The social relevance of participatory theory
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The article starts with a general reflection on the social relevance of theory, and moves on to develop four arguments in this regard. We discuss theory’s ability to produce conceptual frameworks and to provide semi-autonomous reflective moments. The text also conceptualises theory as an opportunity to reflect on illegitimate imbalances of power relations, set against the normative visions of democracy. We further discuss the role theory can play in deconstructing societal fantasies (understood in Lacanian terms), illuminating the deeper material and discursive structures in society (e.g. in relation to power) as well as their contingencies. In the second part of the article, we focus specifically on participatory theory, applying the four arguments in favour of the social relevance of theory to the field of participatory theory. Some of the inspiration for this second part was gathered through an analysis of a series of short essays (labelled “individual reports”), written by colleagues within the framework of an academic network on audience studies, the Cost Action Transforming Audiences, Transforming Societies (TATS). We link together some of these reports with our perspectives on participatory theory, highlighting key aspects of this theoretical horizon, and underscoring the importance of connecting such theory – of academic origins – with the social world beyond the university.
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