A Critical Qualitative Study of the Relationship between Social Empowerment and
Participatory Democracy in the UK
Liverpool Hope University
To reference this article please use: Corbett, S. (2014) ‘A Critical Qualitative Study of the
Relationship between Social Empowerment and Participatory Democracy in the UK’,
International Journal of Social Quality, 4(1), pp.7-25.
The central aims of this article are, first, to theoretically explore the relationship between
social quality (in particular, the conditional factor of social empowerment) and participatory
democracy. This uses the democratic dialectic (Bernard 1999) as a normative guide to assess
democratic values. Second, the article describes how this theoretical discussion of the social
quality of participatory democracy can be operationalized in critical qualitative sociological
research. This offers a new direction for social quality research, which has thus far involved
theoretical development and the establishment and use of statistical indicators (Beck et al.
1998, 2001; van der Maesen and Walker 2012). The findings of two empirical case studies
are called in as evidence that, to different extents, participatory democratic settings can be
socially empowering. This research suggests implications for the full realization of social
quality in existing liberal and social democratic societies.
critical realism, participatory budgeting, participatory democracy, qualitative research, social
empowerment, social quality, worker cooperatives
In Britain today there is a generalized distrust of politicians (Hay 2007), increasing
disengagement from the political process (Stoker 2006) and disassociation between the
everyday lives of ordinary people and corporate politics in Westminster (Glasman 2010).
Dalton (2004: 1) argues that more generally, contemporary democracies face a challenge
posed not by an external competitor, but “from democracy’s own citizens, who have grown
distrustful of politicians, skeptical about democratic institutions, and disillusioned about how
the democratic process functions.” Moreover, the UK is now said to reside in a “post-
democracy,” where the capacities of ordinary people to influence the political process (and by
extension, to control their everyday lives) is severely constrained by corporate-dominated
politics (Crouch 2004).
A possible solution to this problem is to improve the quality of British democracy by
expanding democratic participation beyond formal liberal-representative politics into the
economy and civil society (Macpherson 1977). By emphasizing the values that underpin
democratic societies (focusing on the “social,” into which the political, cultural and economic
are incorporated) rather than the narrow liberal view of democratic politics, the value changes
needed can be explored. This has implications for the relationship between social quality
theory and democracy.
First, this article describes the democratic potential of social quality theory, focusing
on the conditional factor of social empowerment and participatory democratic theory.
Second, this discussion is operationalized in three democratic typologies, liberal, social and
participatory, which can be used to make sense of variants of existing and possible
democratic societies. The normative values that underpin the three typologies are explored
through the democratic dialectic model (Bernard 1999). The values of liberty, equality and
solidarity that constitute the dialectic form a normative guide to critically and empirically
assess the democratic quality of the two participatory democratic case studies. Third, the
innovative use of a critical methodology and qualitative methods in social quality research
are explained, drawing in particular on the sociological and philosophical theory that
underpins social quality. Fourth, the results of the two case studies are briefly presented. The
first is a worker cooperative that distributes whole foods internationally. The second is a local
government participatory budgeting initiative that grants local citizens the democratic power
to decide on the allocation of funds for community and voluntary groups. These highlight, to
different extents, the realization of multiple dimensions of social empowerment in
participatory democratic settings.
Social Quality and Participatory Democracy
Social quality has an under-explored affinity with participatory democratic theory, given that
both emphasize participation by people in social relations that enhance their “well-being,
capacities, and potential” (Beck et al. 2012: 68). This section explores the claims of both.
This research shares the view of Herrmann (2012: 201) that social empowerment is the core
value of social quality:
[A]s much as social quality aims in general at overcoming the methodological
individualism which underlies – explicitly or implicitly – most of social science, it is
in particular the centrality of empowerment as an objective component that makes it
possible to grasp the dialectical relationship between the actor and structure and thus
between the individual and soci(et)al.
The implication of the centrality of social empowerment is that other aspects, such as socio-
economic security, social cohesion or social inclusion, without empowerment are not
sufficient for social quality.
Herrmann (2012) posits that existing policy on empowerment does not invoke a
meaningful critique of power relations or societal structures and emphasizes individual
responsibility (Cabinet Office 2011; DCLG 2008). This reflects a methodological
individualist approach to the policy process, which implicitly contributes to an increasing
individualization and marketization of society (Corbett and Walker 2013). Social
empowerment instead adopts a social relational perspective underpinned by attention to both
individual and collective concerns as aspects of the social, which is formed by the
intersection of individual self-realization and the development of collective identities (Beck
et al. 2012).
