Monthly Archives: September 2015

Local and Global Solutions

I am having great fun taking a Graph Theory class this semester. A graduate level math class, it focuses very much on the theory of graphs, which is remarkably different from the real-world networks I’ve been growing accustomed to.

(And for those of you playing at home, a “graph” and a “network” are basically the same thing, but “graph” is the math/theoretical term and “network” is the science/real-world term.)

In each class, we’re basically asked to prove or disprove properties of a given graph. This is harder than it sounds.

The hardest part, actually, is that I usually think I know the answer. There’s something about the functioning of networks – sorry, graphs – that generally seems intuitively clear. But even if I know the answer, I have no idea how to actually prove it. That’s where the fun comes in.

Now about a month into the semester, I’ve notice an interesting trend in my (flawed) approach to proofs. Asked to explain why a certain property cannot be true, I immediate argue why it couldn’t possibly happen at the local level.

If it’s not a problem at the local level, it ought not to be a problem at the global level.

That’s essentially every argument I’ve made so far.

And it’s not necesarily that I’m wrong about the local level, but – networks are fickle things and a localized approach runs the danger of aggregating into something unintended. That is – you can’t just aggregate the local to make inferences about the global.

Frankly, this is one of the reasons I’m studying network science. Networks are complex, dynamic  models which can so easily be broken down and analyzed. To really understand what’s going on you need to appreciate the local and the global, and think more broadly about how the whole structure interacts.


Networks and the Rise of the Medici

So, here’s a fun thing. In 1993 John Padget and Cristopher Ansell explored the social network of the great Medici family. with specific attention to the rise of Cosimo de Medici in 15th century Florence.

The paper, published in the America Journal of Sociology, is intended as a historical case study in a theoretical contradiction of state building: that founders cannot be both judge and boss. That is, a regime’s legitimacy hinges on “the conviction that judges and rules are not motivated by self-interest. Yet, a founder doesn’t want to give up control of their “organized creation.”

Cosimo’s leadership led to three centuries of Medici rule in Florence, begging the question – how did that happen?

Drawing on the “thorough and impressive work” of many historians of Florence, Padget and Ansell carefully reconstructed a network of elite families in Florence. Their data set included 215 elite families – where “family” is more akin to clan than household, and their network accounted four nine different types of connections including kinship as well as political, economic, and personal ties.

After disproving may common arguments for the Medici’s rise to power – it turns out they were just as wealthy as the “oligarchs” they displaced – Padget and Ansell turn to the network for possible explanations.

Their finding are remarkable. Looking at the political turmoil of the day, Padget and Ansell make a bold claim: “Rather than parties being generated by social groups, we argue, both parties and social groups were induced conjointly by underlying networks.”

Their analysis of the network provides some interesting insights into that claim:

The Medici party was an extraordinarily centralized, and simple, “star” or “spoke” network system, with very few relations among Medici followers: the party consisted almost entirely of direct tied to the Medici family. One important consequence for central control was that Medici partisans were connected to other Medici partisans almost solely through the Medici themselves. In addition, Medici partisans were connected to the rest of the oligarchic elite only through the intermediation of the Medici family. Medici partisans in general possessed remarkably few intraelite network ties compared to oligarchs, they were structurally impoverished. In such an impoverished network context, it is easy to understand how a solo dependence on a powerful family would loom very large indeed. 

Meanwhile, the rival oligarch party was densely interconnect. But rather than leading to cohesive collective action, this caused conflict. “The oligarchs were composed of too many status equals, each with plausible network claims to leadership.” they explain.

These network structures had deep consequences for politics and power. Ultimately, along with the capable leadership of Cosimo, it was this structure which allowed for the Medici rise.


Deliberation in Practice

While there are many rich debates around the theory of deliberation, I turn today to it’s practice. How are real-world deliberation structured and how do those implementations relate to the competing theories of deliberation?

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) offers a great starting point for examining these questions. A network of more than 2,200 deliberative practioners, NCDD “serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.”

