Social Participation

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"Social participation refers to collective activities that individuals may be involved in as part of their everyday lives. This might include: being a member of a community group, a tenants’ association or a trade union; supporting the local hospice by volunteering; and running a study group on behalf of a faith organisation. Others have variously called this kind of social engagement ‘associational life’, collective action, or civil, horizontal or community participation." (


"In the UK, what we have called social participation – the associations people form between and for themselves – has its roots in a number of broad traditions:

• Informal self-help and solidarity, such as the informal reciprocity and sharing of neighbourly help;

• Mutual aid, including more organised associations providing help to members such as craft guilds, trade unions, credit unions and friendly societies; and

• Philanthropy and voluntary service, to improve lives of people deemed ‘less fortunate’ (Gilchrist, 2004)."

Associational activities are grouped according to:

• types of organisations and distinct interests (e.g. motoring, trade unions or professions); • organisations or activities bringing people together in sports and leisure; • causes (such as environmental and social welfare); • culture (such as the arts, music and hobbies); and, • social, women’s, ethnic and residents’ organisations.

Associational activities are further distinguished as being:

• (passive) membership in organisations; and, • (active) participation in the running of an organisation and volunteering. Also included under associational activities are the following: • participation in informal networks (e.g. book reading groups; pub quiz teams; child care groups); and, • personal support networks beyond the family (e.g. shopping for neighbours; volunteering with meals on wheels; visiting old people; and involvement in self-help groups). (


"This social side of participation is generally understood as the participation that takes place through associations in civil society – ‘the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values’ (London School of Economics, 2004) or ‘the space for activity not undertaken by either the state or the market’ (CarnegieUK Trust, 2007: 9). Participation in associational life is generally seen as being positive. A diverse, independent and vibrant civil society is considered an important counter-check to the operations of the state and the market (de Tocqueville, 2000). It fosters ties and shared norms between people, or ‘social capital’ (Putnam, 2000), which many claim has a range of positive outcomes on communities and individuals (Portes, 1998; Ockenden, 2007). It can develop people’s confidence and sense of selfdetermination (Bandura, 1997), and lastly but importantly, humans enjoy being connected – it is a major determinant of well-being (Parker, 2007).

The normative element of participation (i.e. participation as a ‘good thing’) comes out strongly in the literature (Field, 2003; Cornwall, 2008).

However, there are a number of dangers or caveats to this (Field, 2003). Alongside fostering cohesion and social capital, participation can be exclusionary and divisive (Putnam, 2000; Field, 2003). Not all participation can be seen as contributing to what might broadly be viewed as the ‘social good’. As Carothers (2000: 20) observes, ‘recognising that people in any society associate and work together to advance nefarious as well as worthy ends is critical to demystifying the concept of civil society’. Examples might include violent direct action movements (Doherty et al., 2003) or extreme rightwing and neo-Nazi activism (Linden and Klandermans, 2007)." (

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See also: Public Participation