Meaning of citizen participation

In our latest google hangout Maria mentioned the coming election in Sweden and pointed out the possibility of ’parallel public spheres’, the mainstream media and other groups centered around different interests, usually taking place on the internet. I would like to elaborate further on this and bring in the research from Cammaerts into the discussion. Studies on media, civil action and participation show that 1) the definition of citizenship has turned into consumerism and cultural citizenship 2) the mainstream media is failing to voice the concerns of its citizens.

When talking to people in general I am usually struck by how unengaged people are in politics. Especially young people, seem to have completely lost their trust in mainstream media and instead finding alternative news channels on the internet. Others feel that the real issues are never really discussed in the public sphere, and therefore don’t act their right to express themselves. Since the commercialization of media, the political dimension of communication seems more and more absent pushing its citizens to find alternative spheres. However, whether public spheres are created on the internet or in mainstream media, ’real participation’ of the citizen must directly adress power, according to professor Jan Servaes. It suggests that, we can have diverse media channels and so called ’free choice’ among them without having real participation. Sociologist Zygmund Bauman argues that the freedom of choice for the European citizen is shrinking, since the the tool of power of participation that lied within the law and and legislation has been transfered to the markets.

Participation in democracy today, in my opinion, is not so much about ’real participation’ but about information, services and choice of entertainment content. The case of the postal service in Finland illustrates well how the citizen is not only caught between disfunctional media and a company but also how the municipalities constrain citizen participation. The background story is that the The Finish Postal Service wanted to rationalize their postal services and ordered the residents to move the local citizens mail boxes, the citizens opposed this and organized themselves.

The municipalites in Finland (like in Sweden) usually adress their citizens as ’clients’ offering services rather than including them into participatory processes of real decision- making. The local media also acted in opposition to the citizens, demonstrating the failure of media to politicize the concerns of the residents. Auli Harju argues that traditional journalism is molded in principles of autonomity and indepence that make the journalist want to take distance from the citizen, portraying the citizen as passive rather than as an actor in the civic society. In this case, the media posted the Postal Offices arguments as facts in the main news pages whereas the the residents voices was found in the local papers at the end. Secondly, media tends to focus on conflict and drama in stories, therefore making it even harder to create that public sphere for discussion among different groups and interests. Even though the local media covered the story, they did not follow up on questions regarding citizen participation, nor did they facilitate or maintain a public sphere for a dialogue to continue.

Returning to the idea of the parallel public spheres in the beginning of this post; If the citizen can’t rely on the media to politicize its concerns anymore and if the state and municipalities still define the citizen in the traditional way, as a receiver of information and services, where could the citizen have a real discussion on matters that concerns his/her life? How can community media challenge the commercial mass media and the old nation- state definition of citizenship?

/Dawood

2 comments

  1. I think this is such an important point that you are making, and I agree completely. It is almost scary how little citizens are involved in high-level political decisions that directly affect them. Too many decisions are made without involving the targeted population. It seems to me that involving citizens in decision processes and to maintain a dialogue should be very easy today with the use of the Internet etc. I think this opportunity is extremely underutilized and should be explored further. Despite the fact that just about everyone in Sweden for example, has access to the Internet, there is no platform used by the government to establish contact and maintain a dialogue…

  2. Hi!
    I know that the media (ironically?) reports on the supposed lack of political engagement of citizens in various countries around election times. That got me to investigating the US and Sweden’s voter turnout and found these links rather useful:
    US Voter Demographics of last election: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_12.html
    US voter numbers throughout history: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php
    Sweden’s voter turnout by age: http://www.scb.se/en_/Finding-statistics/Statistics-by-subject-area/Democracy/General-elections/General-elections-participation-survey/Aktuell-Pong/2010A01X/Behallare-for-Press/General-elections-electoral-participation-survey-2010/

    Statstics are always fun because people get to infer. Either we need to fear youth engagement with politics as failing, since the numbers are down are feel that there is a tendency for people to be more engaged when it comes to voting as they get older.

    When it comes to the media making “average” people a part of the process; has that ever been a priority? There are risks in a democracy regarding tyranny of the majority. Does a system of competing even private media companies allow for debate and provide a forum for academics and “experts” to present nuanced views to the public that care to watch or read? The danger of the social media and blogs is when everyday people like politicians become popular and perceived as trustworthy they can disseminate dangerous or simply erroneous views. I have a formed colleague writing about Nigeria in a blog that is getting a lot of attention. In a recent post, he said that the US’ funding of al-Qaeda during the Soviet-Afghan War is well-documented. If this was said in a newspaper or in a debate on TV one would hope that a competing side would point out the errors in that statement and viewers/readers would be wary of that person’s statements. We are not too far removed from the 20th century and the hateful politics. That is not to say that politicians are a type of Cicero or Cinncinnatus who who selflessly look after the ideals of their country or governing documents. My intention with this is more to offer another foil to engage with. I like the idea of citizens being more engaged in being involved with the important decisions made by politicians. I suppose their reasoning for not calling numerous referendums is because it is time consuming and the republican style of government is meant to rely on representatives representing their constituency. Do all citizens have the time and desire to inform themselves about all sides of an argument? Perspectives from the different social strata, gender, sexuality, race, effects on the environment, economy, etc? Theoretically, the politicians should, not that they can be trusted and maybe one politician does a poor job to us, but a great job to another. If the government is doing a good job does that explain the poor showing at the polls and vice versa? What to us is an informed citizen? Are we imposing our expectations on someone else? Then maybe that athletic guy down the street has the right to bang on my door and tell me to go run for an hour… everyday or just every other day. If I was better informed, I would do something like that. Or better motivated.