Attention to this highlights two possible approaches to empowerment, the first being a
technical application of policies centered on the individual that leave the structural aspects of
relations of (dis)empowerment uncontested (an aspect of liberalism), and a second “vision of
increasing the power of the individual in control over his/her own life,” which necessitates
attention to deeper social relational change (Herrmann 2012: 206). The empirical application
of social empowerment centers not only on how the individual can develop the knowledge to
“cope with given structural situations,” but also draws attention to the transformative
possibilities of enabling “the person, individually or socially to adapt to a given situation; to
cope with changes of situations; and to actively influence societal developments, that is to
evoke and maintain changes” (Herrmann 2012: 202–203).
This concept is pertinent for examining democratic societies, as social empowerment
refers to “the degree to which the personal capabilities and the ability of people to act are
enhanced by social relations” (Herrmann 2012: 202). Echoing social empowerment,
participatory democratic theory asserts that participation in democratic relationships can
enable people to develop the skills and knowledge to be active citizens in their communities
and workplaces (Schugurensky 2010).
This is in contrast to dominant views of representative democracy. These include
Schumpeter’s (1976: 269) mid-twentieth-century view of competitive elitist democracy as an
“institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the
power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” In this view, elite
groups of political leaders compete for the support of the people, suggesting that power is
held by elites over the majority of citizens, rather than politicians acting as delegates of the
popular will of the people. This reduces the role of citizens to that of disempowered and
passive consumers, choosing between political brands that are presented to them. Such a view
is echoed in the contemporary criticisms of representative democracy described in the
introduction to this article. This suggests strong limitations to the possibility of social
empowerment and increased social quality in the context of competitive elitism in existing
Instead, participatory democratic theory expands the concepts of “politics” and
“democracy” beyond the narrow limits of representative democratic political institutions and
proposes that democracy can have a role in everyday life. This relates to the social quality
emphasis on the “social” as the locus for theorizing and policy making, rather than the
narrower “economic” or “political.” Despite limited empirical application, the participatory
democratic approach provides a rich tradition of critique of existing democratic societies
from the critical standpoint of alternatives (Pateman 1970; Macpherson 1977; Barber 1984;
Gould 1988; Wright 2010). Participatory democratic theory emphasizes the need for more
democratic and egalitarian social relationships, based on institutional changes for increased
citizen participation in political and economic decision making (Zittel 2007).
For example, Pateman (1970) argues that the democratization of working life would
enable citizens to develop the skills and competencies for wider participation in society.
While “partial participation” in day-to-day workplace decision making (but not the overall
running and long-term business strategy) is seen as a minimum requirement and a viable aim,
the ideal for a wider, fully participative democratic society is “full participation”: “a process
where each individual member of a decision-making body has equal power to determine the
outcome of decisions” in society (Pateman 1970: 70–71).
Five criticisms of participatory democracy can be considered. These include “forcing”
people to participate, the complexity of modern society, the incapacity of citizens to
participate adequately, possible instability and the burden of proof on participatory
democracy as transformative of self and society. First, Berlin (2002) argues that such a form
of democracy would “force” individuals to participate, reducing their (negative) freedom,
with potentially totalitarian implications. However, Zittel (2007: 12) cites a plurality of
possible outcomes from participatory democracy:
Participatory theory does not substitute political choice with self-transformation as
totalitarianism does. It argues rather that expanding citizens’ rights to affect policy
choices has to be paralleled by a process of political socialization and self-
transformation to balance the pursuit of private interest with a sense of collective
responsibility. Choice and education stand in complementary relationship rather than
being substitutes for each other.
This suggests that people are not compelled to participate, but that empowered participation
may have beneficial collective and individual outcomes. The next three criticisms are the
complexity of modern society, the assumed incapacity of citizens to make good decisions and
the potential for instability in a participatory system (Budge 2012). While these criticisms are
often leveled at the naïve view of directly applying Athenian democracy at the societal level
to modern capitalist societies, Bobbio (1987: 52–53) argues that
the historical forms of representative and direct democracy are so many and varied
that one cannot pose the issue in terms of either/or, as if there was only one possible
version of each. The problem of the transition from one to the other can only be posed
in terms of a continuum, where it is difficult to say at which one point one finishes
and the other begins.
While this highlights a necessary distinction between simple direct democracy and
participatory democracy, which can incorporate elements of direct participation and aspects
of representation, such as “revocable representatives” (Bobbio 1987: 53), most participatory
theories are more nuanced and accept the need for delegated representation and deliberation.
Differences between representative and participatory democracy are a matter of degree.