NCDD actively embraces a pluralistic approach to deliberation, arguing, “no method works in all situations.” The context-dependent nature of deliberation is implicit throughout the practical literature – as each approach typically introduces itself with a short explanation of where it can be of use.

To help communities “decide which types of approaches are the best fit for your circumstances,” NCDD publishes a useful Engagement Streams Framework, which breaks deliberative techniques into four categories:

Exploration: Encourage people and groups to learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue, and possibly discover innovative solutions

Conflict Transformation: Resolve conflicts, to foster personal healing and growth, and to improve relations among groups

Decision Making: Influence public decisions and public policy and improve public knowledge

Collaborative Action: Empower people and groups to solve complicated problems and take responsibility for the solution

NCDD then takes 22 of the most popular deliberative processes and assigns each to one or more of these categories. I have visualized their chart as a network, showing how different deliberative approaches connect to the four categories NCDD identified.


While perhaps not too much can be inferred from this sample of deliberative practices, it is interesting to note that half of the “Decision Making” practices are focused solely on that stream, while “Collaborative Action” processes are always connected to another stream as well. In this model, “Decision Making” and “Exploration” are the most common approaches, with 12 and 11 practices respectively. Additionally, NCDD’s list captures at least one way to combine any two of their identified streams.

It is worth spending some time briefly describing a model distinctive to the three streams that have dedicated approaches – Decision Making, Exploration, and Conflict Transformation.

National Issues Forum – Decision Making
While a National Issues Forum (NIF) is not a formal decision making body, their facilitated deliberations aim to help groups weigh different options. “We are here to move toward a public decision or CHOICE on a difficult issue through CHOICE WORK,” they explain.

They take this approach of choice work quite literally – each of their dozens of issue guides present a topic along with three possible approaches. Participants are asked to reflect on their own experience of the issue and deliberate about the pros and cons of each outlined approach.

This focus on “choice work” may be somewhat misleading, though. NIF is careful to indicate that successful deliberation does not have to end in agreement or action. “Sometimes, forum participants find the use of the word ‘choice’ confusing” they write. “Some assume that they are being asked to choose one of the approaches. And, of course, they are not.”

The NIF definition of deliberation similarly rejects consensus as a mandatory outcome. “It’s not about reaching agreement or seeing eye-to-eye. It’s about looking at the costs and consequences of possible solutions to daunting problems, and finding out what we, as a people, will or will not accept as a solution.”

Finally, while NIF facilitators are encouraged to begin their session with ground rules, their issue guides don’t provide any suggested ground rules to start from. This seems to be an intentional choice embedded in their philosophy: “The responsibility for doing the work of deliberation belongs to the group,” they write.

NIF expects most forums will last around 2 hours, though they leave room for communities to organize multi-session discussions. Typically, a session will have a hundred or more participants, and NIF encourages communities to determine for themselves the mix of small group versus plenary discussion.

World Café – Exploration
World Café gatherings may be large, but their conversations are intimate. While the total number of attendees can venture into the hundreds, hosts are instructed to seat no more than five people together. Conversations take place in at least three rounds of twenty minutes each.

After each round, one person is encouraged to stay as “table host” to the next round “while the others serve as travelers or ‘ambassadors of meaning.’ The travelers carry key ideas, themes and questions into their new conversations, while the table host welcomes the new set of travelers.

World Café hosts are encouraged to develop their own questions, which can be the same or different for each round of inquiry. “Good questions need not imply immediate action steps or problem solving. They should invite inquiry and discovery vs. advocacy and advantage,” they write.

A light and flexible model, World Cafés can be easily implemented in a range of situations to create “a living network of collaborative dialogue around questions that matter in service to real work.”

The model is subtly action-oriented. Hardly so in comparison to other deliberation models, World Cafés are built around the core idea that there are problems in our communities and only we have the power to address them.

As they describe in their host guide: “The World Café is built on the assumption that people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges; that the answers we need are available to us; and that we are Wiser Together than we are alone.”

