The “Will to Participate”: Governmentality, Power, and Community-Based Participatory Research

Julia Elizabeth Janes


Although critiques of participatory development attend to knowledge/power, Anglo- American literature on community-based participatory research (CBPR) is largely silent on the politics of these collaborations. As the “will to participate” is increasingly normalized for communities and CBPR is naturalized as socially just research, it is crucial that we inquire into the uneven terrain of the collaborative encounter. The CBPR literature makes claims to emancipatory, empowering, and egalitarian relations that articulate a largely unproblematic, harmonious encounter. Yet these claims remain under-scrutinized. Furthermore, little is known of how participatory practices operate as a technique to access and appropriate community knowledge, while leaving power asymmetries intact. This paper deploys a Foucauldian governmentality framework to explore how CBPR’s relations of power collude with the macro rationalities of the neo-liberalism, inclusive liberalism, and the moral imperialisms of the knowledge economy to produce participatory subjects and spaces “outside” of socio-political histories and presents. Critical reflections on two CBPR projects are woven into a theoretical reading that explores the limits of participatory approaches and its uneven power relations as ethical problems.


Foucauldian governmentality; community-based participatory research; power; politics of knowledge production; social work

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