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The Participant

A Century of Participation in Four Stories

The Participant

A Century of Participation in Four Stories

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

Participation is everywhere today. It has been formalized, measured, standardized, scaled up, network-enabled, and sent around the world. Platforms, algorithms, and software offer to make participation easier, but new technologies have had the opposite effect. We find ourselves suspicious of how participation extracts our data or monetizes our emotions, and the more procedural participation becomes, the more it seems to recede from our grasp.
In this book, Christopher M. Kelty traces four stories of participation across the twentieth century, showing how they are part of a much longer-term problem in relation to the individual and collective experience of representative democracy. Kelty argues that in the last century or so, the power of participation has dwindled; over time, it has been formatted in ways that cramp and dwarf it, even as the drive to participate has spread to nearly every kind of human endeavor, all around the world. The Participant is a historical ethnography of the concept of participation, investigating how the concept has evolved into the form it takes today. It is a book that asks, “Why do we participate?” And sometimes, “Why do we refuse?”

344 pages | 73 halftones, 11 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: American History, History of Ideas, History of Technology

Sociology: General Sociology


“Delightful. . . . The Participant is a book that rewards repeat reading, not as a slow accrual of more detail and subtlety, but as an almost Gestalt-like feeling of starting to ‘get it.’ . . . [The book] is an enormously rich resource for anyone configuring a not-entirely-traditional object of analysis. It is a model work of rigorous yet genuinely multidisciplinary scholarly creativity.”

Talia Dan-Cohen | Somatosphere

"This is an innovative take on the problem of participation in modern democracies. . . . That the participant is the protagonist in the story Kelty tells is why the book is innovative as an experiment in the analysis. In many disciplines the individual is taken for granted as ontologically real, but not in anthropology. The individual is a product of the way participation is imagined, performed, and managed. . . . Kelty reminds us that much innovative work is now being done in the social sciences on how this kind of 'participation' is a modern phenomenon, not just a primitive one. As racist statues were torn down in my town and around the world, [the] first essay also became suddenly very timely. And it raises a crucial question: in the social sciences how relevant is an attitude of distanced perplexity anymore?"

Eric Gable | Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"The book goes beyond the usual questions about 'participation in what?' or 'why do we participate?' and it focuses on the thought-provoking one about whether it is possible to participate in participation. As such, the contribution of the book is ambitious and, admittedly, unique in its scope. . . .The Participant is of great interest to an STS audience whether already familiar and engaged with the theme of participation or not. . . . Of The Participant I greatly appreciated the richness and thoroughness of arguments. Never shallow or hasty, neither when addressing the minute details of a participatory experience . . . nor when talking more broadly about how the experience of participation crosscuts the four assemblages."


"In this thoughtful, witty, and incisive book, Kelty goes down the rabbit hole of participation and—against all odds—emerges in a wonderfully unfamiliar land, where old, worn-out concepts acquire new and tantalizing meaning. Most important of all, we meet The Participant, that central but elusive figure of twentieth-century democratic politics, who teaches us to appreciate the full experiential weight of partaking in a collective. An essential book to understand the ephemerality of contemporary citizenship, and an ideal vantage point from which to imagine democratic forms of life yet to come."

Javier Lezaun, University of Oxford

"For many, participation is cast as a virtue worthy of praise and emulation. Why and how has participation acquired the status of primary cultural ideal? In this far-reaching account, Kelty probes this question by examining participation’s social life across the long twentieth century as it incarnates in four radically distinct areas of society. Witty, empirically rich, and analytically sophisticated, it will forever alter how you approach the contemporary politics of participation."

Gabriella Coleman, McGill University

"Finally, a book that undoes the myth that we owe the 'participatory turn' in culture and society to digital innovation. Through a special kind of anthropological design history invented for the purpose, Kelty showcases a set of decisive transformations of participation in diverse social environments and makes clear why the drive towards participation has become irreversible today."

Noortje Marres, University of Warwick

"Unexpected, eclectic, and buoyantly incisive—this is a truly original book. Read it and you will never think of participation the same way again."

Peter Redfield, author of Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders

Table of Contents

Participation, Exhibited

Participation, Introduced

Participation, Experienced

Participation, Employed

Participation, Administered

Participation, Developed

Participation, Concluded

Participation, Acknowledged

Participation, Notated

Participation, Referenced

Participation, Indexed

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