Participatory Maps of Political Space

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jonathan Barker
University of Toronto

Action for social change usually takes place against reistance from groups accustomed to social and political power. People who want to promote change and who stand to gain from change often have an incomplete view of where the opportunities for political and social action are found and how they work. Having a well-grounded idea of the contours and qualities of existing local political space makes action more effective.


Collectively, people in towns, villages, and urban neighborhoods know about the various political settings (venues for discussing and deciding public matters) that bear on the community. Innovators can assemble a group to draw (on paper or in dirt or sand) a map of all the political settings .


For people intending to make changes that improve the living conditions of people in a locality it is useful to know which individuals hold formal and informal power. But it is also useful to know what are the venues or political settings in which people regularly gather to discuss and decide matters affecting the locality. Some of those political settings will be found in the locality and some outside in more or less distant power centers. Some will be open to the broad public and others will be restricted to a few. The kinds of issues discussed and the formal and informal rules about how to discuss and decide will also vary. Different people in a locality will know about some of the political settings, but not about others. People with different experience and awareness can together create a map or diagram of the available political space where matters of interest to the locality are debated and decided. The map can include information about how each setting works: how often it meets, what kind of people attend, what issues it discusses, what interests and ideas influence it, how welcoming or resistant it is to new initiatives. Depending on the intended innovations, further information can be sought. The task of making the map gathers information relevant to future action, but it is also makes participants aware of the political realities they face. They may see that part of the innovation they seek is a change in political space itself, perhaps in the form of the creation of new political settings.


People interested in innovative action can draw on the collective knowledge of local people by mapping political space, describing the political settings that influence the locality. From the map community members can see the quality and quantity of opportunities for participation. They can assess how to use the available political space and whether they may need to try to change it.

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