RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017


75 Decolonising geographies of democracy and participation
Affiliation Participatory Geographies Research Group
Convenor(s) Helen Pallett (University of East Anglia, UK)
Chair(s) Helen Pallett (University of East Anglia, UK)
Timetable Wednesday 30 August 2017, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Session abstract The events of 2016, from Brexit to Trump’s victory in the US election, have led many to claim that democracy is in crisis (e.g. Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2016). In particular, the project of multiculturalism has been held up by Western commentators and theorists of democracy, such as Jürgen Habermas (discussed in Bhambra, 2016), as a potential threat to genuine democratic participation and as fuel for right wing populism (cf. Lentin, 2016; Wilson, 2016). Post-colonial perspectives counter that these arguments fail to recognise the long histories of global interconnectedness through the European imperial project, which laid the foundations of liberal democratic institutions and practices (Bhambra, 2015; Jazeel, 2011).

These ‘democracy in crisis’ arguments are often based upon universalising and fixed models of democracy and assumptions about the public. For example, deliberative democratic theories are widely evoked, envisaging a harmonious deliberative public sphere enabled by a relatively homogenous and well-informed populous. Though, agonistic theories of democracy are also evoked and equally make normative assumptions about democracy and the public, emphasising discord and debate. By perpetuating fixed assumptions about democracy, participation and the public, these kinds of approaches fail to recognise the relational and interconnected way in which democratic practices and ideals are produced – discursively, spatially, materially and institutionally – and the global diversity of existing ways of understanding and practicing democratic participation. Furthermore, these fixed assumptions shape the way in which we study and intervene in democratic practices, potentially excluding certain knowledges and bodies (Spivak, 1988) and foreclosing what can be said or done within such processes (Chilvers & Kearnes, 2016).

To begin this project of decolonising geographies of democracy and participation, the papers in this panel explore a diverse range of forms, settings, goals and ideas of participation and democracy. In doing this they explore what is excluded and marginalised by dominant and universalising perspectives on democracy; explore different ideas about and practices of democratic participation; follow the connections, flows and interdependencies of particular ideas about and practices of democratic participation; and propose methodological innovations which can help geographers to do participation and democracy in a decolonial way.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
Decolonising the collective: towards new visions of representation
Doerthe Rosenow (Oxford Brookes University, UK)
Clinton’s loss of the US presidential elections despite having won the popular vote as well as the the conceding of a majority of MPs in the UK to a vague sense of the ‘will of the people’ in relation to the EU referendum are only two examples of the ‘crisis’ in which Western liberal democracy seems to find itself at the moment. But as Latour has already argued in 2004, modern politics has never been quite as ‘representative’ as it has imagined itself to be. It has always relied on the ‘old Constitution’ that divides the world into the House of Nature and the House of the Social; allowing political representation solely for the latter in return for leaving the determination of ‘facts’ to the former. For Latour, this two-house logic needs to be abandoned in favour of establishing a human-nonhuman collective that makes decisions on whether to in- or exclude ever-growing lists of associations.

