Reflecting on Claire Bishop’s Participation and Spectacle 3: Should the socially engaged arts use assessment scales?

Note: This is the 3rd of a series of reflection on Claire Bishop’s chapter ‘Participation and Spectacle’, published in Nato Thompson’s Living as Form (2012).

In this dense but more manageable chapter, Bishop summarises some of “Artificial hells Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship” (2012), then proceeded to present her conclusion from the book. I will break the chapter into several sections to discuss some of her claims and hope it can help us to think about our practice.

Readers should dig deeper into the dense research if interested. Though I disagree with more than a few of her arguments and interpretations, she does provide some good critiques of participatory practices.

Arnstein (1969)

This week I am going to discuss the ‘Ladder of Participation’ that is criticized by Bishop as being unsuitable for participatory arts. I don’t think she gave enough background for readers to understand the context of her critique. While I agree with Bishop’s criticism, I am not ready to dismiss the Ladder or similar assessment tools. I think it is more important to determine how it can be used well since it doesn’t look like organizations and practitioners are going to abandon it totally.

My summary and response to Bishop’s arguments

Bishop believes that it is tempting but inappropriate to measure the “efficacy of artistic practice”. Since “the most challenging works of art do not follow this schema, because models of democracy in art do not have an intrinsic relationship to models of democracy in society”. To measure art with such a scale “is misleading and does not recognize art’s ability to generate other, more paradoxical criteria”.

Basically, she is saying that good political participation does not equal ‘good art’. Also, within the argument of her chapter, is that good participation in art does not equal good political impact.

She provides a concise statement on her position in Artificial Hell

But since participatory art is not only a social activity but also a symbolic one, both embedded in the world and at one remove from it, the positivist social sciences are ultimately less useful in this regard than the abstract reflections of political philosophy (Artificial Hell, p.7)

I don’t have the knowledge and theoretical prowess to argue this position, and frankly, she has convinced me of the importance of the symbolic dimension of participatory arts. But my practitioner side also tells me that participatory arts is at the same time social and symbolic. Therefore, if both sides co-exist, why is one ‘ultimately less useful’ than the other? To me, participation in the arts is intrinsic and possibly more ‘real’ than the symbolic dimension, which is essentially at the mercy of the perceiver.

Context of this Discussion

Does this discussion even matter? Yes, because it seems the Ladder is rather popular:

· The Ladder of Citizen Participation (1969) discussed by Bishops was proposed by Sherry Arnstein in the midst of civil rights movements in the US. Google scholar shows a citation number of over 16,000

· Anne Kershaw (2014) discussed the influence of Arnstein works in various form of participatory models, especially applied to the arts and cultural sector

· It has inspired Roger Hart’s Children’s Ladder of Participation (1992), a hugely influential work commissioned by the UNICEF (Read here)

· Hart’s Children’s Ladder of Participation and the theories of Paulo Freire were most often mentioned by UK organizations as assessment tools for their work (Barn and Franklin 1996, cited in Shier 2001)

So whether we like it or not, people have been using it for a while.

Hart (1992)

Bishop’s criticism of the Ladder is not unique. Hart received similar criticism for failing to address context and committing oversimplification.

Hart (2008) summarizes one set of criticism, that “[i]n some ways the ladder metaphor is unfortunate for it seems to imply a necessary sequence to children’s developing competence in participation” (Hart, 2008, p. 23). Hart responded that “[i]n fact the ladder is primarily about the degree to which adults and institutions afford or enable children to participate” (Hart, 2008, p. 23), and in practice,

While a child may not want at all times to be the one who initiates a project they ought to know that they have the option, and to feel that they have the confidence and competence to do so on occasion. Adult facilitators of projects should not be made to feel that they must always support their child participants to operate on the ‘highest’ rungs of the ladder, but they must manage to communicate to children that they have the option to operate with these ‘higher’ degrees of engagement (Hart, 2008, p. 24)

Later, in his response to criticisms of the ladder, he updates his metaphor and uses the image of scaffold, which has roots in Vygotsky’s theories in education

whereas the ladder metaphor is usually used to characterize only child–adult relations, the scaffold metaphor can be thought of as a mutually reinforcing structure where all people, including adults and children of different abilities, help each other in their different climbing goals (Hart, 2008, p. 21)

Should the community arts and socially engaged arts use assessment scales?

Finally, a few thoughts on using assessment tools. While my practitioner side prefers to be free from scales and assessment, I do think it does help the practice if:

· The scales are well-designed and continue to be updated

· There are multiple scales (or a matrix)

· They are used to describe work and NOT to grade

How does it help the practice?

· Provide a framework for self-evaluation — I have wasted my share of valuable life sitting in directionless evaluation discuss

· Suggests possible ways of development — Good assessment tools are based on real experience, and we can learn from them

· Framework and rules to break and challenge — If we are trying to work and think out of the box, we first have to know the box

Are there dangers in using such frameworks?

I think the danger is not inherent in these frameworks, but it is the culture of ‘measurable outcome’ that turns good things into something that traps and limits potential.


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of planners, 35(4), 216–224.

Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to participation: openings, opportunities and obligations. Children & society, 15(2), 107–117.

Hart, R. A. (2008). Stepping back from ‘The ladder’: Reflections on a model of participatory work with children. In Reid, A., Jensen, B. B., Nikel, J., & Simovska, V. (2008). Participation and Learning: Perspectives on Education and the Environment, Health and Sustainability (19–31) New York: Springer Verlag.

Hart, R. A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Kershaw, A. (2014a, accessed on January 20, 2016). Collaborartory: Investigating arts collaboration and participation Issue 2. Arts Participation Incubator. Retrieve from:

Community/socially-engaged arts critiques and reflections from HK