Category Archives: deliberation

a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups

I few days ago, I proposed that Jane Mansbridge’s great book Beyond Adversary Democracy can suggest practical tools that would assist democratic groups as they make decisions. Such tools should be tested and revised, based on experience in the field.

As a first step, I provide this flowchart (above). The first step is to conduct a survey. The questionnaire would have to be carefully designed, but it could be customized easily for other organizations. Members of the group would be asked what they care about, their attitudes about process, and their social identities and roles within the organization. The survey would yield data that could then inform how the group makes decisions about each issue that the respondents mention.

introducing Habermas

This is a 29-minute video lecture* in which I introduce the core ideas of the great German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. I made it for our current Introduction to Civic Studies course, but it’s available for anyone to use. It also summarizes the beginning of chapter 4 of my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. In the book, I proceed to raise numerous critiques of Habermas, all of which have some validity, although I continue to find his framework useful.

*New version posted on 9/29, with better audio.

An agenda for R&D for democracy

In The American Political Science Review, Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg (2022) challenge two influential views.

One view paints a “despairing picture” of democratic reasoning. It assembles evidence that individuals demonstrate “ignorance and incompetence” about political matters, while groups “invariably” suffer from “conformity,” “affective polarization,” “the rejection of countervailing arguments from nongroup members, and backfire effects.”

The other view holds that deliberating groups are wiser than individuals because they can pool intelligence and combine perspectives.

Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg argue that both theories generalize too much. Some democratic processes work out well; some do not. They cite recent “interactionist” research in psychology. “Instead of looking to the (supposedly invariant) cognitive limitations of ordinary citizens as skeptics do, an interactionist approach suggests that we should investigate the social context of decisions—how groups are structured—to understand when group identity and social pressure can distort or swamp problem solving [or not].”

Farrell and his colleagues use Elinor Ostrom as a model or inspiration for this agenda. Ostrom did not emphasize the main question of deliberative democratic theory, which is something like this: How should we debate and reach conclusions about contested matters, such as public policies? Instead, she asked how people should coordinate their individual behavior to achieve outcomes that they all endorse. Whereas democratic processes involve reasoning and discussion, many of the examples that interested Ostrom were about quiet work, e.g., digging irrigation canals or editing Wikipedia articles. Still, she confronted a similar situation to the one that Farrell et al. describe in democratic theory today.

When Ostrom got started, a dominant view held that individuals cannot coordinate effectively without external compulsion: the “tragedy of the commons” problem, articulated most famously by Garrett Hardin. Mancur Olson (1971) argued that sometimes voluntary coordination succeeds, and the key variable is the size of the group. Small voluntary groups can function; large ones cannot. Ostrom absorbed that claim as part of a much more ambitious research agenda. She strove to identify aspects of groups that vary and then explored which variables affect the quality of outcomes. The size of groups turned out to be relatively insignificant, not even appearing on her list of “design principles.”

If I may say so, I adopt a very similar position to Farrell and colleagues in my new book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life (2022). I summarize Ostrom’s agenda in chapter 3 and then turn to deliberative processes. Like Farrell and colleagues, I argue that we should approach deliberative democracy much as Ostrom addressed coordination. We should experiment and test which specific conditions make discussions go well. I argue that Ostrom’s school of political economy should pay more attention to deliberation about values, because that is a necessary activity of groups. (In many of Ostrom’s cases, there is no dispute about values.) I also discuss nonviolent social movements, but that is a different topic.

When the argument is stated as in Farrell, Mercier & Schwartzberg, I anticipate two difficult but fruitful questions.

First, how should we identify successes and failures so that we can decide which democratic processes work? After all, people often disagree about what constitutes a success. One option is to use obvious cases of failure, when everyone would regard the outcome as suboptimal. We can ask why that happened. But this approach shifts the research away from debates about principles and goals toward purely instrumental problems, like how to preserve common resources, which Ostrom and her many colleagues already studied. The more controversial the topic becomes, the less we already know about how to structure conversations about it–although I would cite literature that Farrell et al. don’t mention, such as work by John Gastil, Archon Fung, Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Celina Su, and others. These authors have identified variables that affect conversational quality, such as the method of recruiting or admitting participants, the nature of the facilitation, and the stakes of the discussion. Still, the problem of identifying success remains. (They do mention essential work by Michael Neblo et al.)

