The Participation Cube and Digital Affordances for Participation

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This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry

This chapter provides an overview the increasing use of digital technologies in participatory research. It argues that increasing the use of digital technologies in participatory methods has been under-theorised and is not being systematically analysed. The chapter makes two contributions. Firstly it offers ‘digital affordances for participation’ as a new means of theorising the positive and negative implications of using digital technologies in participatory methods. Secondly it introduces the ‘participation cube’: a new model for structuring three-dimensional analysis of levels of (a) who participates (b) at which project stages (c) and with which level of participation in any kind of participatory project. The chapter concludes with an overview of five case studies in which the use of digital technologies both extends and limits participation in a variety of settings.

Since the turn of the century there has been a dramatic increase in the use of digital technologies in participatory work. Digital storytelling, online participatory mapping, and the use of digital cameras and editing in participatory video are clear examples but there are few participatory methods in which the use of digital technologies has not increased. The chapter does not advocate for the use of more or less digital technologies in participatory research. The author acknowledges that the use of digital technologies has both negative and positive implications. The objective of the chapter is only to argue that, given the on-going migration to digital methods, the positive and negative implications of their use has so far been under-theorised and under-researched. The chapter offers new theoretical and methodological means to enable a deeper and more systematic analysis of the ways in which digital technologies both extend and limit the possibilities of participation.

Digital Affordances for Participation

The concept of affordances is well established in design and technology studies but has not been applied systematically in participatory methods. Affordances refer to the ‘new action possibilities’ enabled, allowed, or invited by a new technology. Digital affordances can include the ability to combine images, sound, video, and text, to share files globally instantly, and to work collaboratively with hundreds of people in multiple locations. 

The concept of digital affordances for participation is used to analyse the ways in which the introduction of new digital tools or the use of online spaces makes methods more or less participatory. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many participatory projects were forced online. This introduced some exclusions as the ability to participate was related to the quality of connectivity, digital literacies, and agency. However, some people living with disabilities found participation became easier, and some people felt more able to voice their concerns online that they did in a face-to-face setting. The chapter argues that more research attention is to better understand the particular affordance of different technologies for enhancing or limiting participation.

The concept of digital affordances for participation is one way of taking seriously the impact of introducing digital technologies to participatory methods. It focuses attention on the ‘new action possibilities’ that technology adoption involves. The introduction of digital technologies may enable practitioners to reduce dependencies on external experts. Online facilitation may enable the inclusion of people living with disabilities or make it possible to scale participation to include hundreds of people on multiple continents without flights. But it may also exclude people without connectivity or digital literacies. Five chapters of detailed case studies are provided that illustrate the negative and positive affordance of digital technologies for participation. 

The Participation Cube

The participation cube is a novel way to structure a three-dimensional analysis of (a) who participates (b) at which stage of the process, and (c) at what level of participation. The participation cube is designed as a heuristic device to help practitioners avoid homogenising the experience of all participants across all stages of a project. It provides a simple means to help structure a systematic analysis at each stage of the process. By disaggregating participants and trace their changing experience at each key stage of the project cycle a more nuanced analysis is possible. 

"A diagram of a cube with writing on three of its sides. The first reads\"Levels of Participation: control, partnership, tokenism, non-participation" The second reads "Who participates: marginalised women, village leaders, CSO workers, external experts" T

Source: Author's own

The ‘who’ dimension of the participation cube enables a disaggregation of distinct actors. Who gets to participate in any project, whose voice is heard, who has decision-making power, and who remains relatively excluded, has been discussed extensively in the participation literature. Like the other dimensions of the participation cube, the ‘who’ dimension needs to be re-calibrated anew for each project to make it relevant to the actual project actors. There may be more or less than four types of (non)participant and so the cube will need to be drawn and labelled afresh for each project. 

The stages of participation dimension of the cube will also need to be recalibrated for each new application to reflect the specificity of each project. There may be more or less than four stages and more or less than four levels. Arnstein had eight levels of participation in three groups in her popular ‘ladder of participation’. In Figure 1 only four of these were selected for the purposed of illustration. Users of the participation cube will need to calibrate their cube with the appropriate number of levels and label it accordingly. 

The process of using the participation cube involves tracing the level of participation, in each stage of the project, for each type of participant. This will show that each participant has different levels of participation over the project life cycle. One way of doing this would be as illustrated in the figure below. 

Source: Author's own

The participation cube was originally designed as a tool for retrospective participation analysis. A forthcoming journal article applies it productively to projects in Zambia and Uganda to generate insights not originally visible about levels of participation. It is a limitation of this method that it has only been used in retrospective analysis when it would seem to have value as a participation planning tool in project design. Further research is necessary to assess the value of the participation cube as a participatory workshop tool to engage diverse actors in analysing their own experience of participation at different stages of the process, and as a means to identify barriers and opportunities to improve project participation.

The chapter provided an overview of the introduction of digital technologies into participatory methods. Five case studies were used to illustrate the positive and negative implications of the use of digital technologies on levels of participation. It was argued that given the on-going increase is digital use this area has been under-theorised and under-analysed. The concept of digital affordances of participation provides a new mechanism for thinking through how and why the specific digital technologies has particular positive or negative effects on levels of participation. The participation cube is offered as a simple model for tracing the experience of distinct participants in each stage of process to analyse their level of participation. More research is necessary to apply the concept of digital affordances for participation and the participation cube on order assess it utility in practice.

Recommended reading

Roberts, T. (editor) Digital Technologies in Participatory Research (six chapter section) in Burns, D., Howard, J. and Ospina S. (2021) The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry, London, SAGE.

Roberts, T. (2021) Digital Affordances in Participatory Research Methods, in Burns, D., Howard, J. and Ospina S. (2021) The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry, London, SAGE