While some might charge the World Café with being “just talk,” the World Café would retort: “The power of conversation is so invisible and natural that we usually overlook it.”

Public Conversations Project – Conflict Transformation
The Public Conversations Project is a leader in Reflective Structured Dialogue, a technique “designed to help people have the conversation they want to have about some of the most difficult topics.”

Their work is focused on dialogue, “a conversation that is animated by a search for mutual understanding…distinct from conversations focused directly on problem solving.” The Public Conversations Project has led these dialogues in some of the most deeply divided communities, providing spaces for participants to get to authentically know each other without trying to sway each other’s view on an issue.

Dialogues are heavily structured, outlining time for silent reflection, equal time for each person to speak, and a noticeable pause between each person’s response. After every participant responds to the question posed by the facilitator there is an equal time for “questions of genuine interest” which can be posed by any participant to any other participant. These questions seek to “encourage constructive inquiry and exploration that enhances clarity and mutual understanding.”

This highly structured model “empowers participants to share experiences and explore questions that both clarify their own perspectives and help them become more comfortable around, and curious about, those with whom they are in conflict,” and “helps participants engage in constructive, often groundbreaking conversations that can restore trust and lay the foundation for collaborative action.”

Dialogues are typically small group discussions that happen over multiple two-hour session. A community may have multiple dialogues happening at once, but there is typically not a plenary portion of the exchange.


Analyzing Political Speech

I had the opportunity today to attend a talk by Oren Tsur, a post-doc in my lab who has done a lot of work around Natural Language Processing (NLP). He spoke about his work analyzing political text, which was published by the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) earlier this year.

Tsur noted that political writing and speech is intentionally crafted to influence audiences. This provides an interesting framework to explore the question: can we automatically identify and quantitatively measure topical framing and agenda setting campaigns?

That is, using Natural Language Processing techniques, can a computer identify framing, spin, and agenda setting in political speech?

Tsur and his coauthors used a dataset from VoteSmart of “all individual statements and press releases in a span of four years (2010-2013), a total of 134000 statements made by 641 representatives.”

It’s data sets like that which make “unsupervised” analysis so important. It’s not practical for a human to read through and categorize that many statements…but can a computer be taught to do so effectively?

Each document was considered as a “bag of words,” and each word was associated with various topics with different probabilities.  Topics might be similar, but were fine-grained enough to pick up subtle differences.

One topic caught words like “Obamacare” and “repeal” while another caught words like “social” and “benefits.” And, yes, you can then connect each category to who is saying it to determine which of those topics is “owned” by republicans and which is “owned” by democrats.

Furthermore, Tsur could compare how frequently the same words or phrases (ngrams) appeared in different documents, demonstrating that republicans tend to be much more “on message.” That is, Republicans at any given time, republican politicians are more likely to have phrases in common with each other – perhaps sticking to the same talking points.





What Does Deliberation Accomplish?

Deliberative theorists seem to face increased pressure to argue that their approach has value. I suppose all who advocate for specific realizations of democracy have this obligation, but – there seems to be less of a demand for, say, get out the vote organizations to prove the worth of their mission.

I suppose that voting as a democratic tool is commonly accepted to be of use. Therefore, getting more people to vote is good, and the only question left for a GOTV organization is whether they are effective at increasing the vote. Specific interests may, of course. also question what kind of vote these organizations are turning out – accusing them of being too partisan or, perhaps, not partisan enough.

But those questions are secondary. They come after accepting the basic premise of the mission: voting is good.

Deliberation has a harder battle. Perhaps it is good but wildly impractical. Perhaps it can be good, but generally doesn’t give a meaningful return for the amount of time and effort that needs to be put into it.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that deliberation, if it could be ideally realized, would be bad, but there seems to be enough standing between this ideal and reality that deliberation is constantly called upon to defend its very existence.

So what does deliberation, real-world deliberation, accomplish? Why does it have value?

