What Is Arnstein's Ladder?

What Is Arnstein's Ladder?

21st May 2014

While we generally cover news and information on ladders here on this blog, every now and again we provide you with some information on ladders in the abstract sense of the word – where the word ladder is used in an esoteric or complicated manner.  Today we’re taking a look at Arnstein’s Ladder where the word ladder is used in the field of social sciences.

Ascent Fixed Access LadderArnstein’s Ladder was a term coined by Sherry Aronstein, who briefly worked as a social worker in San Francisco.  Sherry originally studied physical education and ended her career in the health sector as executive director of the American association of colleges of osteopathic medicine.  In 1969 she published an article called “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” which still resounds today and is considered an important contribution in the field of participation and decision making.  Although the article is a mere 10 pages long, it has made a lasting impression with its description of the eight different types of participation.

Arnstein defines citizen participation as “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future”.  Arnstein presented a provocative view of the relationship between community and government by using a ladder as the metaphor for increasing access to decision making power.

The eight rungs of the ladder (from top to bottom) are labelled as follows:

  • Citizen Control
  • Delegated Power
  • Partnership
  • Placation
  • Consultation
  • Informing
  • Therapy
  • Manipulation

Manipulation and Therapy are in the non-participation phase of the ladder with the objective of enabling power holders to “educate” or “cure” the participants.  The next three rungs (Partnership, Placation and Consultation) are labelled Tokenism and allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice.  Although these do offer citizens the right to have a voice and be heard, they do not ensure that citizens have the power to ensure that their views are heard and heeded by the powerful.  If participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow through and no opportunity to change the status quo.
Further up the ladder allows for levels of citizen power with increasing levels of decision making ability.  Citizens may enter into Partnership enabling them to negotiate and engage in tradeoffs with the traditional power holders.  On the two top rungs, have-not citizens are able to obtain the majority of the decision making positions or full managerial power.

Although Arnstein’s Ladder is a simplified view, it can help to demonstrate the point that there are significant gradations of citizen participation.  Knowledge of these different gradations makes it easier to understand the demands for participation from the have-nots and the pertinent responses from power holders.

This model has influenced several generations of community engagement practitioners since its publication in 1969 and continues to play an important role in the Participatory Democracy movement.