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									Anna Richter UK Centre for Events Management, Leeds Metropolitan University

The Politics of Research

I came here today to do two things really. First of all, I wanted to interpret ‘alternative
presentation’ in a perhaps rather old-fashioned way. Rather than using more technology and
audio-visual distraction I decided to purely rely on rhetoric. Secondly, my presentation may
also be considered alternative for its critical content as I will be speaking about the politics of

I am concerned with social problems that are typically approached with a view to finding a
‘solution’. Seeing problems as principally solvable is – and I quote – already ‘part of the self-
justifying discourse of contemporary social systems’ (Fairclough 2009: 7-8) and social
science. Instead of looking for solutions to problems, the critical approach problematises the
discursive production of problems.

Let me illustrate this with the central question of my thesis. Last year, Liverpool was the
European Capital of Culture, an accolade open to locally specific interpretations. The city
promoted its vision ‘to build community enthusiasm, creativity and participation’. Now,
participation – like apple pie1 – is undeniably a good thing. It stands for democratic values,
invokes notions of equality and implies working together. It is therefore difficult to be
‘critical of participation without also appearing at odds with these entirely laudable principles’
(Peck & Tickell 1994: 251). But what does ‘participation’ really mean? In order to find that
out I am examining the recipe for that participation apple pie.

Critical Discourse Analysis is both a method and a theory that allows taking an explicit socio-
political stance while yet aiming for methodological consistency. Rather than evaluating
whether the European Capital of Culture has brought about wider participation amongst the
citizens, my project asks ‘why is participation such a central concern?’ I am asking this
question in order to unpack the theoretical underpinnings of participation, as it currently
reverberates in debates around urban governance.

  The apple pie analogy is drawn from Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell who use it to critically examine
‘partnership’ approaches in urban regeneration and local economic development.

The call for ‘participation’ reminds one of social movements and civil protest groups. Finding
a local authority calling for ‘participation’ bears a certain irony: is it confessing its failure to
involve people, using the yearlong event to compensate for democratic underachievement?
I’m arguing that, contrary to an almost Victorian philanthropy Liverpool’s local authority
appropriates a social movement discourse with a view to address social problems through a
particular explanatory framework. Notwithstanding the significance of the urban event in its
own right, the European Capital of Culture celebrations are politically instrumentalised and
function as a cultural strategy, in other words apple pie and circuses.

There’s a quote that summarises precisely what I am trying to show in my thesis:
      ‘All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a
      given time is a function of power and not truth.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

It says that interpretations are contestable. Imbued with power, the prevailing interpretation is
political in nature. This renders the analysis of the participation discourse ‘itself inherently,
irredeemably and essentially political’ (Hay 2002: 88). Moving away from a view of politics
as an arena, i.e. the city council, to a processual understanding is to recognise that a particular
interpretation serves to maintain existing power relations. Again turning to Liverpool, the
prospects of hosting the European Capital of Culture created a discursive platform on which
institutions and organisations from various sectors reshuffled and mingled.

Liverpool threw a great party, selling tickets for the price of ‘participation’. Getting involved
in cultural activity became a panacea for social problems as diverse as social exclusion,
underachievement in schools and littering. Cultural institutions and community organisations
worked in partnership with the Primary Care Trust, schools and deprived neighbourhoods.
The Northwest Regional Development Agency funded mega events like the Spider La
Princesse. National programmes such as the New Deal for Communities partnered with the
Arts Council England. The eight big cultural organisations of the city bounded together and
co-produced Liverpool City Council’s cultural strategy.

The result is remarkable: institutions, organisations and agencies break out of their boxes,
urban policy is concerned with ‘giving voice’ and the message of participation reaches even
into national echelons of power. But a closer look also reveals that participation is rather

narrowly defined and firmly based within the paradigm of urban regeneration that is driven by
cultural consumption. Empowering people to participate becomes an activation strategy.

The reference to participation serves to create consent. Although different interpretations
exist, the hegemonic definition I’ve just mentioned prevails. Hegemony or the ‘discursive
face of power’ ensures the establishment and enforcement of authoritative definitions thereby
foreclosing other possible meanings in specific, determinate ways. The prime feat of
hegemonic practices lies in the capacity to engender consent: everybody agrees that
participation is a good thing.

Coming back to our apple pie and finally serving it as desert, Liverpool City Council achieves
its political agenda. Precisely because it is presented as a solution to contemporary social
problems, the call for participation allows shifting the responsibility for their existence onto
each and everyone. Actively taking part in the official programme conveniently moves
attention away from asking more critical questions as to why social inequality prevails.


FAIRCLOUGH, N. (2009) A dialectical-relation approach to critical discourse analysis in
     social research. IN WODAK, R. & MEYER, M. (Eds.) Methods in Critical Discourse
     Analysis. London, Sage.

HAY, C. (2002) Political Analysis. A Critical Introduction, Houndsmills, Palgrave.

PECK, J. & TICKELL, A. (1994) Too many partners... The future for regeneration
      partnerships. Local Economy, 9 (3), 251-265.

Postgraduate Research Conference 19 June 2009, Leeds Metropolitan University


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