There are a number of ways to tackle this question. At the most utilitarian level, deliberation can result in decisions or concrete action.

If there’s an issue in our community, we can deliberate about it. By pooling our knowledge and resources we can ensure that we are making a well informed decision, and by doing it collaboratively we ensure buy-in from stakeholders and legitimacy for the final decision. One can still quibble over whether deliberation is the most efficient way to achieve that outcome, but when deliberation results in tangible action, it seems easy to argue that it is effective.

Another value of deliberation might be seen in communities with deep divisions. While deliberation here may not result in concensus – imagine a community far too divided for that – it may still demonstrate its value as a bridge between communities and a tool for de-escalating tensions.

The Public Conversations Project, for example, specializes in highly structured dialogues within divided communities. They worked with both pro-life and pro-choice groups in Boston after a series of bombings of abortion clinics. Their dialogues didn’t change anyone’s stance on the issue, but it re-humanized both sides to each other and created a joint force that could collectively speak out against the attacks. Similar approaches have been used around topics of same-sex marriage and immigration, and have been utilized as part of truth and reconciliation committees.

Such outcomes aren’t quite as concrete as a collective decision or collective action, but they are still somewhat tangible and a sign of progress in some of the most challenged communities.

I am interested in the argument after that.

What is the value of deliberation that does not result in a decision? In communities without such paralyzing divides?

Implicit in the argument in favor of deliberation is the idea that a community is more than the sum of its parts. That deliberation makes me better, it makes you better, and it makes our community better. A healthy community is one in which residents are in constant deliberation – where they may occasionally use the tool for moments of decision making, but where deliberation is more deeply a way of life.

I’m not sure how to better articulate that and I’m not sure how to quantify that. I find this sentiment hinted out throughout the deliberation literature, but little seems to tackle this question head on.

I am increasingly convinced that deliberation does have this intrinsic value – that it more than just a glorified aggregation tool – but it’s hard to demonstrate that outcome.

Deliberation research shows that participants can be more knowledgable after deliberation, that they may change their opinions after deliberation, and that the process of deliberation may serve as an equalizer between people of different levels of class and education.

But I feel like there’s something still missing from this proof. That ephemeral value of deliberation that makes the whole better as well as the individual, that transforms the way a person acts and the way people act together.

Deliberation does have value. The question is how to measure it.


The Morality of Meursault

I recently finished re-reading The Stranger, a novel which, judging by the MBTA pass I found folded in the pages, I last read in 2006. Like much of Camus’ work I could read the novel again and again. Every time I find something new.

The story is told from the detached prospective of Meursault, a passive hero who one day shoots and kills an unnamed Arab. Why he does this he could not say. It just all plays out, between the sky and the sea.

Meursault is sentenced to death. He does not repent, but he does find peace, having laid his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” In the end, he declares, “all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”

No matter how many times I read The Stranger, I’m not quite sure what to make of Meursault.

He is not a good person, to be sure, but – he’s not quite the bad person the story condemns him for.

That is to say – Meursault killed a man. Without cause or reason. That is almost certainly immoral. But his victim is never named, only referred to generally: “the Arab.” Throughout The Stranger the racism of French Algiers is clear – characters who are described as “Arab” or “moorish” are consistently belittled by their aristocratic French peers.

No one in the book seems to care that much that a man has died.

Indeed, rather than focus on the crime of a life that was taken, Meursault’s trial focuses the natural death of his mother. He is derided as a monster not because he committed murder, but because he didn’t love his mother – or perhaps, more plainly, because he didn’t display the expected affection for his mother.

Most of the characters in The Stranger are not good people. But unlike Meursault, they know their place in society and play their part well.

Ultimately, The Stranger is an exercise in a seeming problem of absurdism: if nothing matters, if there is no God, and we are each free agents of our own will – what’s to stop anyone from committing murder? Can there be morality under such a regime?

This is a challenge that comes from nihilism – as Nietzsche quotes in On the Genealogy of Morals, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus rejects the common interpretation of that statement, arguing: “Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden.”

