Participatory practices - participatory budgeting, cultural community development, dialogic processes, action research and so on – can foster community empowerment, positive forms of authority, and genuine investment of people in governance and political process. This project draws upon the insight of theatrical grass roots participatory initiatives in the field of mental health, performance studies scholarship and post-structuralist political philosophy to articulate the value of, and interrogate the nature of, participatory practices; rethinking the relationship between such practices and authority. The project began with a series of consultations and a literature survey, which fed into a weeklong residential workshop where an interdisciplinary group of academics worked collaboratively towards developing robust theoretical articulations of the value and nature of participatory practice. They have now published an essay collection on this theme aimed at a wide general audience and freely available online – Problems of Participation: Reflections on Authority, Democracy and the Struggle for Common Life (Noorani, Blencowe & Brigstocke eds; 2013, ARN Press). Other outputs include online resources (especially a literature survey) and an academic article ‘Objective Culture, Authority and Service-User Empowerment: A Reflection on Participatory Practice’ (Blencowe, Noorani & Brigstocke – in preparation, 2013).
Drawing upon the resources, energy and research of an inter-disciplinary group of early career researchers, the Authority Research Network, this project uses literature on ‘authority’, to theorise community production, empowerment and participation. Community creation, vitality and empowerment can be conceptualised in terms of the presence and performance of authority. Authority is a specific type of power that functions through consent and structures of knowledge. Vibrant and empowered community requires a plurality of forms of authority, which means pluralism about what constitutes objective knowledge as well as conflicting views on what constitutes community life. Modern societies have seen a change in the salient forms of authority; today the reference point of authority is often a source of growth, creativity and innovation rather than a point of origin, eternal-law or foundation. Spaces and practices of experimentation, as well as technologies that capture and perform common experience, are vital for the generation of participatory, empowered and vibrant community. Future research on community empowerment should focus upon the conditions of production of authority and include studies of community performance, narration, history, imagination and community-led design. Participatory research should be directed towards fostering and recognising capacities of communities to produce knowledge through shared experimentation.