Democratizing Inequalities

Dilemmas of the New Public Participation

320 pages

5 figures and 5 tables

January, 2015

ISBN: 9781479883363



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Caroline W. Lee is Associate Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College. Her research explores the intersection of social movements, business, and democracy in American politics. She is the author of Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry.

All books by Caroline W. Lee

Michael McQuarrie is Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Poiesis Fellow at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge. His work has been published in venues such as: Politics and Society, Public Culture, City and Community, Annals,and Research in Political Sociology. He recently edited Remaking Urban Citizenship with Michael Peter Smith.

All books by Michael McQuarrie

Edward T. Walker is Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research examines how organizations and institutional contexts shape public participation. His research has appeared in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Social Problems. He is the author of Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.

All books by Edward T. Walker

Craig Calhoun is Director of the London School of Economics and Global Distinguished Professor of Sociology at New York University. His most recent book is The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements.

All books by Craig Calhoun

Opportunities to “have your say,” “get involved,” and “join the conversation” are everywhere in public life. From crowdsourcing and town hall meetings to government experiments with social media, participatory politics increasingly seem like a revolutionary antidote to the decline of civic engagement and the thinning of the contemporary public sphere. Many argue that, with new technologies, flexible organizational cultures, and a supportive policymaking context, we now hold the keys to large-scale democratic revitalization.
Democratizing Inequalities shows that the equation may not be so simple. Modern societies face a variety of structural problems that limit potentials for true democratization, as well as vast inequalities in political action and voice that are not easily resolved by participatory solutions. Popular participation may even reinforce elite power in unexpected ways. Resisting an oversimplified account of participation as empowerment, this collection of essays brings together a diverse range of leading scholars to reveal surprising insights into how dilemmas of the new public participation play out in politics and organizations. Through investigations including fights over the authenticity of business-sponsored public participation, the surge of the Tea Party, the role of corporations in electoral campaigns, and participatory budgeting practices in Brazil, Democratizing Inequalities seeks to refresh our understanding of public participation and trace the reshaping of authority in today’s political environment.


  • "Democratizing Inequalities is a timely and provocative compilation that demonstrates how participatory practices across a range of expected and unexpected locations cut both ways—opening up avenues for citizen engagement while also limiting the democratic potential assumed to follow. The chapters in this volume are a welcome empirical corrective to celebratory discourses of citizen participation, and the book is certain to be an important resource for researchers and practitioners interested in the democratic possibilities of the 'new public participation.'"

    —Debra Minkoff, author of Organizing for Equality

  • “This is an exceptionally timely volume, consistently strong in its individual contributions and coherent in its collective analysis. Democratizing Inequalities both defines a major question for contemporary politics—how and why does political participation matter—and advances a convincing contrarian argument. This volume and the questions raised within highlight a vital conversation about political theory and policy that is likely to be with us for many years.”

    —Elisabeth Clemens, author of The People's Lobby

  • “The volume clearly illustrates the complexities of democracy and deliberative politics.  It shows us that, despite participatory processes, we have yet to perfect democracy. The book challenges us to consider whether deliberative processes achieve what we want them to.”


  • “The book is incredibly timely and deserves attention for its quality of scholarship and for its subject matter. It is an example of how research can both be scholarly and have uses for actors outside of academia.”

    —, Contemporary Sociology

  • "The authors of Democratizing Inequalities set out to problematize the belief in public participation as a simplistic social good. With this collection of research-based studies and theoretical assessments of the field of participation and democracy studies they have thoughtfully and thoroughly achieved their goal." 

    —Lynne M. Woehrle , Mount Mary University, Mobilization