Review: “Democratizing Inequalities”

Lee, Caroline W., Michael McQuarrie, and Edward T. Walker. Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation

Reviewed by Marielle Alvino

February 17, 2015

Democratizing Inequalities brings light to the complex nature of civic involvement by questioning the role of  institutions we assume to be channeling our voices. This collection of essays, curated and assembled by Sociology professors Caroline W. Lee, Michael McQuarrie and Edward T. Walker studies the quandaries of our generation, who despite unprecedented levels of interconnectedness, faces a democratic deficit.

Stylistically clear and logically cohesive, it is written to please the novel scholar.  Nevertheless, the merit of this collection lies in its refusal to oversimplify the mechanisms of civic mobilization. Rather, it outlines innovative participatory trends in terms of tensions. Thus, the book is quick to warn us that inclusion venues can become a channel to legitimate elite rule. It reminds us that initiatives can serve as distortionary sources of public knowledge rather than accurate mediums of communication. In short, it demystifies public participation as an inherently inclusive and transparent practice.

Of particular notoriety is Michael McQuarrie’s chapter “No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority”. In it, MacQuarrie empirically defies the popular understanding of participation as a practice with normative effects. Instead, his study of Cleveland’s political crisis in the 1970s exemplifies the changing role of the concept of participation, morphing from a paradoxically unrepresentative channel of extremist dissent to a necessary political gauge for authority and civic socialization. Participation, McQuarrie thus claims, becomes a tool for the politician seeking his constituents’ approval.

Such gloomy findings may justify pessimistic prospects for activism. Nevertheless, taken as a whole these essays do precisely what its editors have ascribed: they pave the way towards a more critical awareness of public forms of participation. What they achieve is no small task.

By giving its reader diverse case studies differing across time and cause, Democratizing Inequalities immerses him into worker’s rights’ campaigns and Obama’s 2008 presidential race with comparable sophistication. In doing so, these essays instill a comprehensive knowledge of the underpinnings of participation initiatives. It is the dynamics and interactions of civil society actors, they explain collectively, which ultimately differentiates a sincerely representational project from a proxy war of interests.

The relevance of the text lies beyond the surfacing of this conundrum. In its conclusion, Lee, McQuarrie and Walker carve an insightful roadmap for future action. They ask we remain hopeful and engaged members of civil society despite mixed results. This last plight is not just void rhetoric. With this book, its authors have effectively endowed their readers with the critical skills and discernible reasoning to make these aspirations a reality.

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