Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Lawrence Frey

Second Advisor

Robert T. Craig

Third Advisor

Timothy Kuhn

Fourth Advisor

Karen Tracy

Fifth Advisor

James Andrew Cowell


Public participation theory and research claims that participation can transform policy and relations, but evidence supporting that assertion is limited, particularly in real-world situations. This dissertation argues that to understand if and how participation might transform policy and relations, it is necessary to study participation in situated practices. The chapters report details and lessons from the Community Collaborative Group (CCG), a 2-year stakeholder participation governance process.

In this study, “stakeholder” has a specific meaning and is employed as an analytic concept to reflect on uses and interpretation of symbolic categories in social discourses and interactional talk. As a category, the stakeholder concept challenges received interdisciplinary ideals of collectivity as being psychological, binary, and meaningful in competitive relations, raising questions and concerns that treating categories as symbols addresses. As a symbolic construct, categories are communicative, constituted in difference, and meaningful in discursive relations. To study uses, interpretations, and influences of categories, the study examines symbolic practices of categorization, dis/identification, and representation during the CCG.

Initiated by a public agency, the CCG represented ideals of investment, design, and facilitation, but it struggled to fulfill policy and relational objectives of the process and theoretical ideals. At the macrolevel, this report discusses how uses and interpretations of locally and situationally relevant categories influenced the design, process, and outcomes of the collaboration; at the microlevel, contextual features and relationships constituted in uses and interpretations of those categories are examined.

Theory and practice are blended in this report, with the ethnographic narrative reconstructing events that contain conceptual lessons and extant theory serving as the ground for examining events in situ. Based on direct observations of the CCG, and a large collection of recorded talk and documents, the study chronicles the life of the collaboration from its inception to completion, staying as close to the interactional level as possible.

This empirical study of the collaboration leads to conclusions that have theoretical and practical relevance for understanding categories, collectivity, and participation. The unifying theme across those conclusions is that people use and interpret categories in very different ways, under different conditions, and for different ends. Whereas prevailing ideals of collectivity suggest stable, singular, and shared meanings of categories, this study concludes that categories are contested, multiple, and communicatively constituted. However, by approaching the design and enactment of participation strategically, the messiness of participation can be organized and leveraged towards social transformation.