Controversies, Authority, and the Limits of Participation: Chicago's 49th Ward

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Nicole Summers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article analyzes an innovative, and relatively successful, experience in Chicago: its participatory budgeting (PB) process. Treating it as process-in-the-making, we are attentive to moments of uncertainty and controversy over the first year of its development. As a process of direct democracy, PB is profoundly ambiguous: it is, in principle, open to all, but it has no way to adjudicate between different ways of knowing and making claims by technical experts, democratically elected office holders, and newly established neighborhood leaders. Because it is a bottom-up process that in principle does not privilege certain groups, it generates ambiguity over who gets to speak for and on behalf of the whole. In Chicago, each of these ambiguities generated controversies, which generated political talk that implied utopian alternatives that were then settled in ways that closed off these alternatives, in the end reinforcing the power of experts and revaluing the role of established community leaders against newcomers. We contend that the critical literature on participation should be more attentive to moments of conflict, ambiguity, and closure when the outlines of participatory processes are collectively produced.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)311-325
Number of pages15
JournalPolitical and Legal Anthropology Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2017


  • citizenship
  • expertise
  • participation
  • urban politics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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