THE POINT OF PARTICIPATING. Researching the influence of public participation on the social capital of participants

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Despite calls for more bottom-up participation, a top-down perspective dominates the participation literature. This study offers a new, bottom-up perspective, by researching the participants’ perspective. The aim is to gain more insight into how participating affects those who participate, specifically focusing on the influence on social capital. It uses a comparative case study design to compare different types of participation processes. Four cases have been selected that can be placed on a continuum from bottom-up to top-down. Results show that bottom-up and top-down participation can both have a positive influence, but on different forms of social capital. However, one form of social capital does not necessarily exclude the other, and the participation process can even contribute to different forms of social capital at the same time. Three elements appear important in this respect: empowerment, meaningful cooperation, and structure or continuity. One of the most important lessons from this study is that participation can increase existing inequalities with regard to social capital and the positive influence of participation on social capital runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nonetheless, this study also shows that there are ways in which this process can be overcome.
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