One can interpret that on entirely practical grounds. While perhaps we don’t have standing to sit in moral judgement over Meursault, we still ought to have laws forbidding murder. If a society permitted murder, moral or not, it would be chaos.

I’m not convinced that’s what Camus means, and I’m not convinced he intends for readers to pardon Meursault.

Again in thMyth of Sisyphus, Camus quotes Dostoevsky’s Kirilov saying, “everything is permitted.”

Camus counters: “The essential impulse of the absurd mind is to ask: ‘what does that prove?'”

Camus goes on to write: “All is well, everything is permitted, and nothing is hateful – these are absurd judgements. But what an amazing creating in which those creatures of fire and ice seem so familiar to us. The passionate world of indifference that rumbles in their hearts does not seem at all monstrous to us.”

Passionate indifference. Fire and ice. Camus’ writing is full of such seemingly conflicting metaphors. He describes Sisyphus as “powerless and rebellious.”

These things may seeem to be contradictions, but to Camus they are not. These seemingly contradictory sentiments are at the heart of absurdism.

Thus Camus disparages Man’s right to sit in judgement of man – Meursault imagines his jurors as passengers on a bus. Camus disparages God’s ability to sit in judgement of man – Meursault yells at the chaplain that he has committed no ‘sin’, only a criminal offense. All men are condemned, he argues.

While the logical conclusion of this seems to indicate that Meursault has committed no wrong, I’m not convinced that’s what he meant. Even if he did nothing wrong, that doesn’t mean he was right.

Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. We are free to live and act however we choose, with neither god nor man sitting in judgement of us. But there is still a certain morality, contradictory and ephemeral, that tells us Meursault is wrong. We can not prove it, we cannot define it, but we know that what he did was wrong.

Thus despite the absurdity of life, despite the seeming contradictions, Camus can conclude that “all is well.” And, as he writes, that remark is sacred.


The Papal Encyclical and Collective Action

As Pope Francis begins his first visit to the United States it seemed appropriate to reflect on the leadership his Holiness has shown since becoming pontiff. While I am not Catholic myself – though many in my family are – it seems reasonable as a person in the world to give some attention to the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people worldwide.

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to read and reflect on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, which was released back in June. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a Papal encyclical is essentially a formal letter on Catholic doctrine sent sent by the pope to the to bishops.

The encyclical drew attention for its strong words of environmentalism: “…Our common home is like a sister…This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Personally, I was more intrigued by his civic message: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

He thanks those who are taking action and stresses the urgency of further action, but at its core, his message is a call for dialogue. Importantly, he doesn’t offer a specific policy prescription, he doesn’t tell us what to do – he tells us the tool we should use to figure it out.

Some have criticized this approach – if the Pope has the ability to galvanize billions of people, should he not urge them focus their collective energies on a concrete, meaningful, and impactful goal?

In someways, this question mirrors a common debate of community organizing. The most effective way to address a concert problem in a community is generally not the most egalitarian. But developing the leadership of all people equally is better for a community in the long run. Miles Horton describes this tension eloquently:

If you’re into having a successful organizing campaign and dealing with a specific project, and that’s the goal, then whether you do it yourself or an expert does it or some bountiful person in the community does it, or the government does it without your involvement because that solves the problem—then you don’t take the time to let people develop their own solutions. If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.

I suppose the Pope could just give us answers. He could be the expert and tell us what to do the way that politicians, businessmen, and other technocrats tell us what to do. In a lot of ways it’s easier when someone tells us what to do – we can judge the advice by our opinion of the person giving it, but we don’t have to work out any hard problems ourselves. We can leave that to the experts and the people in charge.

I find it very powerful that Pope Francis chose not to go this route. Because he isn’t a politician or businessman, or some other technocratic expert. He is a spiritual leader. Education is his goal. Supporting the positive development of diverse people across the globe is his goal.

