Test Cover Image of:  The Participant

The Participant

A Century of Participation in Four Stories

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?”

Author Information

Christopher M. Kelty is professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he holds appointments in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the Department of Information Studies, and the Department of Anthropology. He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.


"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

Audience: Professional and scholarly;