The final criticism is that, while defendable in theoretical terms, participatory
democratic theory’s claims to increasing self-development (and social empowerment) “does
not meet its burden of proof” (Warren 1992: 8). Teorell (2006: 795, emphasis in the original)
argues that participatory democratic theory is premised on the assumption that “if
opportunities for participation in direct decision-making were widespread – at the workplace,
in the neighborhood, in the local community or elsewhere – then self-development would
ensue.” By examining the social quality of participatory democracy, this research contributes
to both the theoretical and empirical bases for this claim.
The application of participatory democratic principles to the institutions of work and
civil society are therefore appropriate areas to assess social empowerment. Despite the
relative lack of empirical validation of these claims, this research asserts that the claims of
participatory theorists can be evidenced to different extents in the two case studies presented
here. Moreover, participatory democracy does not simply require institutional change but also
“changes in the relations among people” based on democratic values (Gould 1988: 249). The
attention to normative values can help to make sense of the social relational changes required
as part of institutional changes for more democratic participation and social empowerment.
The Democratic Dialectic and Democratic Typologies
The democratic dialectic is a normative guide for empirically examining the democratic
complexion of the cases. Bernard (1999) highlights the three interrelated constitutive values
of liberty, equality and solidarity that make up the dialectic:
[T]rue liberty is only possible for people who are relatively equal and who share
certain values, at least that of liberty; true equality cannot be that of slaves, and it is
based on a sense of a common destiny; and solidarity becomes meaningless if it is not
freely assumed and if it does not serve to combat social exclusion. On the other hand .
. . liberty, especially economic liberty and even more its neo-liberal form, obviously
threatens equality, and it reduces solidarity to interpersonal action; the unchecked
pursuit of equality can drown liberty in uniformity and prevent solidarity from taking
form and demanding a commitment; some interpretations of solidarity can become the
enemies of liberty and serve as a pretext for the perpetuation of inequalities.
Therefore, the values of liberty, equality and solidarity can conflict in different societal
circumstances (neo-liberalism, for example, is corrosive of equality and solidarity).
Moreover, when applied to different models of democratic society, drawn from Esping-
Andersen’s (1999) typologies of welfare regimes, each of the values of the dialectic are
subject to competing interpretations (table 1).
Social capital (by-
product of self-
Social and system
Table 1: Values of the Democratic Dialectic
Liberal democracy emphasizes individual freedom from interference (negative liberty;
Berlin 2002), libertarian rights as the equal right, but not means, to compete in the market
(Nozick 1974) and solidarity as a by-product of the self-interested actions of competing
individuals (Coleman 1988). These dialectical values have implications for the societal
institutions and culture of liberal democratic societies, as reflected in Esping-Andersen’s
(1999: 74–75) typology of liberal democratic welfare regimes as restrictive of social rights by
emphasizing “an unbounded faith in market sovereignty [including] a political commitment
to minimize the state, to individualize risks, and to promote market solutions.” This suggests
in liberal democracy a strong orientation to market individualism and a narrow role for
Social democracy, on the other hand, suggests freedom as the positive liberty to
achieve ends through the enablement and moral guidance of the state (Green 1997), equality
as compensation for bad brute luck (for example, the provision of welfare support in a
capitalist society; Dworkin 1981) and solidarity as social capital (Putnam 2000); networks of
norms and trust form a civic sphere separate (and ultimately subordinate to) the competitive
nature of economic relationships (Fine 2010). Likewise, Esping-Andersen (1999) argues that
social democratic welfare regimes have historically placed more emphasis on universalism,
comprehensive risk coverage and decent benefit levels, underpinned by egalitarian
conceptions of social solidarity and a commitment to full employment (though this has
become increasingly compromised by workfare and conditionality perspectives). However,
this model, in Britain at least, has been seen historically to promote a clientalistic and
disempowered notion of citizenship, reflecting a residual individualism at the heart of
traditional social democracy (Kerr 1981).
The liberal and social democratic typologies can be conceived as opposing ends of a
single continuum, due to their broad basis in accepting different variants of capitalism:
Social democracy accepts, rightly or wrongly, that, for all its faults, liberal democracy
works: it is the fundamental basis for democracy, even if it can be improved and
reformed for the better. Capitalism is accepted – it can deliver growth and wealth.
However, capitalism is not all good, it can lead to inequalities and deprivation which
need to be mitigated through government intervention. (Martell 2001: 206)
They can also be viewed as ideal types, suitable as analytical categories, but that must be
pragmatically considered in empirical analysis. Britain, for example, sits between the two
ideal types; however, despite rhetorical claims to empowerment and localism, the policy
direction of recent UK governments is moving Britain closer to the ideal liberal type (Corbett
and Walker 2012, 2013; Taylor-Gooby and Stoker, 2011).