So, no, he won’t tell us what to do. But he will urge us, strongly and in no uncertain terms to find it within ourselves to act.

We are leaders. Our thoughts and voices and actions are needed. Each of us has something to contribute and we all must work together if we are to ever hope of addressing the intractable problems of our day.


Theories of Deliberation

While deliberative theorists generally agree that, as John Dryzek writes, “democratic legitimacy resides in the right, ability, and opportunity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in deliberation about the content of that decision,” there continues to be much disagreement around exactly what constitutes ideal deliberation.

The word “deliberation” itself has multiple interpretations: Joshua Cohen argues that deliberation “focuses on debate on the common good.” Jane Mansbridge defines it as “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

Regardless of the precise definition used, perhaps the more fruitful discussion is around what standards deliberation should be held to. That is, if we are to judge the health of a democracy by the quality of its deliberation, it begs the question: what constitutes high quality deliberation?

Earlier theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls held what Mansbridge considers the “classical” model of deliberation, with an ideal of “deliberation to consensus on the common good.” This model, Mansbridge argues, “implied a relatively unitary conception of the common good, contested but discoverable through reason.”

Mansbridge sees modern theories of deliberation – “evolved” theories as she calls them – as better embracing pluralism of our diverse world. While she considers the classical ideal to rely on a collective discovery of the “common good,” she sees modern deliberation as still having value “when interests or values conflict irreconcilably.” In these cases “deliberation ideally ends not in consensus but in a clarification of conflict and a structuring of disagreement, which sets the stage for a decision by nondeliberative methods, such as aggregation through the vote.”

It’s not clear, though, that other deliberative scholars accept Mansbridge’s delineation between classical and evolved theories. Mansbridge considers Cohen, a student of Rawls, as a classical theorist though he himself might dispute the term.

While Cohen does continually consider deliberation as an exploration of the common good, he also plainly embraces pluralism, arguing: “A deliberative democracy is a pluralistic association. The members have diverse preferences, convictions and ideals concerning the conduct of their own lives. While sharing a commitment to the deliberative resolution of problems and of collective choices, they also have divergent aims, and do not think that some particular set of preferences, convictions or ideals is mandatory.”

Regardless of which theorists are “classical,” though, this divide raises important practical and theoretical questions about the nature of civil society and the ideal outcomes of deliberation.

While Cohen sees deliberation as a critical tool for shaping “the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of the common good,” theorists such as Mansbridge question whether a “common good” is attainable or even desirable.

This theoretical dispute, then, raises the more practical question – should deliberation culminate in a decision?

In what she sees as a break from “the definitions given by various other theorists,” Mansbridge intentionally leaves decision making out of her own definition, highlighting that “communities concerned with the quality of citizen participation seem to find deliberation an increasingly helpful concept in contexts unconnected with binding decisions.”

In contrast, Dryzek names “decisiveness” as one of the core elements of good deliberation, insisting that deliberation ought to be “consequential in influencing the content of collective decisions.” He does give a nod to non-decisive deliberation, pointing to worthwhile discussions in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and commenting that “deliberation also can play a part in healing.” 

Here to, though, Dryzek sees a certain type of decisiveness at play. “These exercises yield not consensus interpreted as universal agreement on a course of action and the reasons for it but rather an agreement to which all sides can reflectively assent—if for different reasons (including fear of what might otherwise happen),” he writes.

While not explicitly restricting his definition to include decision making, Dennis Thompson, on the other hand, does take a particular interest in “deliberation that leads directly to binding decisions.”

Thompson thoughtfully articulates why decision-making deliberation is special: “Structuring a discussion that in effect asks participants, ‘What do you, as an individual, prefer?’ begins to resemble the aggregative democracy (adding up the well-informed preferences of individuals) that deliberative democrats criticize. Discussions framed by asking participants, ‘What action should we, as a group, take?’ come closer to the deliberative democracy (creating a genuinely public opinion) that they favor.”

