Review Essay: Tyranny/Transformation: Power and Paradox in Participatory Development


  • Brian Christens Vanderbilt University
  • Paul W. Speer Vanderbilt University



civic engagement, community, critical theory, development, empowerment, participation, pragmatism


Two recent works on participatory development provide perspectives on values and process in development. The first book, Participation: The New Tyranny compiles and builds on criticisms of participatory practice, and the second, Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation extends the same debate in the interest of attempting to theorize a more coherent and potentially transformative participatory development. The contributions in the volumes move participation from a seemingly unassailable theoretical panacea to a point from which it can be critically examined in multiple contexts. Participation's frequent failure to achieve what its proponents have hoped is exposed in multiple ways—and participatory theory is restructured to account for, and potentially move beyond these failures. This essay reviews these contributions and proposes that a more thoroughly pragmatic orientation might advance the interests of a transformative participation even further. Pragmatic praxis allows for more experimental habits and does away with unnecessary philosophical dualisms that exist in participatory theory. Finally, this essay sketches transdisciplinary conceptual connections from participation in development to several other fields at work on issues such as empowerment, civic engagement, urban planning, and the psychological sense of community. The issues exposed in these works are relevant to these other branches of applied social research. A constant, similarly reflective stance is necessary in each. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0602223


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Author Biographies

Brian Christens, Vanderbilt University

Brian CHRISTENS is director of the Census Information Center at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in the United States. Brian and Paul are conducting research and writing on development, community psychology, action research, participation, community organizing, and power.

Paul W. Speer, Vanderbilt University

Paul W. SPEER is associate professor of Human & Organizational Development at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.




How to Cite

Christens, B., & Speer, P. W. (2006). Review Essay: Tyranny/Transformation: Power and Paradox in Participatory Development. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(2).