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Media and Social Justice in Action

Several studies illustrate many inspiring ways in which the basic inequality in the distribution of symbolic resources—the resources for giving an account of one’s life—can be addressed. Inevitably there are many solutions because if the aim is to redress a lack of recognition, we must realize that “recognition” comes in many forms and from many directions. Holding a camcorder in your hand is one way; posting a diary on a social networking site may be another, providing people have the time to read it attentively; so is learning how to edit a mass of footage of yourself and your friends into a well-shaped narrative or having the story of lives like yours represented with sensitivity for the first time by others through mainstream cinema or television. Outcomes will, and should be, variable.

There is also an inevitable conflict about “audit.” Audits are accounting processes that measure “value.” Audits at some level are necessary as a way of sustaining basic trust in those who distribute funds. But as the leading sociologist of audit culture Michael Power has pointed out, there is a danger in audit culture that it ends up measuring only what it wants to measure, while being blind to the distortions that audit tools introduce into the practices it claims to regulate: “The audit process requires trust in experts and is not a basis for rational pubic deliberation. It is a dead end in the claim of accountability . . . more accounting and auditing does not necessarily mean more and better accountability . . . and [yet] it expresses the promise of accountability . . . but this promise is at best ambiguous: the fact of being audited deters public curiosity and inquiry . . . Audit is in this respect a substitute for democracy rather than its aid.”19 More bluntly, “value for money”—accounting value—is not the same as value for life; economic measurement and moral-ethical norms intersect in the one word “value” without any clear resolution since they face in opposite directions. Yet projects that address injustices in the distribution of symbolic resources are, in the end, defined not by accounting ends but by their aim to make society more just and so more livable.

At the same time, it is reasonable and fair that projects that use scarce resources are held to account for the likely consequences of how they spend that money. Whatever the wider doubts about the overextension of audit culture in contemporary Britain, the more important issue in the short term may be how we introduce into the evaluation process a more nuanced “account” of how, over time, the skills in which projects involve their participants are plausibly linked with enduring habits and practices in those participants’ daily lives. Why not use narrative—the tools of narrative placed in the hands of participants by projects—as a means to encourage them to tell their evaluation story at a later date, by telling how, looking back, they see the projects as having affected or not affected their daily lives? In this, and many other respects, the huge expansion of online resources and skills provide new opportunities for recording and exchanging reflections and diaries, for creating discussion fora, and for channeling participants’ proposals for new projects and new uses for the skills they have learned. Indeed, that longer-term process of social archiving may itselfbe an important form of self-respect, given the much wider democratic deficit in Britain that I noted earlier. I leave open the question of how we can rethink the purpose of “evaluation” in such a way that time becomes available for former participants and former project leaders to reflect, and have policymakers register those reflections, in an effective way.

This leads me to my final point. The aim of social justice projects, as I understand it, is to redress injustices and in that way alter lives. The term “participation” is potentially a slippery one—not just, I would add, in the context of “participatory video,” but in the whole history of democratic politics.

So along with building broader and more sensitive ways of evaluating whether participatory media projects effectively redress the injustices they identify, we need to be realistic. For all the potential of new media and digital tools of media production, distribution, and social networking, what is at stake, in the end, is democracy—an effective democracy. Change through media tools young people’s possibilities to be recognized and be heard will only succeed on a wider scale if, from the other direction, government and other formal authorities act as if young people and young people’s accounts of their lives mattered. In this respect, I suspect, our thinking and practice about what democracy might mean has still a long way to go.

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