The third typology does not have an empirical or historical referent at the societal
level but is proposed to optimize the democratic dialectic values in a “positive equilibrium”
(Phillips 2006: 161). This change in societal values may be a necessary aspect of a broader
structural and cultural transformation to a society that is less liberal individualist and
capitalist and is more collectivist and socialist in its organization (Wright 2010). Freedom as
self-development acknowledges the social nature of human beings, which requires both the
absence of external constraint and the presence of the conditions that enable social beings to
realize the self in social relationships (Gould 1988). Relational egalitarianism focuses on
relationships of equal moral worth and respect, with a concern for equality of the social
relationships in which goods are distributed, along with the just distribution of goods
themselves (E. Anderson 1999). Social and system integration recognizes the need for
solidarity to comprise integration at the levels of both social relationships and institutions
(Lockwood 1999). The combination of the three values indicates that for a society to be
socially empowering and, consequently, to have a higher level of social quality, it should be a
more participatory democratic one. The following cases explore this theoretical assertion in
Using Social Quality in Qualitative Research: Critical Methodology and Methods
Social quality theory is premised on the assumptions that humans are social beings, and that
they realize themselves and establish a multitude of collective identities in social
relationships that are constitutively interdependent. This means that “people as social beings .
. . interact with each other, and these interactions constitute a diversity of collective identities
which provide the contexts for their self-realization and which lead to manifestations of the
social . . . a person’s self-realization is enabled through interaction with various collective
identities” (Beck et al. 2012: 46). This suggests, following the critical realist perspective of
Bhaskar (1989: 6), that “contrary to the tradition of contemporary social democracy, socialist
[democratic] emancipation depends on the transformation of structures, not the amelioration
of states of affairs . . . it consists in a move or transition from unneeded, unwanted and
oppressive, to needed, wanted, and empowering sources of determination.” A further
assumption of social quality theory is therefore that societal values are normative
assumptions that can be defended or challenged through social scientific research, and that
social quality research can highlight new policy options and social changes oriented to social
justice (Beck et al. 2012).
Constitutive interdependency is important in relation to democratic dialectic values
because critical social science often emphasizes emancipation (Bhaskar 1989). However, as
Sayer (2011: 225–226) argues, “[i]n one-sidedly emphasizing freedom and seeing constraint
as necessarily problematic, such critiques have a libertarian, individualist and masculinist
character, and fail to acknowledge that we are dependent social beings, only able to live
through others, and reliant on the care of others for significant parts of our lives.” Therefore,
social quality assumptions about the social and the constitutively interdependent nature of
humans as social beings recognize the possibility of structural transformation based on
principles of social justice in which equality and solidarity may be integral values alongside
freedom. In other words, the optimization of participatory democratic values is important for
increased social quality.
From this basis the critical realist ontological and epistemological positions that
underpin this research can be elucidated. Critical realist ontology is explained by Bhaskar
(1989: 180–182) as the “intransitive” dimension: “a conception of reality, including
knowable reality, [which is] only contingently, partially and locally humanized.” Danermark
and colleagues (2002: 199) describe the stratified nature of reality as consisting of the level of
the “real” where generative mechanisms exist (whether they actually produce an effect or
not). The level of the “actual” is where these structural mechanisms produce a factual event,
which may or may not be experienced. Should an event be experienced, it falls into the
domain of the “empirical.” This means that the domain in which empirical sociological
research works – the empirical – is a smaller subset of a wider ontological realm. Therefore,
theory is necessary to understand deeper generative mechanisms in society.
Moreover, awareness of the ontological limits to empirical social science avoids the
epistemic fallacy whereby “statements about being can be reduced to or analyzed in terms of
statements about knowledge” (Bhaskar 1978: 36). Instead, critical realism proceeds on the
basis that social science studies take place in an open system, whereby “the generative
mechanisms . . . operate in a complex interaction with other mechanisms, which either co-
operate with or work against the mechanism in question” (Danermark et al. 2002: 199). The
critical realist epistemology therefore proposes that social scientific knowledge has a social
nature. Critical researchers must use a methodology that engages with both empirical data
and theoretical analysis, as “knowledge is structured by existing sets of social relations”
(Harvey 1990: 2). This justifies a critical methodological approach that is open to a range of
research methods (Danermark et al.: 2002).
This research has therefore adopted a methodology that is theoretically grounded but
is driven by empirical case studies. The central object of study is participatory democratic
values in the cases. The second object of study is the concept of social empowerment: how
power relationships in these democratic social settings can enable individuals to develop their
capabilities. Qualitative methods are appropriate to explore the experiences of individuals in
relation to the contingent social structures that frame these experiences. Through a process of
critical reflexivity (G. Anderson 1989) the experiences of individuals in these participative
democratic settings have been interpreted, described and contrasted with wider societal
contexts. The research also highlights the tensions and contradictions between the empirical
practices of participatory democracy in the two case studies and the theoretical analysis of
wider societal structures in Britain by the reference to democratic typologies.
