(Re)thinking democracy using Participedia

Paul Emiljanowicz manages Participedia, the largest database documenting democratic innovations from around the world. To prevent reproducing coloniality, Paul writes, we must commit to expanding our knowledge about democracy and recognising the experiences and knowledges of all peoples

Reassessing the heart of democratic theory

When we think about democracy, we often centre Western contexts, knowledges, and ideas about, for instance, voting without intimidation. And we often think about the supremacy of the individual under law, in a free market, which is often contrasted against some form of non-democracy and aliberalism that restricts these activities.

However, activists and scholars who recognise the coloniality of knowledge production and the reality of pluriversality have long called for a reassessment of these very conceptual and normative definitions of democracy. We seek to reassess the terms which lie at the heart of democratic theory. It is here that Participedia offers several important insights of relevance to many of the contributions in this blog series.

When we think about democracy, we often centre Western contexts, knowledges, and ideas, or centre the supremacy of the individual under law in a free market

In thinking through how we might better engage community, conduct research, and mobilise knowledge inclusively, Participedia is taking a self-reflexive and inclusive co-design / participatory design approach. Since 2021, Participedia has expanded from its initial focus on Participatory Governance to five new cluster areas:

  1. Human and Political Rights
  2. Democracy Across Borders
  3. Digital Democracy
  4. Democratic Representation
  5. Democratic Accountability

Each bears its own unique set of questions, problems, and parameters. Through the co-design process we have come to discover that Participedia has the potential to create space and contribute to understanding democracy differently.

Reflecting heterogeneity

Think for a moment about representation or individual agency, both core concepts in political theory. How do traditional definitions of democratic representation or agency fare when we consider non-European ontologies and epistemologies? Many of these situate the non-human, totems, future generations, or spiritual environments, for example, into decision-making processes, with agential capacity. Meanwhile, how might transnational social movements reveal important lessons about the organisational makeup and politics of movements across borders?

How do traditional definitions of democratic representation or agency fare when we consider non-European ontologies and epistemologies?

Generative and insightful conversations and research-knowledge mobilisation agendas are being co-created within and across these new cluster domains in Participedia. Simultaneously, the database is constantly expanding with new users and crowd-sourced entries. These reflect heterogeneity and impart constitutive lessons, for those fields that will listen.

Lessons for the sciences of the democracies

Unique forms of knowing

There are three broader insights and trends that are instructive for the sciences of the democracies project. Firstly, the entries in Participedia point to culturally rooted practices of participation and deliberation that take unique forms across different contexts. These other ways of knowing and being contribute to shaping the form of what we might call democratic practices or innovations. In some cases, these 'innovations' have existed in some form for generations.

Whether it is indigenous management systems and bio-community protocols in response to climate change and resource regulation, or community-led reconciliation processes and sovereign consensus deliberation frameworks in the aftermath of political violence and trauma, peoples actively draw on their distinct worldviews and experiences to creatively and collaboratively respond to the challenges that they and their communities face. They do this, often, irrespective of national borders and politics.

Open design

Secondly, the underlying database code and work of Participedia's Design and Tech team is grounded in feminist principles of co-design and Human Computer Interaction strategies. This method is based on principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it informed the team's approach to, for example, moving from a proprietary to an open-sourced system. This contributes to further collaboration and inclusion.

The team deliberately created opportunities for women and students using collaborative mediums like Github. Participedia is constantly undergoing community-informed design improvements. Currently, we are focussing on improved language accessibility and inclusivity that align the project with the team's core values of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Knowledge exchange

The decentralised and trans-disciplinary approach at the core of Participedia is widening the scope for how we think about, study, and practice democracy. But the third insight concerns internal practices of evolving student- and community-centred engagement to address existing barriers in knowledge production. This is also at the forefront of what Participedia is doing. The database has, for example, been used in classrooms and to engage local organisations.

Students at McMaster University, for example, worked with 10C Shared Space in Guelph, Ontario, to co-create two Participedia entries with 10C practitioners. These entries document democratic initiatives in the Guelph community.

In contrast, the COADY Institute special collection highlights 26 cases of practitioner-written entries that are grounded in firsthand experience. In these examples, Participedia is serving as a space for knowledge exchange and practitioner-student-community collaboration in the field of democracy.

Saying no to the colonial library

Participedia is currently pursuing a trans-disciplinary and student / practitioner-involved update of our existing data model. These updates will respond to the new cluster research approach of our membership. However, it also expands on assumed definitions about what counts as source evidence. For example, in the context of transnational social movements or practitioner knowledge, we are looking at ways of making the data model more flexible and intuitive to different geographies of participation and autoethnographic accounts.

Archives and databases often reflect the hierarchies and inequalities of the societies which produce them, and so we work to deepen and expand our knowledge about democracy and democratic innovations, and to recognise the knowledges of all peoples

This flexibility and self-reflexivity extends to the curation of the database. Through deliberation, Participedia has developed a human rights approach to editorial policy in this age of toxic misinformation and online trolling. This allows us to maintain the integrity of the crowdsourced data, along with the core values of equity and inclusivity, as the database continues to grow.

Of course, Participedia is based at a market-oriented university and centred in the liberal democracy and settler colony of Canada. As a result, it is also birthed in tension. Archives and databases often reflect the hierarchies and inequalities of the societies which produce them. As YV Mudimbe reminds us, the Colonial library is a transdisciplinary space. Effacements, exclusion and oppressions cut across all fields of research.

Preventing the reproduction of coloniality in our work requires ongoing effort and commitment to deepening and expanding our knowledge about democracy and democratic innovations. We must do so, moreover, in ways which recognise the experiences and knowledges of all peoples.

This includes our own practices, through self-reflexive research and co-design, student-practitioner community engagement, and continued partnership development. These are commitments that the sciences of the democracies should also make.

Number 63 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the  to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Paul Emiljanowicz
Paul Emiljanowicz
Project Manager of Participedia / Lecturer, Arts & Sciences Programme, McMaster University

Paul also lectures in the political science departments at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

He is an active member of the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa and the Global Development Section of the International Studies Association, as well as a board member for Demo.Reset: Deliberation in the Global South.

Paul's work is published in Postcolonial Studies [forthcoming], Third World Quarterly, Interventions, Small Axe, Democratization and Routledge, as well as in popular media outlets such as Africa is a Country and The Conversation. He is also completing a major manuscript under a University Press.

His research is focused on contributing to reconceptualising development, the state, and democracy by engaging with the ideas, experiences, and peoples who have traditionally been excluded from the canon(s).

From a global, relational and decolonial perspective, his work explores the social, political, and economic theories, ideas, networks and plans for the future, which emerge in liberation struggle and in the confrontation between peoples and injustice broadly defined.

He tweets @emiljanowicz

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