Political Settings

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jonathan Barker
University of Toronto

The venues of political action are changing dramatically with the proliferation of new kinds of non-governmental organizations, the broadening coverage of the Internet, and the actions of governments to redefine and often reduce the scope of their direct interventions. We need concepts to describe these changes and assess their implications, both negative and positive, for democratic participation.


Innovative political or social action fits into the existing field of popular and governmental activity. What political settings—as gatherings to inform, discuss, assert, dispute, debate, and decide important public matters—are available? What are their biases about who can participate, how matters are discussed, and what issues can be raised? Where do particular settings fit in the hierarchy of power? How do economic and cultural forces and physical threats influence the process? Will a new action create a new setting or alter an existing one? By asking questions like these, activists will better grasp the changes they are asking people to make, and researchers can analyze the changing shape and structure of political space over long or short spans of time. 


Political settings are the basic physical units of collective political action. Each instance of a political setting has its own unique location in space and time. Many recur on a regular basis. Meetings and demonstrations are common types of political setting. Here are two recent examples from reports about political change in Venezuela. One is a small-scale political setting, a barrio meeting; the other describes two large-scale, competing political marches:

The Meeting
Nidia Lopez stood on one side of the brick built shack. It was like one of the thousands that made up the barrio of Andres Bello. The barrios, or slums, are where the majority of the Venezuelan population lives. Thirty people looked at Nidia. Some of them stood outside in the mud. The building was too small to fit them all.
Nidia spoke and her voice was clear and loud. She said, "There are 23 families living on the street in this barrio. In eight years what has this government done for them? In three years what has this Committee done for them? They need help now! What are we going to do for them now?"
The "we" that Nidia was talking about was the Urban Land Committee for the Andres Bello barrio. The Urban Land Committees...exist everywhere there are barrios in Venezuela and barrios are everywhere in Venezuela.
When barrio problems are discussed...the most common suggestion is to get organized. At the Andres Bello meeting, barrio resident Hector Madera said, “When the people of our barrio have a problem they mustn’t rely on the media, or go and whisper in the ear of a friend in a Chavista party, we need to organize ourselves.”
Nidia Lopez felt the best way the Andres Bello CTU could help the 23 homeless families was to take the appeal to the President. Everybody else in the meeting argued it was more important that organization happen first.
The families should...discuss with each other about what they wanted. They should also talk with the owner of the mansion. Only then should they approach the government for assistance if they still needed it.
Madera said the barrios needed to organize together, "When organized we can involve the people from nearby barrios, like Chapellin, and get their support. We will help them and them us. Together we solve our problems ourselves. We can march together."
( Source: Entitled to Democracy:Venezuela’s Urban Land Committees and Participatory Democracy. Saturday, Feb 11, 2006. By Alex Holland – Venezuelanalysis.com)

The Marches
Venezuelans celebrated International Worker’s Day yesterday with two large marches that wound through the streets of Caracas. One in support of the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Revolution," and the other with the opposition. This marks the sixth year in a row that Venezuelan workers have held separate marches on May 1st.
The opposition march was led by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) which, according to the Venezuelan daily El Universal, called for the participants to march for increased salaries, back-pay, a dignified social security system, and freedom for CTV President Carlos Ortega, who was sentenced last year to 16 years in prison for his role in the two-month 2002-3 oil industry shut down.
"Things are turbulent. With this government everything is turbulent," yelled 15 year- CTV veteran, Israel Masa, from the opposition march. "That’s why we are marching -- to demand transparency in the next elections, because we in the opposition know that we are the majority and that we are the true democrats."
The pro-government march was led by the National Workers Union (UNT) and officially entitled, the "Bolivarian March Against Imperialism and Free Trade Agreements," highlighting the international importance of today’s celebrations, and calling attention to the recent motives for Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Community of Andean Nations.
"This demonstration is a struggle against imperialism and the conspiratorial plans of US imperialism against Venezuela," announced Venezuelan National Assembly Representative Dario Vivas ...at the start of the march. "The people of Venezuela are ready to do whatever necessary to guarantee our liberty."
(Source: Opposition and Chavez Supporters March Separately for Mayday in Venezuela, Tuesday, May 02, 2006. By Michael Fox - Venezuelanalysis.com)

As these two examples show, the respective contexts -- social structure, rules of entry and action, physical layout, and cultural expectations -- heavily influence the quality of participation and the content of decisions and messages. “Political setting” is a particularly useful concept for describing political action in context, the venues of face-to-face political communication that are the building-blocks of public political life. They encompass all occasions in which issues and needs of general importance to a community or a society are discussed, contested, and decided. They may be open and democratic, but very often they explicitly or implicitly bar certain groups, certain perspectives, and certain issues. It is important to investigate how they filter participants and ideas.

Although many of meetings and debates that seek to influence community-wide matters take place in government institutions, an increasing proportion occur in voluntary associations, social movement groupings, and invitation-only meetings. Internet discussions demonstrate the growing importance of virtual political settings and raise questions about how they differ from face-to-face meetings and how uneven access to computers affects political outcomes. The rules and culture of each setting influence the quality of communication, deliberation, and decision-making it embodies. Are they open or secret? Which voices do they amplify or exclude? What about women, poor people, people of low status, different cultures and religions? What is their impact?

The idea of political setting draws upon ecological psychology’s concept of "behavior settings," but it puts the focus on activity that aims to influence public policy. It opens the door into exploration of the evolving pattern language exemplified in the face-to-face political actions from below that are emerging in meetings and demonstrations around the world with all their limitations as well as their strengths.


Seeing and analyzing popular politics through the lens of political settings promises to generate a useful and realistic view of the political resources available for popular action and of the obstacles that such action faces.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Political action venues are changing with the proliferation of new kinds of nongovernmental organizations, the broadening reach of the Internet, and the actions of governments. Political Settings are the basic units of collective political action.The idea of political settings opens the door to exploration of evolving civic intelligence exemplified by political actions from below.

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