Carspecken’s (1996) five stages for conducting research were used to guide the
empirical fieldwork and analysis. This process operationalizes the theory-laden but
empirically driven approach described above. With a critical realist inflection, the five stages
1. Observations (monological data generation)
2. Reflection on observations (reconstructive analysis)
3. Interviews (dialogical data generation)
4. Analysis of structural relations in the case (critical reflexivity on data and theory)
5. Explaining findings (assessing the findings in relation to deeper causal mechanisms
and wider social relations)
The stages are not a step-by-step procedure but are a loose cyclical guideline. Stage one
requires direct observations (data generated solely from the researcher’s perspective). Stage
two consists of analytical reflection on the observations, which considers “cultural themes
and system factors that are not observable and are usually unarticulated by the actors
themselves” (Carspecken 1996: 42). Dialogical data generation through interviews is the third
stage, which adds the views of the research participants to the account, and which “will often
challenge information collected in stage one and analyzed in stage two” (Carspecken 1996:
42). Movement back and forth between these three stages allows the researcher to develop a
critical reflexive interpretation of the data.
Stage four emerges as a result of this “progressive focus” (Stake 1995: 133), which
links more explicitly the case findings and themes to the theoretical framing. This begins the
process of situating the data in relation to the broader theoretical perspective. Stage five
develops explanations of the data by linking the findings to structures in society. In critical
realist terms, this means linking the empirical findings to the broader theoretical analysis of
deeper structural mechanisms operating in democratic societies to highlight possibilities for
transformative social action.
A benefit of having a theoretical orientation that provides grounding and guides the
case study is that it can help to focus the vast amount of data generated in qualitative work,
with attention to particular data that is relevant to the theoretical concerns of the research.
Therefore, despite the limitation of statistical generation from case studies, this research aims
at analytical generalization to theoretical propositions that can stimulate and develop future
social quality research (Yin 2009).
The empirical fieldwork consisted of direct observations (in order to understand the
cultures, structures and practices of the cases) and in-depth semi-structured interviews (in
order to generate rich qualitative data pertaining to the research participants’ understanding of
democracy and empowerment in each case). The worker cooperative case study consisted of
twenty-one semi-structured interviews and six observations, along with informal observation
at the research site and the collection of documentary data. The participatory budgeting case
study included twenty-three semi-structured interviews, four observations at multiple
research sites and the use of documentary data. Reflexive analysis by the researcher enabled
the emergent data to be linked to the theoretical concerns developed above to construct the
Social Empowerment in Two Participatory Democratic Settings
This section highlights some of the key findings from the qualitative case studies. The
discussion focuses on the data relating to participatory democracy and social empowerment.
The conclusion tentatively suggests the implications of this for social quality research and
democratic societies more generally.
The study of a whole food wholesaler worker co-op in northern England revealed that
participatory democratic values are present in its organizational structure, culture, practices
and social relationships, though some problems are identified. Further, nine dimensions of
social empowerment are identified that correspond with the extent to which individuals
participate in the co-op’s democracy.
The co-op has grown in membership from seven founders in 1977 to over 120
members in 2012. The business is socially owned, as the co-op is not formally owned by the
workers, and therefore cannot be subject to takeover by other businesses. Instead, each
worker retains a £1 share in the business that has no re-sale value, so that no member can
make a claim to the assets. This ensures that while every member has a right to use the assets,
no one can make personal financial gain from the business itself.
Despite the fact that it does not need to generate vast profits to appease shareholders
(simply breaking even will ensure that the workers get paid and customer orders are
fulfilled), it has continued to grow profitably. With increases in turnover and the wage bill,
net profit averaged £245,008 per year between 2002 and 2011, with a low of £5,653 in 2003
and a high of £397,791 in 2011.
Change is central to the continued success of the co-op. The desire by members to
renew the way in which the co-op works shows awareness that new and innovative ways of
working and managing must be found for it to avoid degeneration to the capitalist form
through the rise of a managerial elite (Cornforth 1995). This is evidenced in the current flat
management structure, which requires the election of a management committee (MC) that is
charged with day-to-day decision making.
A concern with avoiding centralized power is at the heart of the participatory
democracy, as the MC is a system of delegated authority. It is granted the power to
implement the democratically agreed business plan, but if the MC is perceived to not be
acting in the interests of the co-op, then the membership can recall the delegates. This
suggests that the extent of representation and participation in the co-op is a matter of degree.