Second, what should be done with the findings? This research has implications for the design of governments and other big institutions. The US Constitution already requires jury trials; the Constitution of India requires every village to have an empowered annual meeting. Knowing more about the conditions that make discussions go well can help us to understand whether such provisions are optimal and what other rights and institutions we should add.

But I think the main audience will be civil society. Voluntary groups–including those that seek to influence governments–are best positioned to experiment with formats for discussion. They have more flexibility than governments, they can change more easily, and their sheer number and variety creates more opportunities.

Sources: Farrell, H., Mercier, H., & Schwartzberg, M. (2022). Analytical Democratic Theory: A Microfoundational Approach. American Political Science Review, 1-6; Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Olson, Mancur (1991), The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press. See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; how political talk relates to its context; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; why study real-life deliberation?; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; etc.

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.

why express a dissent?

One of the things people do in meetings and other discussions is to express dissenting opinions even though they know they will not be persuasive. They say some version of, “For the record, I think …”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll exclude situations in which these statements are really meant for an external audience, such as the broader public or future members of the same group. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once wrote that a judicial dissent is “an appeal … to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.” Here I will focus on statements that are only heard by the rest of the group in real time, when there is no chance of persuading the others–for instance, after the decision has been made.

As it happens, I almost never make such statements. Perhaps because of the privileged or comfortable role I usually play in discussions, I usually feel it would be unhelpful to express dissents unless I can persuade. Otherwise, I keep any concerns to myself. And I think that is right.

However, I would sometimes defend the expression of dissent even when it’s not pragmatically effective–even when it cannot change opinions. I think it navigates usefully among the three options that Albert O. Hirschman identified for people who disagree with a group to which they belong: “exit,” “voice,” or “loyalty.

In Hirschman’s great book, “exit” means leaving the group or the institution, thus preserving your freedom and possibly disciplining the group by removing your contributions to it. “Voice” means trying to persuade the group to change. And “loyalty” means going along with the group because it has sufficient value to you.

To express a dissent is a little different from all three. It’s a version of loyalty, but with a dollop of resistance. It’s a use of one’s voice, but not “voice” in the sense of attempting to persuade. And it involves exiting–not from the group, but from the decision.

I would compare what Tommie Shelby has called “impure dissent.” He interprets rap artists who write intentionally offensive lyrics (including violent and misogynistic ideas) as saying: I do not endorse the racist society that I must belong to. I have no hope for revolutionary change. I cannot exit. My voice will not persuade white people (or perhaps anyone) to reform this society. I am going to do what the system allows, such as selling my music for money. Yet my lyrics express my dissent. They express that I do not endorse what I am part of.

Shelby contrasts “voice as influence, which is aimed at altering the status quo, with voice as symbolic expression, which is not primarily concerned with its impact on those in power.” For him, objective injustice provides an ethical justification for the symbolic expression in rap. Rappers’ impure dissent is justified because they are oppressed.

I agree with his argument and would generalize it to some people who are not oppressed. Expressing symbolic dissent without exiting may be appropriate for anyone who is simply outvoted. Of course, you can do this in a polite way if you are not oppressed. You can avoid burning bridges. In essence, you are making a contribution to the group by not leaving it, but you are asking for that contribution to be recognized. And you are retaining self-respect by clarifying that your will is not reflected in this particular collective decision.

To do this too much or too easily can be self-indulgent and can put unreasonable burdens on the group. But sometimes symbolic dissent enriches the group by clarifying that its members are demonstrating loyalty despite disagreements, by setting a precedent for other people to disagree and differ, or by simply informing everyone that some members are unhappy.

More generally, I believe that we do many productive and appropriate things when we talk in groups, and making proposals with reasons is only one of those things. Many of our speech-acts are ways of keeping the group together so that it has enough social capital to act, thereby making the discussion worthwhile in the first place. I would classify symbolic dissent as one kind of speech that may–when used appropriately–contribute to the maintenance of a group that can then do what its members decide.

See also: do we deliberate to reach consensus? (with an example from Italian fascism); du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; and the question of sacrifice in politics