Journal of Civil Society vol:53 issue:3 pages:209-226
Research on citizen participation has been guided by two core issues: first, the observation of a widening repertory of modes of participation, and second, the argument that participation is not an undifferentiated phenomenon, but must be conceived as an inherently multidimensional reality. In this article, we argue that conventional participation research has focused too one-sidedly on quantitatively expanding the range of types of activities, while the complex dimensionality is not reflected in the measures used. We formulate a methodological critique by using the metaphor of the ‘black box’, which refers to the implicit and unquestioned assumption that distinct types of activities and associations represent homogeneous and consistent realities that do not warrant further analytical decomposition. Surveys of participation allocate individuals to different ‘participation boxes’ by means of a binary logic, leaving a void of what is actually happening inside the boxes. To conclude, we reflect upon the fundamental dilemmas the black box of participation raises for theory and research, and offer conceptual and methodological keys to unlock the participation box.