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Contested participation: Understanding agonistic struggles in the field of participatory urban policy

Citizenship
Conflict
Contentious Politics
Democratisation
Critical Theory
Enrico Gualini
Technische Universität Berlin
Enrico Gualini
Technische Universität Berlin

Abstract

Observing dynamics of contention and conflict in citizen participation processes challenges the assumption that practices of participatory democracy may ever fulfill the promise of an ‘inclusive consensus’. Contention and conflict in citizen participation remind us of the fallibility and indeterminacy/undecidability of democratic practices. In this respect, contention and conflict in the framework of citizen participation may constitute a vital challenge to ‘post-political’ practices threatening to reduce democratic participation to institutional dispositives and routinised choreografies of consensus mobilization. As agonism is the defining dimension of the political, contention and conflict are a necessary dimension of democratic politics and a key to reclaiming the emancipatory potential of politics. However, the hypothesis of conflict happening ‘by default’ needs to be qualified. Observing the contentious dimension of citizen participation – the idea that “citizen participation could be understood as the quintessential example of conflicts by default” – reflects a significant empirical reality and resonates with a theoretical understanding of ‘the political’ as ontologically rooted in difference and agonism. At the same time, it poses a distinctive research challenge, as neither the emergence and dynamics nor the trajectories and transformative outcomes of conflicts can be defined deductively or deterministically. In fact, bridging theoretical perspectives and empirical analysis of conflicts represents a multidimensional and interdisciplinary challenge for research and analysis. This paper addresses this challenge through an interpretive approach, based on combining post-foundationalist political theory with research on social contention and mobilization and with interpretive policy analysis. A social science perspective centered on social agency and the way actors attach meaning to social practices within a specific policy field is thus integrated with a post-foundational perspective on politics as a dialectics of hegemonic practices. This combined approach enables, on the one hand, to analyse the conditions for contention and conflict to emerge and develop in terms of the discursive and symbolic-cognitive practices of collective meaning-making involved in the expression of agonistic claims and of the forms of social mobilization and collective action by which agonistic claims are expressed. On the other hand, it enables to explore the capacity of social agency to (dis-/re)articulate a given policy situation and of transforming it into a new configuration through agonistic struggles. Contention and conflict are hence seen as expression of agonistic claims through processes of collective meaning-making, moments of collective identity formation, and the formation of new political subjectivities. Contention and conflict thus intended are emergent, interactive-relational, and co-evolutive phenomena which develop within specific socio-spatial fields of meaningful social practices, challenging and possibly generating alternatives to such socio-spatial practices. The paper is intended as a tentative framing of the topic in view of the development of a research framework. Based on empirical observation of recent struggles in the field of urban policy in Berlin, it explores how contention and conflict in participatory practices – and the contestation itself of participatory politics – manifest themselves and develop in three distinctive fields of socio-spatial practice: - challenging ‘invited’ forms of participation, - addressing insurgent practices of ‘invented’ participation, - contesting the ‘meta-politics’ of citizen participation.