As the world is increasingly troubled by challenges, transformation has become a critical issue in the search for alternative approaches to improving conditions societies or creating better ones. The International Social Science Council’s (ISSC) Transformations to Sustainability Programme promotes this ideology. I participated as a seed grant recipient in the first of a series of annual Transformative Knowledge Workshops organized by ISSC in Potsdam (Germany) in November 2014. The workshop established the initial basis of what transformation entails. This was to enable participants get involved in the knowledge frontiers for globally transformative research. That workshop allowed me to form my idea of transformation.
From a social perspective, transformation involves shaping or reshaping interactions and behaviors through radical shifts in thinking, culture and perceptions to create large-scale alterations for a better society. The process is essential for tackling climate change, growing inequality, poverty, land and food insecurity, among many other developmental challenges we face today. Most of these challenges have sparked poor living conditions in many communities around the world. Transformations to Sustainability promotes researches that investigate fundamental and innovative processes of social transformations for securing durable, efficient and equitable solutions to these urgent problems.
As expected, concerns about how to make and enable transformations in societies dominated the agenda at ISSC’s Transformative Knowledge Workshop. From my assessment, the discussions held in that Workshop remains on‐going. To push the discussions further, I want to mention an important factor for social transformation — participation. Transformation as a process of change does not happen in a vacuum. It is participation that drives a transformative process. Among the many other options that have been proposed by notable researchers and practitioners, participation should be considered as one of the complementary or alternative approaches for engendering transformations. Policymakers need to know how transformation and participation are related. They also need to know how participation drives transformations.
Participation is the purposive involvement of citizens in pursuance of societal goals. It was formally recognized and incorporated into global developmental agenda in the 1980s. From this period, it became known as an important initiative for improving development challenges. It was conceived as a bottom-up process necessary for addressing the many issues that call for transformations. Ever since then, it has been widely written and researched. Despite this, it is still one of the most underestimated mediums for social transformations. Participation has helped in achieving many transformative objectives around the world. The dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa was driven by participation in social and political activism. Namibia succeeded in its national liberation struggles for emancipation due to citizen participation. Tanzania’s transformative socialist project of Ujaama attained limelight as a result of participation. It was participation that led to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. From these evidences, the notion that participation is a socially transformative catalyst is genuine. Some of the major development milestones achieved through participation include social inclusion, liberation of politically oppressed people, and empowerment of marginalized people and the reduction of poverty in some developing countries. From these few evidences, the notion that participation is a socially transformative catalyst is not disputable.
These evidences show that the participation can challenge the structural causes of a societal malady and lead to societal transformation. It can help people to develop consciousness and to challenge power relations that can lead to shifts in power relations in ways that protect them against any possible authoritarianism. It addresses the power structures that perpetuate social maladies like social inequality, repressive governance, and poverty, among many others. Working towards a transformation to sustainability is important.
However, it would be most reasonable to do so through active participation of all stakeholders within a global knowledge network. This would contribute immensely to the attainment of the post-2015 sustainable development goals. How? We should incorporate participation or participatory process and cultures in all efforts being made toward transformations. Practitioners and policymakers should recognize participation as a paramount factor in the transformation of societal status quos. It is important that they understand that the relation between participation and social transformation is crucial for success. They have a linear relationship. Participation catalyzes transformative processes. Through its emancipative and empowering powers, it drives societal transformation. It can alter the threads that hold social cultures — e.g. values, symbols, norms and gender roles.
Transformation, on the other hand, can lead to informed participation. Both transformation and participation suffer from the same barriers –that of fear of change or the existence of an immunity to change in a society. What is important then is to focus on positive participation in order to attain transformations that can lead to better societies. Participation can be a reliable tool for breaking unfavorable status quos. It should neither be ignored nor underestimated in the quest of creating social transformations.
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