It is also a structure that is in flux due to the reflexivity of democratic control.
The co-op is organized on the principle of self-management, which suggests freedom as self-
development. This is because the workers must abide by a “members job description” that
emphasizes the need to multi-skill (taking on a range of job roles throughout the business on
a weekly basis) and rotate jobs (moving through different areas over time, gaining a holistic
knowledge of the organization). As each member is equal owner of the business (with equal
wages), they must use their individual initiative to develop their knowledge and skills and
must work cooperatively. The organization provides training and opportunities for members
to experience different areas of the business in order to enable individual self-development
within a collectively run organization. This indicates that people who work at the co-op are
viewed as social beings, rather than atomistic individuals. As one interviewee put it, “Co-
operation is about being autonomous . . . [it] means that you can be a human being, so long as
you recognize you’re a social human being” (my emphasis).
Relational egalitarianism is central to the culture of the co-op. Relationships of
equality are underpinned by the commitment to equal wages (legitimized by the opportunity
for job mobility) and the fundamental principle of one person, one vote in collective decision
making. In addition, the co-op’s egalitarian culture is evident in the practice of job roles
being seen as “functions” rather than “status roles.” This is described by a member: “I have
the power to bring about change . . . No one can actually tell me what to do without my
consent . . . there is no one here that is in a position to order me to do something or who’s in a
position to try and to treat me without respect because their status is equal to mine.” A
centralization of power within certain job functions is avoided by movement of workers
around the business.
Finally, solidarity as social and system integration is evidenced in the co-op and
provides a link to social empowerment. Democratic member ownership and control over
work practices, norms and rules of the organization, including financial decisions, contributes
to stability and security, which in turn increase a sense of belonging and collective identity.
This is described by one worker as very important:
The biggest thing for me has been knowing what’s going on. I’ve actually been made
redundant four times in my career . . . so from that perspective [this] is a lot better
because it’s so open, the whole process, the whole democracy is very open; you can
read minutes of meetings, go to meetings [and I can] participate and put my point of
These values are described below as the solidaristic bases of social empowerment. However,
there are issues with participatory democracy in this workplace. These include the division of
labor, class backgrounds and skills, and habituation to workplace democracy.
Despite job mobility, there are some perceptions of divisions between “office
workers” and “warehouse workers.” An interviewee described how those who work in the
warehouse most of the time feel less involved with decision making: “The people that are just
[doing manual work], day in and day out . . . they can’t log on [to a computer] . . . I think they
don’t feel part of the business.” Another interviewee agrees: “We’re not necessarily good at
empowering people who have non-desk jobs.” This highlights the value of multi-skilling for
ensuring that the equal wage structure is perceived to be a fair system, and for more equal
opportunities to participate in the democracy.
In the early years, the co-op was perceived to be middle class, owing to the
backgrounds and degree level of education of the vast majority of members. However, with a
move to a more working-class area, the composition of the workforce has changed to include
more workers from manual occupational backgrounds. This increasing diversity is a
challenge for the principle of job mobility. Although some argue that more multi-skilling and
job rotation could take place to reduce divisions, one interviewee states that “we’ve got
plenty of well-educated, articulate people driving trucks, and we have got people who, maybe
before they came [here] had never used a computer, but are now working in sales or working
in accounts.” This mobility and skills development is facilitated by relational egalitarianism
(everyone has the opportunity to self-develop as equals) and an emphasis on learning new
skills, taking responsibility and self-management.
A further concern for the realization of participatory democracy in the co-op is
habituation. Over time democracy can come to be taken for granted. This has the potential to
disempower the collective if active participation declines. An interviewee pointed out that
“we often take our vote and our chance to just stand up and say ‘I don’t agree with that’ . . .
for granted and . . . we don’t use our vote well enough for things like the business plan.”
However, the co-op’s continued financial success suggests that this is a minor concern,
though this requires sustained high levels of participation to maintain legitimacy.
Despite the issues with workplace democracy highlighted above, the broader optimization of
the democratic dialectic values in the co-op’s participatory democratic structures provides the
conditions to realize multiple dimensions of social empowerment (table 2). These include
security, stability and collective identity as solidaristic bases of social empowerment that
support engagement in the democratic process. These values are evident in the openness of
information in the organization and subsequent strong identification by interviewees within
the group as a collective.
The passive dimensions of social empowerment are autonomy, welfare and flexibility.
