by Bruna Hamerski*
Translated and reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
Reflecting on participation, I realized that throughout my career, my beliefs on the subject had changed. In part, because I came into contact with different theories and deepened my understanding of the subject. In part, because I began to understand the phenomenon better, as well as the peculiarities of its operation in Latin America. It is with this reflection that I want to start: my experience as an individual and the context in which I am inserted influenced my way of seeing the phenomenon of participation.
The questions that guide the essay are therefore related to two elements: (1) the importance of carrying out a transposition of theories on participation to the Brazilian reality and to the field of Public Administration (Ramos, 1996); and (2) the need to observe the individual himself, highlighting the contributions of Anthropology (Arendt, 2007; Domingos; Melé, 2021).
Talking about participation in Brazil is not an easy task. But a movement gained strength with the Covid-19 pandemic: digital participation, a context in which the emergence of democratic innovations stands out, as well as the migration of more traditional tools, such as councils, to the online format (Amâncio; Meneses Neto; Martins, 2021; Oliveira; Mendonça, 2022). Would online be a solution for increasing citizen participation in Brazil? My argument is that, for those who defend participation as an end, moving online can be a good strategy to insert layers excluded from participation. However, the individual perspective and sociological reduction must be employed in any investigation.
Revisiting sociological and anthropological reduction to citizen participation
The sociological reduction comes from Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, who argues that the formulation of theories that correspond to the Brazilian reality must start from facts, not from concepts. The author defends the use of sociological reduction to enable the researcher to transpose knowledge and experiences from one reality to another and from one area to another (Ramos, 1996). Therefore, it is necessary to go from the international context of theories to the Brazilian case and from political science, which is the origin of theories on participation, to public administration, which is the field of application.
Although there are participation researchers in Brazil, the surveys carried out do not carry out transpositions. The studies do not return to the theory they consider the most adequate to interpret that reality and make an adaptation. They present a theory, but it is not related to data collection and interpretation of reality.
Guerreiros Ramos argues that the displacement of concepts can be a valuable means of theoretical formulation in a new reality. However, it is necessary to be careful, as the inappropriate displacement from one area to another and from one context to another has produced results different from those expected in the organizational field (Ramos, 1989).
Studies on complex and sensitive phenomena have followed two paths: not going deeper into the analyzed phenomena or not applying the most complex methods. Sandberg and Alveson (2021) state that the predominant type of theory is the explanatory one. But why is the explanatory theory, given the existence of different approaches, the most used? The researchers’ possible difficulty seems to be the contextual transposition.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, phenomenology is the most suitable theory to investigate participation under individual bias. However, mapping the use of phenomenology in studies in the field of Public Administration, we saw that it is still rarely found. On the other hand, there are several elements of Public Administration with great potential for analysis from a phenomenological approach, such as culture, participation, and democracy.
Although little used, phenomenology is important to understand individual elements, such as the disbelief of individuals in the tools. An example is the following scenario: the individual engages in a practice in which he has a voice, but no vote. What’s the use of participating if everything has already been defined in advance? What’s the point if negotiations have already been made? What’s the point if the most important decisions have already been taken before any meeting? The individual perceives and does not see any sense, as he concludes that he is wasting his time.
Political inequality, although research may demonstrate it indirectly (Fucks; Perissinotto; Ribeiro, 2003; Vaz, 2013) is not formally perceived. Given the configuration of participation and the “right of all” to participate, political inequality is not admitted as existing because it should not exist. Guerreiro Ramos points out the characteristics of an individual who is aware of this, who places himself as a critic, who observes the contradictions and dilemmas of participation, and who understands the need to go beyond the functional, to analyze the existential (Ramos, 2001). And it is from this discussion that insights for citizen participation in Brazil emerge.
Insights for citizen participation in Brazil
The first insight is the contextual issue. Studies have not investigated important specifics of context in depth. Even if the key to participation has been hammered out for a long time, problems remain, most of them related to the context and the isolated individual. Understanding the Brazilian context is the first step to start working on overcoming the barriers to participation. In this context, the sociological reduction can help the researcher to delve deeper into the researched reality.
As a second insight, I would like to highlight a Brazilian characteristic: social inequality (Fucks; Perissinotto; Ribeiro, 2003;Vaz, 2013; Gohn, 2019). When looking at the Covid-19 pandemic, the Global Wealth report showed that the percentage of Brazilian wealth was even more concentrated in those who already held positions of privilege (Credit Suisse, 2021). The 2022 Oxfam Brazil report pointed out that, during the pandemic, a new billionaire emerged every 26 hours and inequality contributed to the death of one person every 4 hours and the 10 richest men in the world doubled their fortunes in this period, while the income of 99% of people fell (Ahmed et al., 2022).
But wouldn’t social inequality be linked to the institutional vision? If the researcher were to look at inequality indices, it could be said that yes. However, I argue about what is peculiar about each individual that influences their participation. When we add the sociological reduction to the individual perspective, I suppose it is possible to capture the two elements: the contextual issue – of inequality and other ills – but also how it affects the individual – and how it transforms into the meaning he attributes to participation, using phenomenology, this being the third insight.
The fourth insight is the understanding that analyzing the phenomenon of participation is subjective and doing research in itself involves this subjectivity. But in the case of citizen participation, the complexity is even greater. This is because there are several challenges: the historical context, the moments of retraction and expansion of participation, and the researcher’s worldview, among other elements.
Finally, I highlight observation from the individual perspective as the fifth insight. The institutional, which could be defined as the rules of the game, should help, but it is creating problems of participation, such as bureaucracy, the fact that citizens have a voice but no vote, and pre-formed agreements, implying distrust on the part of citizens. in institutions, when realizing that their participation, instead of generating consequences, is practically innocuous.
I conclude by arguing that any analysis that aims to investigate participation is not an easy task, because it implies knowing the context and the object of research. However, the combination of sociological reduction and the individual approach seems to me to be an adequate way to capture important nuances of the theme, fundamentally, if combined with phenomenology. It is not easy, but any path that aims to investigate the object of depth research is more difficult than it appears.
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* Bruna Hamerski is a doctoral candidate at Santa Catarina State University (UDESC). She has a BA in Administration from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS, 2014-2018), and an MA in Social Sciences from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS). Her research interests are centered on topics related to Public Administration, Political Science, Public Policy, Public Health and, the use of phenomenological perspectives and research criticism. She is currently part of the Public Policy and Development Research Group (CALLIPOLIS). Email: email@example.com.
Bruna Hamerski (2023) "Citizen participation in Brazil: Anthropology’s insights". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. Vol. 3 Num. 1. available at: https://bras-center.com/citizen-participation-in-brazil-anthropologys-insights/, accessed on: June 5, 2023.