whom to engage: stakeholders, citizens, activists or the community?

Here are four common ways of talking about who should be engaged in decision-making or collective work. Each approach has significant drawbacks.

DefinitionWho decides who they are?Drawbacks
Stakeholders People with specific, identifiable, relevant knowledge, power, commitment or vulnerability. The organizers of a process identify the stakeholders.The organizers retain power and discretion. The process favors people with special “stakes,” who may not represent everyone.
CitizensAll adults who are recognized by the authorities as full members of the jurisdiction, e.g., a country. Normatively, all adult residents have claims to be citizens. In practice, the definition reflects power.One person/one vote does not reflect the real distribution of influence and interests. Realistically, specific stakeholders will set the agenda. Also, people who are not citizens may have valid stakes.
ActivistsMembers of social movements who have obtained visibility and influence through their struggles.Activists identify themselves. However, an individual may not be accepted by a given group and may not then be heard.Since a movement is usually defined by its stance, it cannot represent people with alternative views or those who are neutral or agnostic.
The communityMembers of an affected group who are outside of the system that organizes the process. For instance, the police consider civilians to be the community. Professors consider non-academics to be the community. For the state, the police and the university might be parts of the community.Usually, someone with authority defines the community as an “other.”The abstract idea of a community often devolves to leaders and staff of NGOs or social-movement activists. People who have formal titles may define themselves out of the community, which is a mistake.
The oppressed or marginalized, sometimes named “The People” in left-wing discourse.Members of social groups who are and have been subject to violence, discrimination, dispossession, etc.People with influence over the discourse–perhaps including those who are themselves oppressed. (But usually, powerful people do most of the talking.)A negative definition can be patronizing. Defining someone else as oppressed does not empower them.

See also: citizens, stakeholders, publics, interest groups?; problems with “stakeholders”; and Levine P. (2022), Social Movements and Stakeholder Engagement. In: Lerner D., Palm M.E., Concannon T.W. (eds) Broadly Engaged Team Science in Clinical and Translational Research. Springer

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.