Participation: An under theorised icon in research and curriculum development

  • Rob O'Donoghue


This paper reviews participation as an emerging moral imperative in a democratising South Africa. Historical tensions in environmental education are probed to explore participatory turns and a rapid popularising of action research into the late 1980's. Recent cases of participatory research and curriculum development are then briefly examined before a review of processes shaping theory within emerging participatory perspectives. Socially constructed to resolve uncertainties and to steer activities in developing institutional enterprises, participatory theories are found to emerge from technicist amalgams of descriptive typologies. Trading on the promise of experts facilitating the sustainable development of 'The Other', participatory theories underpin environment and development ideologies which compete for economic and political influence. Some sensitising texts for the difficult task of probing features of these ideologies are discussed and a sketch of developing social processes provides a sense of the open-ended tensions shaping participatory hegemonies in institutional settings in South Africa. Participatory theories in the form of strategic narratives for sustainable development emerge from this review as self-validating ideologies that may, paradoxically, be defeating their own ends. Critical insights suggest that institutional agendas and the steering hand of rational theory inhibit emergent, contextual meaning making struggle which shapes sustaining moral orientation. The logical trap here is that moral orientation is not open to rational steering without frameworks imposing in ways which actually subvert the moral enterprise. This problem does not preclude continued attention to participatory imperatives but it does suggest that participative processes be narrated in socio historical context as emergent struggles of interactive meaning-making. In line with this finding, the question of explicit theory to steer participatory processes must be left open-ended amidst sensitising concepts to illuminate developing contexts of continued sustaining struggle.


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 2411-5959
print ISSN: 1810-0333