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Asking why? is the key to Social Action

Here in the UK we live in a climate in which the rhetoric of responsibility, involvement and participation is taken for granted. However, participation is often tokenistic, often reduced to after-the-event feedback procedures, impersonal surveys or superficial unfocussed “consultations”. By intent or, more often, by default, the agenda remains in the control of powerful. In my view, this is patronising and devaluing.  In my experience, for example, many adults, although accepting the validity of youth involvement, fail to translate this into any real change in their own behaviour. They expect young people not to participate on their own terms but to adapt to existing structures, processes and language. I call this ‘participation by invitation’ and I do not think it works. It may even be counterproductive, sooner or later engendering a reaction against those who impose agendas whether it be superficially participative or not. Indeed, I believe it can add to a sense of alienation, pushing people further away towards rejecting a society which they probably see as having failed and rejected them already.

What we must seek to have is a genuine exchange in a climate of open partnership between citizen and provider. For this it is essential that:

  • people are brought into meaningful decisions;
  • real choices are offered;
  • information is shared;
  • responsibility is shared;
  • there is openness and clarity about scope but also about boundaries.

What does this mean?  It means being open to learn from young people, community members or service users generally, but in particular from those who more or less effectively deal first hand with the practical problems of homelessness, ill-health, poverty, abuse, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia.  This is where Social Action comes in.  In talking about Social Action, I mean Social Action as a collective process for social change, not as a policy outcome, nor, as often used generically as simply a description of practical action in the service of others.

Social Action means putting at the forefront, asking the question why?  This is not simply a mechanical exercise. Asking ‘why’ links action with the exploration of root causes. According to Paulo Freire (1972), the adult educationalist, this twin track process is essential if people are to gain real and sustainable control over their life circumstances.

To explain a little more:  in life we too readily leap from what questions (what is wrong?) to how questions (what can we do about it? how should we proceed?). In doing this we unwittingly steer explanations, responsibilities and the scope of solutions to the private world around people, keeping understanding and action within their existing knowledge and experience. This knowledge and experience will have been fashioned by people’s experiences and positions in society. For those at the margins, this means by the exclusionary processes which keep them there.

In addressing ‘why’, people participate in a process of pursuing an issue until the root causes have been identified and exposed. Asking ‘why’ gives people the opportunity to break out of the demoralising and self-perpetuating narrowness of vision and, often, self-blame which has been created by poverty and lack of opportunity. When horizons of what is possible expand, people come up with new explanations for problems and ideas for tackling them. By asking the question ‘why’ we can turn the spotlight away from the people themselves, to the problems they face, and enable them to envision and engage with a much wider range of options for action and change.

This is not to disassociate the why question from the rest of the Social Action process. We move on from these considerations to looking at how can the group change things. Consideration of  why  can be scary and could even create fatalism and despondency, without the next stage of group members recognising themselves as social actors and as people who can do something about some aspects of the why. Once the complexity of the why has been fully explored the next stage is to identify what are the priorities for change and where impact can be most effective – how can we change things.

  • contributing to critical debate,
  • shaping and informing that debate,
  • developing policy and practice,
  • improving access to services and better service delivery practices,
  • genuine public engagement,
  • personal development and change

Dave Ward


Freire, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin