why study real-life deliberation

John Gastil and I are co-editing a book, probably to be called The Handbook of Deliberation. Most of the chapters describe particular processes that bring diverse people together to discuss and reach judgments about public issues. These projects range from Brazilian participatory budgeting schemes (in which hundreds of thousands of people collectively determine portions of their city’s budget), to Danish consensus conferences of 10-25 randomly selected citizens who report to Parliament on technological issues.

Meanwhile, scholars are busy writing about deliberation. In fact, it would be difficult to exaggerate their interest in this topic. There are too many substantial books to mention, but perhaps one indicator of scholars? interest is the recent publication of at least five anthologies on the topic, most of whose contributors specialize in deliberation.*

Yet the academic literature pays remarkably little attention to the practices described in our book.

In many fields, there is a gap between research and practice, a failure to communicate between the academy and civil society. However, I detect particular reasons for the gap in this case. First of all, most academics are interested in deliberation that has a clear influence on political outcomes. They therefore focus on deliberation in powerful bodies like courts and legislatures, or they study long-term discussions that involve millions of people and play out in the mass media and major institutions. For them, a gathering of a few hundred citizens is not important enough to study. Scholars of deliberation see themselves as too practical and realistic to devote serious attention to idealistic experiments like those described in our book. The Brazilian experience is a notable example, precisely because it has achieved scale and political impact.

Practical projects could be used as laboratories to test hypotheses about how people discuss issues. However, only a few projects are controlled enough to serve as ideal experiments for the kinds of questions that researchers have pursued. For example, if social scientists want to study whether groups converge toward consensus positions, they may feel more confident experimenting with a random sample and a carefully chosen topic, rather than observing a messy and context-dependent process like a Study Circle or a National Issues Forum. The main exceptions are Jim Fishkin’s Deliberative Polls, which have been used as formal experiments. The insights derived from Deliberative Polls are interesting, but they may not generalize to other practices.

One objective of our book is to demonstrate that there is a sufficient body of diverse practice to merit serious academic investigation. These projects are valuable experiments precisely because they exist in real-world contexts. If you want to know how deliberation works when people are motivated to attend because they care about the problems in their community, then you must observe a real deliberation, not a group that you pay to participate in an experiment. Both contexts are interesting, but motivated groups should be not be overlooked. Similarly, if you want to observe how interest groups, politicians, and citizens deal with each other in public meetings, then you need a real-life practice, not an experiment with a pre-determined topic and structure.

*Anne Van Aaken, Christian List, and Christoph Luetge, Deliberation and Decision: Economics, Constitutional Theory and Deliberative Democracy (Ashgate, 2004), James Bohman and William Rehg (eds.), Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (MIT Press, 1997); Jon Elster and Adam Przeworski, eds, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, 1998); James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett (eds.), Debating Deliberative Democracy (Blackwell, 2003); and Stephen Macedo, Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement (Oxford University Press, 1999).