseling, recruitment/capacity building, and student retention

I have completed interviews with a combination of paying and government sponsored students (all anonymously), interviews with two instructors, the entrance counseling staff (Anbu and Ravichandran), the Assistant (Lavayna), and the Principal (Mr. Levkamand). The most remarkable interview I had was with 20 year old male student in the First Year Electronics program. I start each interview by introducing myself a little and always end by asking if the student has any questions. This student was the only one who asked questions about me. He asked me how I felt in India and if I liked it. He asked if I found India different from my country and from France. We also talked about how the Indian and US culture were different because they are very family oriented whereas in the US many families live far apart. We chatted further about brothers/sisters, what movies and actors we like, etc. One of the last questions he asked me was about my research. He was interested to know what results I had come to and what would I change in the school and in the culture.

How would you respond? I explained to him that I found many similarities among India, France, Sweden, and the USA. Many of the same issues are recurrent no matter where you are in the world. I explained that I would provide feedback on his school and would leave it up to the school management to decide what would work within the context of their culture and their school mission. I was simply trying to sit and listen and shed light on the suspected issues. We ended the interview by us both putting our hands together and head bobbing, “Nandri.” (Thank you) He added (in English) [sic], “Thank you for respect.” This meant a lot to me.

As we move forward in our projects, but more so when we embark into the world in our future careers, most of us will be able to come across a situation where when it’s all over we will reflect back on the role of Participatory Communication and what it means to us and the people with who are working.

By Karin Johnson, AUP


[i] Tufte, Thomas, and Paolo Mefalopulos. World Bank World Bank Working Paper – Participatory Communication: A Practical Guide. Rep. no. 170. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2009. Print.

[ii] Castells, Manuel. “Communication, Power, and Counter-power in the Network Society.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-66. Print.

[iii] Castells, Manuel. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616.1 (2008): 78-93. Print.

[iv] Dutta-Bergman, Mohan J. “Civil Society and Public Relations: Not So Civil After All.” Journal of Public Relations Research 17.3 (2005): 267-89. Print.

[v] Dutta-Bergman, Mohan J. “Civil Society and Public Relations: Not So Civil After All.” Journal of Public Relations Research 17.3 (2005): 268.

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