1969 Sherry Arnstein
Ladder of participation
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You don`t have to be a social worker to have a significant impact on social work practice across the world. Neither do you have to write lengthy books to make a lasting impression. This is illustrated by Sherry Arnstein who is part of social works body of knowledge thanks to an article from 1969 that is less than ten pages long.
Although Sherry Arnstein briefly worked as a social worker in San Francisco, she originally studied physical education. She also finished her career in health, for nearly a decade being executive director of the American association of colleges of osteopathic medicine (an alternative medicine). Important for social work is the time she worked for the US department of health, education and welfare in the 1960s. In 1969, she published the article for which she is still remembered and respected: A ladder of citizen participation. Sherry Arnstein died in 1997.

Her article was written at the time she worked as director of community development studies for The Commons, a non-profit research institute. It builds heavily on her earlier experience as chief advisor on citizen participation for the US department of housing and urban development. This happened during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and was influenced by his Model Cities program.
Arnstein sought to describe a typology of citizen participation and intended it to be provocative. There was too much rhetoric around about citizen participation, too many misleading euphemisms. To begin with, she equated citizen participation clearly with citizen power: if participation didn`t result in a shifting power balance between the haves and have-nots, it was not genuine participation. And that, Sherry Arnstein stated, was what had been happening in most of the existing initiatives in the US. At the time that was provocative.
The article goes on to describe a ladder of participation with eight rungs, each higher rung representing a greater degree of citizens power. To add emphasis to her point about symbolic rather than substantial citizen participation, the two lowest rungs on the ladder (manipulation and therapy) were together labelled non-participation. Even the next three rungs (informing, consultation and placation) were not about genuine participation, and therefore labelled degrees of tokenism. It is only when we reach the highest rungs of the ladder (partnership, delegated power and citizen control) that the label `citizen power` is used.

In the decades since Arnstein`s publication, social sciences have highlighted time and again the problematic nonparticipation of citizens in democratic processes. An essential platform was provided in the work of Sidney Verba and Norman Nie. From this and similar studies, it becomes clear that low participation is not only a problem for those individual citizens who are not participating, but also problematic for society.

Arnstein`s article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners but has been reprinted and translated many times. There are few publications on citizens` participation that do not make reference to her article. This not only resulted in many graphical enhancements of the original figure, but also suggestions for changes and improvements. Rxamples include Roger Hart`s ladder of youth participation, published in 1997 for UNICEF and Scott Davidson`s wheel of participation (1998). Andreas Karsten even describes it as a potpourri of participation models.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 12-2010
Date of latest revision: 04-2013


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