Cohen has a similar approach, defining deliberation in terms of its role within a democracy. He contrasts two approaches to democracy: the aggregative and deliberative. The aggregative conception requires “equal consideration for the interests of each member…along with a ‘presumption of personal autonomy’—the understanding that adult members are the best judges and most vigilant defenders of their own interests.”

Cohen, though, prefers the deliberative approach which has at its core “the idea that decisions about the exercise of state power are collective.” He goes on to add that the virtues of the deliberative view “are allied closely with its conception of binding collective choice.”

While reflecting deeper discussions about the nature of the common good in a pluralist society, this debate about decision-making surfaces another normative theory implicit in the deliberative literature: good deliberation has a positive effect not only on a community, but on individual participants.

This positive impact on the individual is inextricably linked to deliberation’s benefit to the community, and is often overshadowed by that broader narrative.

Both Thompson and Cohen articulate deliberation as a process of creating a shared understanding of the common good. People may enter deliberation with various beliefs, but they leave transformed, having co-created a shared understanding which had not existed prior to deliberation.

As Cohen says, “the relevant conceptions of the common good are not comprised simply of interests and preferences that are antecedent to deliberation. Instead, the interests, aims and ideals that comprise the common good are those that survive deliberation.”

Even Mansbridge seems to agree on these points, adding “epistemic value, or better knowledge” as the newest standard for good deliberation.

She sees communal epistemic value as being canonical to deliberation – which must, by her definition be “mutual” – but she leaves room for deliberation to be of directly value to the individual participants. “Although any mutual deliberation will include deliberation within the minds of the individuals involved,” she write, “the word mutual requires some two-way communication.”

Furthermore, Mansbridge has argued strongly for the inclusion of self-interest in deliberation – two elements which are classically considered to be in opposition. In a paper co-authored with some of today’s leading deliberative theorists (James Bohman, Simone Chambers, David Estlund, Andreas Føllesdal, Archon Fung, Cristina Lafont, Bernard Manin and José luis Martí), Mansbridge argues, “even in a deliberation aimed at consensus on the common good, the exploration and clarification of self-interests must play a role.”

Yet, the impact of deliberation on an individual is a vastly underexplored topic, as scholarship to date has focused largely on deliberation as a democratic process for collective decision-making.


Arguments Against Deliberation

I spent much of the day yesterday reading about how deliberation is critical for democracy.

John Dryzek, for example, argues that fundamentally, it is the presence of deliberation which determines whether a state is truly a democracy. “…Democratic legitimacy,” he writes, “resides in the right, ability, and opportunity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in deliberation about the content of that decision.”

But while there seems to be much agreement that deliberation is a nice ideal, it is far from clear that such a theoretical ideal is attainable.

To be fair, most advocates of deliberation don’t argue that it is the only mode of democracy. Whether imperfect or inefficient for some tasks, a democracy must reasonably use other tools as well.

“Certain non-deliberative forms and mechanisms that intrinsically employ coercive power are legitimate and necessary procedures of democracy more broadly conceived,” Jane Mansbridge argued in a 2010 paper, adding that these additional forms are only acceptable “to the degree that they and their procedures emerge from and withstand deliberative, mutually-justificatory, scrutiny.”

But what if deliberation is actually bad for democracy? What if deliberation served to reinforce power dynamics rather than over come them?

That’s essentially the argument Lynn Sanders makes in Against Deliberation.

She begins with a jab at the deliberation community: “To begin, one might be suspicious of the near consensus among democratic theorists on its behalf. It isn’t clear, after all, that this wide endorsement has itself emerged through a genuinely deliberative process: democratic theorists are a select group who cannot and do not claim in any way to represent the perspectives of ordinary citizens.”

In my experience, the deliberative community is largely white – a point that comes up often as proponents of deliberative democracy actively work to address this shortcoming by recruiting speakers of color and seeking to engage diverse groups in conversation.

Deliberation as democracy doesn’t work if only some views are in the room.