However, from a decolonial perspective Latour’s critique is flawed insofar that it fails to engage coloniality as co-constitutive of modernity, resulting in the lack of seeing any connection between the desired ‘collective’ and (historical) configurations of (colonial) power. Drawing on my work on environmental activism in relation to genetically modified organisms, I will show in this paper to what extent this problem can be addressed by including the addressing of colonial injustices into the internal procedures of the ‘collective’; enabling me to formulate a new, decolonial, non-anthropocentric vision for democratic representational procedures.
The challenges of the ‘post-liberal’ turn in the Plurinational State of Bolivia
Anna Laing (University of Sussex, UK)
Latin American indigenous movements have postulated a ‘postliberal challenge’ (Yashar, 2005) to mainstream conceptions of representative democracy modelled on individualised citizenship rights. Indigenous nations have instead called for their collective forms of decision-making, property ownership and resource management to be recognised within state structures. In 2006, Evo Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia as the leader of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism); a political party with its roots in a number of indigenous and peasant movements. The MAS administration pushed through a Constituent Assembly process that renamed the ‘Republic’ the ‘Plurinational State’ in recognition of the nearly two-thirds of the population that identified as indigenous in the 2001 census. Significantly, the Constitution rebalanced democratic norms by acknowledging participatory and communitarian forms of decision-making, alongside representative models. In this way, state structures have incorporated what Slater has called ‘demo-diversity’ described as democracy that ‘emerges from indigenous roots’ (2013: 75). However, these alternative democratic models have only been partially instilled within the state machinery. In this paper, I draw on nine months of ethnographic research with the lowland indigenous movement to contend that the MAS Party project has, in fact, sought to erode communitarian structures of decision-making and participation in order to access natural resources located within indigenous territories. In this respect, the Morales administration continues a (post)colonial legacy that subalternises certain indigenous populations by limiting access to citizenship rights and state structures (see Spivak 2014).
Towards decentred and emergent governance for ‘community resilience’: The view from post-war Sri Lanka
Martin Mulligan (RMIT University, Australia)
While the growing international popularity of resilience policies, practices and discourses has attracted criticism from numerous social science scholars who argue that they are a perfect “fit” for efforts to revive the flagging fortunes of neoliberal governmentality, others argue that the concept of “community resilience”, in particular, can highlight the failings of dominant discourses on the governance of complex challenges. This paper will demonstrate why the work of an innovative Sri Lankan-led NGO working in a very messy post-war context in the Sri Lankan north-western provincial centre of Mannar has influenced the author’s thinking on “community resilience”. The author has worked with Jeremy Lyanage--the founder of the NGO, Bridging Lanka--to develop a concept of ‘decentred, emergent and multiscale’ governance which can demonstrate that western scholars and practitioners have much to learn about community resilience from the Sri Lankan experience. The paper will argue that the concept of governance emerging from this case study has the potential to link the theory of ‘decentred governance’--most prominently associated with Mark Bevir--with concepts of ‘emergent governance’ associated with the socio-ecological model of resilience thinking, which has also informed recent work of political theorist David Chandler. The Mannar experience demonstrates that any such model of governance must be based on a detailed understanding of both the geographic and socio-political contexts in which strategies for community resilience are being enacted. The paper will argue that risk-averse western societies have much to learn about community resilience from countries like Sri Lanka which have experienced major natural disasters in context of failed democracy.
The right to the knowledge: urban movements and decolonisation of the spatial planning process
Tomasz Sowada (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland)
The idea of public participation in decision-making and spatial planning is getting more and more popular in Poland. It is however still heavily criticised by the city dwellers. Social discontentment with decisions taken by local authorities and lack of true public participation were two of the many reasons which sparked the rise and dynamic development of urban movements in the recent years. At first glance polish cities have many tools of public participation at their disposal. However, their use is often incomplete and outcomes controversial. This state of things is strongly connected with the lack of spatial planning knowledge among the citizens. Know-how is still restricted to some closed groups of interest: local authorities, bureaucrats, architects, urbanists, scientists. The tools of public participation can easily become an instrument of manipulation in the hands of authorities. The solution is to educate city dwellers and disseminate knowledge about procedures and rules of spatial planning, which could lead to ‘decolonisation’ of planning process.

I present two case studies to show the role of urban movements as liaison between the ‘knowledge-holders’ and inhabitants. The first case is a picture of a typical proceedings taken by local authorities themselves. The second one is introducing the intervention of urban movements. I will use them to show how and with what result urban movements are acquiring, using and disseminating spatial planning knowledge. The goal of this paper is to underline the importance of knowledge transfer between key stakeholders in the process of public participation.
Migrant women and participatory social research: decolonising geographies of participation
Tracey Reynolds (University of Greenwich, UK)
Umut Erel (The Open University, UK)
Erene Kaptani (The Open University, UK)
Maggie O'Neill (University of York, UK)
This paper discusses the transformative potential of participatory social research in seeking to challenge ideas about and practices of democratic participation. The presentation will present preliminary analysis from our project combines forum theatre techniques and walking methods in order to understand the way in which three groups of migrant women - i) migrant mothers ii) migrant adolescent girls and iii) Black migrant mothers with no recourse to public funds - creatively intervene in creating new forms of citizenship. These methods enable these women to move from the margins to centre stage in destabilising normative assumptions about democracy rooted in European Imperialism. The participants create and reflect on their subjugated knowledges in an embodied way through these methods. By applying these methods (principally Playback, Forum Theatre and Mobile and Walking methods) to think about the connection existing between personal experience and wider society, we demonstrate that these women are coproducing knowledge that challenges neoliberal hegemonic models and practices of exclusion. As a result of doing so, they bring about social transformation with regards to understandings of democratic participation and citizenship. We also highlight that epistemologically, the combination of methods (walking and participatory theatre methods) as embodied, sensual methods can mutually reinforce each other and can be used to create more textured and rich data. Combining these methods connect the personal to the public realm and vice versa given the biographical, performative, spatial and visual material emerging from each method. Therefore this creates methodological innovation which can help geographers, and related academic disciplines to do and understand democratic participation in a decolonalised way.