🦋 For a more critical study of democracy

Jean-Paul Gagnon’s project involves the collection, labelling, and organisation of published words on democracy. He intends it to help democratic scientists to counter authoritarianism. But, argues Marta Wojciechowska, the project’s method may overlook issues of power involved in creating and publishing meanings of democracy

The 'Science of Democracy' in an increasingly authoritarian world

Jean-Paul Gagnon recently argued that the meanings of democracy can and should be studied more methodologically. There is a lot of value in Gagnon’s approach. His database of published meanings of democracy introduces to the academic and public debate several thousand original and broadly unknown meanings of democracy.

The database includes a wide range of entries with names evidently inspired by vivid democratic imagination. These include, for example, 4-square democracy, pineapple democracy and Zulu democracy. Gagnon's database does not emphasise the mainstream, established notions of democracy. Rather, it demonstrates a true diversity of the published meanings of democracy. As Michael Saward points out, it includes many languages, eras and places, which in turn, according to Dannica Fleuß, can help decentralise democratic theory. Yet, does it mean that this method is, by itself, enough to counter an increasingly authoritarian world? I argue that it is not.

On the side of the winners

As the saying goes, history is written from the perspective of the winners. We could say the same about democracy. Its written meanings, historically, have been constructed and written by those who are considerably privileged. True, thanks to the development of printing and digital technologies, the published word is accessible to many. But that does not mean it no longer relies on privilege. The ability to publish involves issues of power.

democracy's written meanings, historically, have been constructed and written by those who are considerably privileged

Being able to publish a meaning of democracy requires time, effort, and access to the relevant technology. It also requires an ability to write, to conceptualise thoughts in writing, to think linearly. As Simone Chambers’ witty anecdote on Sartori illustrates, it might also require a healthy dose of self-confidence.

Entries in Gagnon’s database have been produced by those who had access to these resources. The database excludes the unpublished, written on a scrap of a napkin, non-linear, anecdotal, acted meanings of democracy. It also excludes those meanings that were never fully conceptualised.

What’s missing

Some might argue that not all meanings of democracy are worth the effort. Could it be that the acted or unconceptualised meanings will not provide us with much relevant information anyway? I think there is a value in many other meanings of democracy, beyond those published. However, my main concern is about issues of power. Something that is potentially replicating uncritically the power dynamics and patterns of privilege is an imperfect tool in an increasingly authoritarian world.

to counter authoritarianism, democratic studies needs to offer political alternatives emphasising the value of pluralism

Authoritarianism has many meanings and many aspects. What unites them is a rejection of the value of pluralism. Authoritarianism involves a concentration of power and privilege in a group of people, a political party, or a political ideology. To counter the wave of authoritarianism, the field of democratic studies needs to offer political alternatives that would emphasise the value of pluralism, and identify the problems that go with the concentration of power and privilege. This includes a concentration of power and privilege in our own field.

The need to be more self-reflective

The remedy to this problem does not lie in the method. The database could, as Hans Asenbaum and Friedel Marquardt argue, incorporate other meanings: for example spoken meanings as well as meanings produced by those marginalised by democratic theorising. However, a method incorporating a broader range of democratic meanings does not necessarily expose the power and influence most dominant notions of democracy wield.

scholars of democracy must be sensitive to the questions of who can conceptualise and publish meanings of democracy, and whose voice we strengthen in doing so

Hence, what I offer here is not so much a criticism of Gagnon’s fascinating project. Rather, to counter authoritarianism, I urge the field of democratic studies to be more critical and also more self-reflective. We need to be sensitive to the questions of who can conceptualise and publish meanings of democracy, and whose voice we strengthen in doing so. Such sensitivity will enable us, democratic theorists, to diversify our vocabulary of democracy. It will also allow us to counter the domination of power and privilege within our field. Only then we will be ready to counter an increasingly authoritarian world.

Number 50 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series 

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Marta Wojciechowska
Marta Wojciechowska
Lecturer in Politics, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London

Marta has held previous appointments at the London School of Economics, University College London, and visiting fellowships at Australian National University and the University of Canberra.

Her research focuses on democratic theory (deliberative and participatory approaches), problems of inequality, and urban governance.

Beyond research and teaching, Marta is also a co-chair of APSA's Critical Policy Studies related group.

Personal website

She tweets @wojciechowa

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