The Paradox of Community Power: Cultural Processes and Elite Authority in Participatory Governance

Source: Jeremy R. Levine, Social Forces, Vol. 95 no. 3, March 2017
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From the abstract:
From town halls to public forums, disadvantaged neighborhoods appear more “participatory” than ever. Yet increased participation has not necessarily resulted in increased influence. This article, drawing on a four-year ethnographic study of redevelopment politics in Boston, presents an explanation for the decoupling of participation from the promise of democratic decision-making. I find that poor urban residents gain the appearance of power and status by invoking and policing membership in “the community”—a boundary sometimes, though not always, implicitly defined by race. But this appearance of power is largely an illusion. In public meetings, government officials can reinforce their authority and disempower residents by exploiting the fact that the boundary demarcating “the community” lacks a standardized definition. When officials laud “the community” as an abstract ideal rather than a specific group of people, they reduce “the community process” to a bureaucratic procedure. Residents appear empowered, while officials retain ultimate decision-making authority. I use the tools of cultural sociology to make sense of these findings and conclude with implications for the study of participatory governance and urban inequality.