But Sanders doesn’t end her critique there. A diverse group of participants may not be enough to ensure the ideal dialogue of deliberation.

“If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators,” she writes.

I imagine the room where “the boss” asks for feedback and nobody speaks. Where power dynamics have led to a culture of silence and quiescence – so whoever’s in charge can say the right things and do the right things, while all those without power have internalized the unmistakeable subtext: your view doesn’t matter.

John Gaventa compellingly captures this dynamic in Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, as he tracks the history of power dynamics in poor Appalachian communities. In democratic elections, people would vote against their interests for “the company man.” They didn’t have to be threatened – they knew what happened to people who didn’t.

“Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining,” he wrote. That is, a stranger dropped into a situation might see people autonomously choosing to act in a given way, but a historian of local power dynamics would see that there was something much more insidious at work.

Sanders takes a similar line of argument in warning against deliberation:

Even if democratic theorists notice the inequities associated with class and race and gender, and, for example, recommend equalizing income and education to redistribute the resources needed for deliberation – even if everyone can deliberate and learn how to give reasons – some people’s ideas may still count more than others. Insidious prejudice may be unrecognized by those citizens whose views are disregarded as well as by other citizens.

Prejudice and privilege do not emerge in deliberative settings as bad reasons, and they are not countered by good arguments. They are too sneaky, invisible, and pernicious for that reasonable process.

That’s a challenge that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by deliberation advocates. I think it’s a challenge most advocates are aware of, and no doubt its the sort of concern that keeps them up at night.

To be fair, the problem isn’t just one for deliberation. Given such pernicious prejudice, other democratic tools might find themselves equally unmatched. Deliberation may even be one of the most potent tool in combating that prejudice.

For example, pointing to successful truth and reconciliation activities around the world, Dryzek argues that “deliberation also can play a part in healing division.” Perhaps deliberation, while flawed in a flawed world, is a critical tool to slowly chipping away at those divisions and prejudices. Perhaps deliberation, while ideally requiring equalization, is ultimately a path to equalization itself.

Sanders concerns aren’t a reason to throw out deliberation – merely a reason to be continually, productively critical of how it is realized. Perhaps less than the ideal is still enough.

The question this raises for me is one of measurement. How can you tell the difference between a truly good deliberation and one that merely looks good on paper while masking the deeper quiescence of oppression?


Critical Elements of Deliberation

Many democratic theorists take deliberation to be a critical piece of democracy.

Indeed, in his 1989 piece Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy, Joshua Cohen builds off Rawls to define “public deliberation” in the very context of democracy:

When properly conducted, then, democratic politics involves public deliberation focused on the common good, requires some form of manifest equality among citizens, and shapes the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of the common good.

Echoing this sentiment, Centenary Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance John Dryzek argues that “the more authentic, inclusive, and consequential political deliberation is, the more democratic a political system is.”

But what exactly is public or political deliberation?

Cohen writes that “the aim of ideal deliberation is to secure agreement among all who are committed to free deliberation among equals.” That is, deliberation is more than just compromise:

Deliberation, then, focuses on debate on the common good. And the relevant conceptions of the common good are not comprised simply of interests and preferences that are antecedent to deliberation. Instead, the interests, aims and ideals that comprise the common good are those that survive deliberation, making claims on social resources.

People may enter deliberation with their own self-interest in mind, but through the process of deliberation they will reflect on their own interests, listen genuinely to the interests of others, and collective come to recognize the common good.

This process of reflecting on your own self-interest may be critical to democracy: Dryzek  goes so far as to argue that “political systems are deliberatively undemocratic to the extent that they minimize opportunities for individuals to reflect freely on their political preferences.”

A 2010 paper by Jane Mansbridge with an all-star list of co-authors James Bohman, Simone Chambers, David Estlund, Andreas Føllesdal, Archon Fung, Cristina Lafont, Bernard Manin and José luis Martí actively accepts the reality of self-interest and conflicts of interest, and seeks to update the “classic model” of the deliberative ideal to incorporate these realities.