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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Types of Democratic Deliberation: The Limits and Potential of Citizen Participation


Following more than a decade of theorizing and widespread practical application, political scientists have begun empirical research on democratic deliberation. For the most part, this research has focused on individual or collective outcomes of deliberation, paying relatively little attention to the deliberative processes themselves. Here an attempt is made to study these processes themselves. First, a typology of the different ways people talk to one another is offered. Four types of discourse are defined: (1) proto-discourse, (2) conventional, (3) cooperative, and (4) collaborative. The last two types are of the kind presumed by deliberative democratic theory, with more liberal versions assuming that deliberations are cooperative and rational and more critical versions assuming that deliberation are collaborative and transformative. Research is then reported on two deliberative groups of parents who met seven times to consider improvements in the delivery of K-12 education in their area. An analysis of their deliberations indicates that their interaction was overwhelmingly conventional or proto-discursive. The participants rarely engaged one another in the way assumed by liberal democratic theory and never engaged one another in a more critical or emancipatory manner. The paper concludes with a discussion of the impact of different types of discursive interaction on the construction of democratic citizenship. At issue here is how different kinds of discourses enable participants to be different kinds of political actors in those situations.

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