These are possible for all members as they require relatively little engagement with
democracy, but are protected by democratic control. These three sources of social
empowerment relate to quality of working life issues such as freedom within the workplace
(the ability to multi-skill and rotate jobs, for example) and decent levels of (equal) pay,
including flexible holiday entitlements and annual pay rises.
Active dimensions of social empowerment are available to members that participate
in the co-op’s democratic structures. In this sense the co-op is unequal, as not all workers take
advantage of these dimensions. These are self-development, ownership and control, which
emerge through taking on responsibilities and developing skills. As one interviewee states:
“You’ve got control of what you do, democracy is not just about being able to vote . . .
you’ve got to be responsible for the business as well as your own personal needs.” Though
social empowerment is present in the co-op in multiple dimensions, individuals may be
limited by their preferences (whether to take on democratic responsibilities or not), class
backgrounds and skills, and habituation to workplace democracy over time, as described
bases of social
Available to all
Available to all
Table 2: Dimensions of Social Empowerment
The second case study addresses a local government participatory budgeting (PB) process in
a metropolitan borough in northern England that allows citizens to directly vote on projects
presented by members of local voluntary and community groups. PB is a form of decision
making that allows “the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or
allocation of public finances” (Sintomer et al. 2008: 168). The metropolitan borough has a
population of around 215,000 people and has experienced post-industrial decline from an
economy previously based on manufacturing, especially textiles and engineering, food
industries and computer products, to a now-dominant service industries sector.
The PB process funds not-for-profit local groups that provide sports clubs, youth
centers, residents’ associations, allotments associations, pre-school clubs and other
community-based projects. The process originated in a 2010 PB pilot that was run by the
local police. A larger PB process was subsequently implemented the next year with one event
in each of the eight regional districts across the borough. This ensures that local community
and voluntary groups in each local area are able to access their own pot of money.
This participatory democratic process replaced several small grants and discretionary
funds. However, the pooling of community funding money has also coincided with a
significant reduction in the funding available from the local council, in the context of cuts to
local government finances imposed by the UK national government (Taylor-Gooby and
Stoker 2011). For example, total funding in 2011 of £500,000 replaced the £1 million
allocated in 2010 (in 2012 this was reduced further to £440,000). Groups were given a
maximum of £2,000–2,500 to apply for in 2012, compared with £5,000 in 2010.
The PB process evidences incipient dimensions of social empowerment. These are
limited by control of the process residing with the local council rather than with citizens. The
votes take place once a year in local districts within the borough and allow £70,000 to be
allocated by direct democratic votes by citizens in each district for community and voluntary
projects that aim to improve local quality of life.
Opportunities for freedom as self-development are limited by the transitory participation that
people have in the annual votes and council control over the process. The design of the
democratic innovation involves citizens directly in the vote, but the process is carefully
managed by the council, and there are no opportunities for citizens to reflexively challenge
and change aspects of the PB process. Despite this, there are also some aspects of self-
development, as some participants discovered more opportunities for community
involvement and increasing capabilities.
The PB process evidences formal equality in the vote (one person, one vote). The
event is also open to anyone who lives in the postcode area to attend and vote. This is seen as
“foundational,” along with the requirement that citizens allocate a vote to every group that
presents. Some relational egalitarianism is evidenced in the sense that citizens were
presenting and voting among equals. As one participant put it, in the PB process “you’re
talking to your peers, it didn’t feel like you were begging for humble pie from the governors,
it was from our friends and neighbors.” This was also traced to the shared process, sense of
togetherness and not seeing other groups as competitors, which also indicates a developing
social integration: “I had a lot of faith in the credibility and integrity of those people; that
they would actually choose what they thought would be valuable to the community . . . I do
like the feeling that it’s almost the village taking the decisions and not the government.”
With regard to solidarity, the emphasis on formal equality in the structure of the event
is to some extent integrative for the groups that participate. The process of taking part as
equals in the community has the potential to strengthen groups and embed them within wider
civil society in the local area. In addition to this, the requirement that all participants vote for
each group (an aspect of equality) increases awareness of the work of the groups in the area.
One participant stated that the PB vote “raise[s] awareness in the community about projects,
but also it encourages other people to reflect on the value of what is going on.” These system
integration factors provide the conditions for social integration. There is potential for
integration, as participating in the event increases opportunities for citizens to engage in more
community participation and encourages networking between groups.
