Community participation

An emphasis on participation has links with the interest in democracy in community organization and in self-help and political incorporation in the community development tradition. But what is community participation?

contents: introduction · community organization · community participation · conclusion · further reading and links · how to cite this article

linked articles: animation · associationalism · community · community centres · community development · community education – theory · community organization · community studies · community work


Influenced by the political debates of the late 1960s more radical approaches to community work became influential. ‘Instead of seeking to help deprived communities to improve their social and environmental circumstances, the new community work activists urged that people take direct political action to demand changes and improvements’ (Midgley et al 1986: 20). Saul Alinsky (1946; 1971) – was especially influential. He had a history of mobilizing and organizing grass roots campaigns particularly in the district known as the Back of the Yards in Chicago (the site of Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle). He caught many people’s imaginations through his evident commitment and experience, and his ability to articulate his thoughts in catchy phrases:

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be (1971: xix)

The real action is in the enemy’s reaction. The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength (1971: 136)

Alinsky seemed to offer a model for community action (as against organization or development). Major state programmes such as the War on Poverty in the United States of America and the Urban Programme in the United Kingdom also underlined a growing emphasis on economic and structural factors in matters more often associated with individual ‘shortcomings’.

Community organizing

The model of practice most commonly associated with this North American approach to community organizing posited three distinct ‘types’ of work. Here the work of Jack Rothman (1968) was of special importance.

Rothman on community organizing

Rothman identified three distinct types of community organizing:

Locality development: typifies the methods of work with community groups used by settlement houses and in ‘colonial’ community development work. A major focus is on the process of community building. Working with a broad, representative cross section of the community, workers attempt to achieve change objectives by enabling the community to establish consensus via the identification of common interests. Leadership development and the education of the participants are important elements in the process. In this approach great store is set by the values of both participation and leadership.

Social action: is employed by groups and organizations which seek to alter institutional policies or to make changes in the distribution of power. Civil rights groups and social movements are examples. Their methods may be, often are, abrasive, and participation is the value most clearly articulated by those who use this approach. Both leadership and expertise may be challenged as the symbolic ‘enemies of the people’.

Social planning: is the method of community organization traditional to health and welfare councils although its scope and arena were enlarged in the 1960s to encompass city planners, urban renewal authorities and the large public bureaucracies. Effort is focussed primarily on task goals and issues of resource allocation. Whereas the initial emphasis of this approach was on the co-ordination of social services, its attention has expanded to include programme development and planning in all major social welfare institutions. Heavy reliance is placed on rational problem solving and the use of technical methods such as research and systems analysis. Expertise is the cherished value in this approach, although leadership is accorded importance as well.

[This outline of Rothman’s argument is taken from Brager and Specht (1973: 26-27)]


These elements are drawn in a fairly extreme way. There is considerable overlap between the elements – but the focus on difference is useful in that it points attention to dimensions such as process, the role of the plan, and the tension between the state and dominant groups and those who believe themselves to be excluded.

Community participation

In the late 1960s there was a series of debates around ‘participation’ (see, for example, Pateman 1970). While ‘participation’ may be a vague term its advocates often rely on two key arguments about its value. It:

makes for justice in decision-making – people have some say in, and influence on, collective decisions. has an educative value. Through participation people learn (Beetham 1992).

These interests became formalized in a number of United Nations reports including Popular Participation in Development (1971) and Popular Participation in Decision Making for Development (1975).

According to Midgley et al (1986: 23) the notion of popular participation and that of community participation are interlinked. The former is concerned with broad issues of social development and the creation of opportunities for the involvement of people in the political, economic and social life of a nation, ‘the latter connotes the direct involvement of ordinary people in local affairs’. One United Nations document (1981: 5) defined community participation as:

The creation of opportunities to enable all members of a community to actively contribute to and influence the development process and to share equitably in the fruits of development.

This is a very general definition and raises as many questions as it answers.

As with other traditions of community intervention the theoretical base for the work is relatively patchy (see Abbott 1996). There is material around the context and the specific problems within different societies; and there is a longstanding tradition of writing around political theory. However, much of what is written around process remains at the level of ‘practice wisdom’ and is not worked into a wider ranging framework.


In recent years there have been some useful developments in thinking around the notion of community participation. This has both involved a critique of ‘participatory techniques’ when used in the service of unjust and often illegitimate interests (see, for example, Cooke and Kothari 2001) and some more optimistic explorations of participatory approaches that link into more transformational political forms (see Hickey and Mohan 2004).  In many respects, as various contributors to Cooke and Kothari (2001) underline, it is still necessary to approach state-sponsored community participation initiatives with some care. Claims to participation can often be little more than the wish to consult within a narrow policy framework. There can be a sharp contrast with the level of involvement expected within more associational forms of democracy or even those approaches concerned with the cultivation of social capital. There is certainly a gap between such approaches and what can be seen in some of the more rigorous developments in participatory governance (Hickey and Mohan 2004).

Further reading and references

In my selection I have tried to include a number of books that give a picture of the development of thinking and practice. I have also tried to identify a number of key contemporary texts that allow for a rounded picture of the tradition.

Abbott, J. (1996) Sharing the City. Community participation in urban management, London: Earthscan. 247 pages. This book provides an historical analysis of community participation; outlines theories of community participation; and examines the implementation of community participation. Attempts to fill an significant gap in the literature – developing a theoretical basis for community participation.

Burkey, S. (1993) People First. A guide to self-reliant, participatory rural development, London: Zed Books. 243 + xix pages. Just what the sub-title says – a compilation of practice wisdom plus some framing. Chapters on understanding poverty; development; self-reliant participatory development; agents of change; the training and support of change agents; getting started; working with people; external relationships; savings, credits and inputs; objectives and principles.

Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The new tyranny?, London: Zed Books. 224 pages. Popular and useful overview of community participation and participatory techniques.

Craig, G. and Mayo, M (eds.) (1995) Community Empowerment. A reader in participation and development, London: Zed Books. Useful collection of material that addresses questions around the extent to which community participation and ’empowerment’ are the human face of structural adjustment or tools for democratic transformation. Includes various case studies (both north and south).

Dudley, E. (1993) The Critical Villager. Beyond community participation, London: Routledge. 173 + xii pages. Looks at how community-based technical aid can be made more effective and sustainable. Says workers etc. should put themselves in the place of the intended beneficiaries of aid. Argues that participatory research and ‘transfer of technology’ should not be regarded as rival models of development, but as complementary components.

Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (eds.) (2004) Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? – Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development, London: Zed Books. 304 pages. Helpful debunking of simplistic critiques of community participation as largely rhetorical or tyrannical. Explores different examples of practice and examines recent convergence between participatory development and participatory governance.

Hoggett, P. (ed.) (1997) Contested Communities: experiences, struggles, policies, Bristol: Policy Press ISBN 1 86134 036 2. £15.95. Following introductory essays on contested communities (Hoggett) and neighbours (Crow), this book has sections on community and social diversity; local government and community; and community participation and empowerment. The book uses a set of case studies to examine the sources of community activism, the ways communities define themselves and defined by outsiders, and the room for partnerships with different agencies. Internal conflicts within communities are also examined.

Kaufman, M. qnd Alfonso, H. D. (eds.) (1997) Community Power and Grassroots Democracy. The transformation of social life, London: Zed Books. 230 + x pages. The contributors attempt to look beneath the rhetoric of community participation, local democracy and grassroots organizing. Can these processes lead to socio-political transformation and economic development? What is the impact of differences of interest and position? Michael Kaufman provides an overview – and this is followed by a series of chapters examining experiences within different central American countries – the struggle for popular democracy around housing in Costa Rica (Silvia Lara and Eugenia Molina); participation and development in Cuban municipalities Harold Dilla Alfonso and Geradp González Núñez; popular organizations in the Dominican Republic (César Pérez) and in Haiti (Luc Smarth); and women and popular organization in Chile (Veronica Schild). Part two has three ‘them studies’: differential participation (Michael Kaufman); poitical decentralization and popular alternatives (Harold Dilla Alfonso; and new social movement theory and resource mobilization theory (Eduardo Canel).

Mayo, M. (1994) Communities and Caring. The mixed economy of welfare, London: Macmillan. 242 + viii pages. Exploration of debates around community participation and community development which attends to experiences in both the north and the south. Some consideration of community education.

Midgley, J. with Hall, A., Hardiman, M. and Narine, D. (1986) Community Participation, Social Development and the State, London: Methuen. 181 + ix pages. The book begins with an excellent overview of community participation and is followed by chapters exploring community participation in health, education, rural development, urban development and housing, and social work. Midgley completes the collection with an examination of community participation, the state and social policy.

Spiegel, H. B. C. (ed.) (1968) Citizen Participation in Urban Development. Volume 1: Concepts and issues, Washington: Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. 291 pages. Useful collection of readings that examines citizen participation: housing and urban renewal; anti-poverty programs; Alinsky; and inplications for community decision making. Includes a bibliographic essay.

Slocom, R. et al (1995) Power, Process and Participation – tools for change, London: Intermediate Technology Publiciations. 251 + xvi pages. Provides a brief overview off approaches and contextual issues; and then sets out a range of tools for environmental and social change such as advocacy, community drama, focus groups etc.

Steifel, M. and Wolfe, M. (1997) A Voice for the Excluded. Popular participation in development – utopia or necessity?, London: Zed Books. 265 pages. Retrospective on the UNRISD projects in Latin America in the early 1980s. These projects looked at ‘organized efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations’. While written from a particular perspective it does bring out the need to appreciate specific experiences and situations, to look to the context of ‘participation’, and the differences of perspective between those involved.

Strachan, P. with Peters, C. (1997) Empowering Communities. A casebook from West Sudan, Oxford: Oxfam. 87 + viii pages. This short book examines the experience of the Kebkabiya project. It started as an attempt to improve food security following a famine, and grew into a significant community-based organization.Chapters cover the project, service provision, involving the community, participation and gender, moving toward independence, and the future.

White, S. A. (ed.) (1999) The Art of Facilitating Participation: Releasing the Power of Grassroots Communication, New York: Sage. 368 pages. Practical guide.

Other references

Beetham, D. (1992) ‘Liberal democracy and the limits of democratization’ in D. Held (ed.) Prospects for Democracy. North, South, East, West, Cambridge: Polity.

Colonial Office (1958) Community Development. A Handbook, London: HMSO.

Coyle, G. L.(1930) Social Process in Organized Groups, New York: Richard R. Smith.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State. Group organization the solution of popular government (3rd impression [1920] with introduction by Lord Haldane), London: Longmans Green.

Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience, New York: Longman.

Jones, D. (1977) ‘Community Work in the UK’ in H. Specht and A. Vickery (eds.) Integrating Social Work Methods, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Lindeman, E. (1921) The Community. An introduction to the study of community leadership and organization, New York: Association Press.

Mayo, M. (1975) ‘Community development: a radical alternative?’ in R. Bailey and M. Brake (eds.) Radical Social Work, London: Edward Arnold.

Pateman, C. (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Rothman, J. (1968) ‘Three models of community organization practice’ in Social Work Practice 1968, New York: Columbia University Press.

United Nations (1955) Social Progress through Community Development, New York: United Nations.

United Nations (1981) Popular Participation as a Strategy for Planning Community Level Action and National Development, New York: United Nations.

Acknowledgement: Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1999, 2006) ‘Community participation’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2006