Distraction Free Reading

Technologies of Equal Participation: Formats, Designs, Practices. Introduction.

Listen to an audio recording of this piece read by Svetlana Borodina

Collage of bits images (a woman's face, a tiger, patterns and graffiti)

Photo by Gareth David on Unsplash

Only today, an unremarkable Friday morning in March 2022 (the day when I was writing this text), my participation has been requested at least eight times. On my way to work, as I was running down the stairs to catch a train, through the sound of music coming from my headphones I caught, “Please make sure to vote!” This was followed by a faint addition: “if you are a voter.” As I purchased coffee in a corner shop right outside the subway, the screen solicited my participation in their customer satisfaction survey: “What can we improve?” At work, as I sat down and opened my email, I saw that the NYC Parks and Rec Department had sent out a new batch of volunteering opportunities; a colleague had sent an invitation to participate in a round table next month; and a friend working on their UX portfolio had sent a link to a survey for an app they’d been working on (“What kind of problems do I run into in my commute?”). Meanwhile, my family’s WhatsApp chat was filling up with the regular, “Sveta, are you even here?” messages, complaining about my lack of participation in conversations. A gofundme campaign to crowdfund struggling refugees and a friend’s paper silently awaited their time, too.

If not for this post, I wouldn’t have paid attention to any of these requests. Rather, they would have faded into the background of the everyday—so mundane, expected, and ordinary they are. I live in a place where people’s participation functions as something valued. It is often perceived as the technology of democratic citizenship par excellence (Cruikshank 1999). Citizens participate in governance through elections, consumers participate in designing the products they consume, family members participate in each other’s lives, and residents participate in making their streets cleaner, more pedestrian-friendly, or more well-lit. As a postdoc at a US-based university living in a big city, I routinely receive requests for my time, attention, opinion, and conceptual and emotional engagement. Some forms of participation are valued more than others, especially those that provide a symbolic means of revealing an individual’s power to connect to and shape the collective. Others feel like noise masquerading for forms of “authentic” participation. In the end, I ask myself, what do I do when I “participate”? Do I have to participate? How am I to understand this exhaustion that inevitably builds up after receiving (and sometimes responding to) calls after calls for participation?

And then, I ask my friends and colleagues living here in NYC and other parts of the US and the world if they are as saturated with calls for participation and, in turn, with such concerns and questions. I hear their responses and I pause. Some say yes, with a sigh of tiredness and exhaustion, albeit also some degree of enthusiastic relief—at least you have a say! Others say no. My academic colleagues with disabilities report receiving fewer requests, often being left wondering if this is so because of the devaluation of their expertise or because of the stubborn ableist stereotype that organizing access is too difficult, costly, and not worth it (for other examples of ableism in anthropology see Durban 2022). My racialized friends get fewer invitations from random strangers on the street to engage in any kinds of surveys—my Korean friend said that nobody even tries to mistake her for a potential voter. My colleagues working on topics not currently en vogue say they rarely get invited to round tables or other events as experts. Instead, the invitations for participation they frequently receive are time- and labor-consuming, unpaid, and invisible to the broader public. The list of differences goes on. If some sigh in exhaustion on having to navigate the sea of overwhelming requests to “take part,” others routinely become removed (systemically and systematically) from the opportunities of building such exhaustion in the first place. So, we know that the opportunities for participation are distributed unequally, but how exactly? In this asymmetrical and irregular world of participation and lack of such, what makes participation “equal” and how do we know that “participation” becomes “equal”?

This series takes inspiration from Christopher Kelty’s (2019) inquiry into participation—specifically, from its focus on approaching participation as a problem rather than something self-evident, unquestionably good, and easy to carry out. Kelty shows “how participation has changed over time in the short term (the last fifty years), as well as how it can be understood as a much longer term problem related to representative democracy and the experience of politics” (5). The authors of this series take up this line of inquiry to think deeper and more critically about what has been naturalized to be a marker of democratic citizenship.

If Kelty looks back in time and offers a historical ethnography of participation in the Western world, the posts of this series look synchronically and laterally. From the broad range of calls for participation, a specific kind interests the authors whose work is featured in this series: those contexts where “equal participation” has been intentionally attempted or at least aspired for. The authors provide ethnographic insights from across the globe into how various practico-material assemblages become labeled as signs of or conduits to equal participation (hence, the discussion of political forms of subjectivity) and what kind of presence and actions they activate and conceal. Together, they help us think about the following questions ethnographically:

  • What material forms does “equal participation” take in practice?
  • How do these forms vary across space and time? How do they enmesh protagonists and environments?
  • What technological scaffolding do these forms produce and demand?

If you are interested in contributing to this series, don’t hesitate to reach out to Svetlana Borodina at editor@castac.org.


Cruikshank, Barbara. 1999. The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Durban, Erin L. 2022. “Anthropology and Ableism.” American Anthropologist 124 (1): 8–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13659.

Kelty, Christopher. 2019. The Participant: A Century of Participation in Four Stories. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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