In addition to the absence of citizen control and transitory participation (in relative
comparison to the democratic workplace), weaknesses in the PB process include parochialism
and social exclusion. Parochialism is evident in the votes, where some groups that were
perceived by citizens to be operating outside of the locality (when in fact they were not) lost
out in the vote. Further, as much information about the PB process and how to apply is
online, there is a concern that already socially excluded groups in the more deprived areas are
less likely to be included in the process. This is especially a concern of some local politicians,
where larger groups may in time come to see PB as a funding stream and dominate the
The PB process has less evidence of social empowerment when compared with the worker
co-op. Therefore, these values are incipient, suggesting that they have the potential to develop
into greater instances of social empowerment should the process become more embedded in
the local community and more participative in its design. Table 3 highlights voting, critical
engagement and strengthening civil society groups as intrinsic dimensions, as they are
conscious aspects of the institutional design included by the council. This includes the design
of the voting process that requires citizens to rank answers to questions on a Likert scale,
which encourages them to reflect on the value of the project for the local area. Some
interviewees (but not all) reported that the PB process had enabled them to critically engage
with local issues and the value of proposed projects for the local area, and to question the
funding priorities of the local council. The application process also supports community
groups to become formally constituted, which helps to deepen the structure of the groups.
Table 3: Incipient Dimensions of Social Empowerment
Ancillary dimensions are also identified. These have developed unintentionally from
citizen involvement in the events. Self-development occurs through citizens devising and
presenting projects to the community, which increases their confidence and assertiveness,
especially for those from vulnerable backgrounds. One interviewee stated that
the young person that I [presented] with . . . she is in foster care, she has had a bit of a
tough time and she really didn’t want to do it [but] she did it . . . that was only three
weeks ago, the event, and you can see there’s a little bit more confidence, little bit of a
swagger in her walk . . . as if to say, “Yeah, if I can stand there in front of all them
and do that, I can do anything.”
Other dimensions include networking, which takes place in relative conditions of equality as
democratic participants, and increased community participation, as some interviewees
indicated that, inspired by the voting event, they had since participated more in their
The two participatory democratic settings indicate the relevance of social quality, viewed
here in terms of social empowerment. The multiple dimensions of social empowerment
identified suggest that more active participation in democratic structures increases the level of
empowerment available to the co-op members and the opportunities open to them for
increasing capabilities and well-being. With the limits described above, the PB process has
potential for social empowerment, and this is evidenced by opportunities for self-
development, formal equality and some aspects of relational egalitarianism, inclusion in
democratic decision making, deepening community networks and increasing community
While the empirical case studies display evidence of participatory democratic values
to different extents, more broadly, the UK is theoretically conceptualized as being in between
the ideal types of liberal democracy and social democracy. In terms of democratic dialectic
values, then, the case studies are relatively unique and at odds with the prevailing values of
individualism and market competition that characterize an increasingly liberal democratic
society. Especially under the influence of neo-liberal theory and policy since the late 1970s, a
narrow and primitive understanding of negative liberty has been prioritized as the central
normative value underpinning British democratic ideas and institutions. This renders the
cases as antagonistic to wider British institutions and culture, with values and practices that
have potential for broader societal changes.
Given the argument developed in this research, the solution to Britain’s democratic
disillusionment is not simply a renewal of trust in the role of elected politicians, nor in a
renewal of the mid-twentieth-century compromise between capital and labor (traditional
social democracy), but is likely to necessitate the creation of new participatory democratic
institutions and culture in society. This requires broader societal engagement with the
concerns of social quality and, especially, social empowerment. The empirical case studies
provide tentative directions for policy changes with regard to citizen involvement in local
government and democratic ownership of workplaces. These are contingent on future
research due to the absence of statistical generalization from case studies (Yin 2009).
Toward this end, improved social quality involves a critical reflexive engagement
with the democratic values that underpin the notion of participation and the structure of
democratic institutions. Put simply, where participatory democracy is advocated, it should not
just be a case of “bringing citizens back in” through engagement with existing democratic
structures, but also bringing in the values of liberty, equality and solidarity in a positive
equilibrium appropriate for full democracy and the structural transformation of institutions
that this entails.
The implications of this research for social quality are significant, as this article
suggests that social quality is intimately related to democracy as a fundamental aspect of
participation in social relationships conducive to the improvement of societal well-being.
Furthermore, it also suggests that social quality may not be fully realizable in liberal
democratic or social democratic societies, given the distance between the values that
underpin these societies and the optimized dialectical values of participatory democracy. The
extent to which social quality can be flexibly and meaningfully realized in existing
democratic societies is an open question for future research.
Steven Corbett received his PhD in political sociology for his dissertation on “The Social
Quality of Participatory Democracy” in 2014. He is currently a research associate at the
University of Sheffield. His research interests include power and empowerment, political
ideology and practice, democratic values and institutions, localism and citizen participation,
cultural participation, critical social policy, and social quality. He has recently published
critical analyses of the UK government’s “big society” idea, co-authored with Alan Walker.
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