🦋 Gagnon’s 'data mountain': a lookout point for revolutions to come

Building a ‘dictionary of democracies’, as Jean-Paul Gagnon proposes, will not render a revolution of democratic theory. Yet the data mountain may be a valuable point of departure for a 'decentred' understanding of democracy and, in consequence, for several theoretical, empirical, and political innovations, writes Dannica Fleuß

Democratic theory should account for diverse democratic practices happening worldwide. At a closer look, this deceptively simple proposition leaves contemporary democratic theory with a range of conceptual and methodological puzzles. How can we acknowledge plural forms of democracy in our normative and empirical endeavours? How can we gain a more comprehensive picture of diverse understandings of democracy in the first place?

Comparing himself to a lepidopterist collecting butterflies in the field, Gagnon suggests that democracy scholarship should embrace down-to-earth 'basic research'. For the past decade, he has made the humble effort to develop a database compiling understandings or 'words of democracy' in digitised, open-source documents worldwide.

Undeniably, this open-ended, pluralism-embracing approach to the study of democracy comes with conceptual caveats. Here, I will nevertheless focus on its positive contributions to the emancipatory projects of 'decentring' and 'decolonising' democratic theory.

Counteracting blinkered and biased perspectives

Given our limited knowledge about the plural understandings of democracy, 'we democratic theorists' necessarily draw from a blinkered view of what democracy is, and can be.

Rosanvallon calls for 'decentring democracy'. Representative democracy and majority votes are neither the 'the essence of democracy' nor the only way of putting it into practice.

The predominant understandings of democracy have not evolved in a political vacuum. Rather, power imbalances strongly impact(ed) what is considered 'relevant' – and which traditions of political thought we know about in the first place.

power imbalances strongly impact what is considered 'relevant' in our understandings of democracy

Odera Oruka pointed out that studying 'canonical' writings may leave us with the impression that political theory 'is Greek or European; it is white and strictly speaking, it is "white-male"'. Postcolonial scholars such as Mignolo and de Sousa Santos have extensively criticised the impacts on research(ers) of power imbalances between the global South and North. These imbalances have also had a detrimental effect on educational and science systems in the 'developing world'.

Consequently, Western theorists’ idea of democracy and its workings is, in all likelihood, strongly biased. Yet the quest for positive alternatives, e.g. 'African' or 'Asian' understandings of democracy, remains a perennial issue in decentring and decolonising projects.

At this point, Gagnon suggests taking a step back. Democratic theorising that builds on inclusive notions is possible only when we explore and discover the plural understandings of democracy that have so far escaped our notice. Gagnon’s democracy database allows us to systematically take stock of plural understandings and compare how frequently they occur in diverse sources. We can discover 'novel' forms of democracy and detect biases in the literature. With this, the 'data mountain' can serve as a useful tool for the projects of decolonising and decentring democracy.

Data sources for decentring and decolonising projects

Gagnon’s database takes its point of departure from collecting words; it currently collects words from digitised English-language texts. Gagnon concedes that it will be crucial to extend the exploration of textual data to other languages. However, in the spirit of the decentring and decolonising projects, we should tackle two further methodological challenges:

First, digitised textual data are likely to present an imbalanced picture of existing writings about democracy. Even Google Books' ever-expanding coverage is based primarily on research, and university library stock, in the US and Europe. Resources for and efforts in digitising writings are unequally distributed across the globe. Stronger focus on less well-known sources such as the African Online Digital Library can help generate a more balanced picture.

digitised textual data are likely to present an imbalanced, Western-centric picture of existing writings about democracy

Second, in many parts of the world, written words have not been the primary medium for discourse. What is more: devaluing oral traditions of political thought has been part of the colonial project in Africa and beyond. This has had devastating ramifications for local politics and scholarship.

A vantage point for starting revolutions

We shouldn’t expect a revolution of democracy or democratic theory from building the database or 'dictionary of democracies'. Yet the data mountain may evolve into a valuable point of departure for a 'decentred' understanding of democracy. This may have positive consequences for several theoretical, empirical, and political innovations. Future research should therefore focus on the question 'what can we do with the "data mountain" – and how shall we proceed'?

Future research should focus on the question 'what can we do with the "data mountain" – and how shall we proceed'?

Democratic theory

Asenbaum rightly remarks that a data mountain – and computerised techniques for analysing Big Data – certainly cannot 'generate […] political theory'. Big Data analysis can, however, direct theorists’ attention to unfamiliar and surprising democratic practices and institutions. It can inspire their conceptual efforts and instigate discourses about democratic reform perspectives. These rather generic comments already suggest that further research should be devoted to developing a methodologically sound strategy for integrating Gagnon’s database in democratic theorising.

Empirical inquiry

Established instruments for assessing and comparing democratic quality worldwide rely almost exclusively on liberal-democratic understandings. Consequently, measurements of democratic quality that account for plurality of democratic practices worldwide need a fresh point of departure. The data mountain can serve as a basis for renewing conceptual and methodological frameworks in quantitative comparative research. Researchers who take up the challenge of developing such measurements will have to develop strategies for reconciling conceptual pluralism and the methodological standards of comparative research.

Democratic renewal and reform

Scholars may also use the data mountain as a lookout point for developing proposals for democratic renewal and reform. It is frequently suggested that contemporary crisis diagnoses suggest defending liberal-democratic values and institutions. Yet the same diagnoses may also highlight the need for alternative institutions and practices.

To be clear: a data mountain that compiles 'unusual' and 'surprising' forms of democracy doesn’t make a revolution. It can, however, act as a jumping-off point for researchers’, practitioners’ and citizens’ collaborative efforts to renew democratic theory and practice.

This article is the eleventh 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 Dannica Fleuß
Dannica Fleuß
Postdoctoral Researcher, Dublin City University Institute of Future Media, Democracy and Society

Dannica is a co-convenor of the British Political Studies Association's Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group, a member of the Switzerland-based DemocracyNet and an Associate Editor of the journal Democratic Theory.

She holds an MA in Philosophy and political science and a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University.

From 2014 until 2017, she worked as a lecturer at the departments of political science and philosophy at Heidelberg University.

Dannica has been a visiting research fellow and visiting lecturer at the University of Canberra, Westminster University, and the University of Nairobi.

Her research focuses on theories of democratic legitimacy, philosophy of science, and measurements of deliberation.

Dannica's book Radical Proceduralism: Democracy from Philosophical Principles to Political Institutions (2021) proposes a theory of political legitimacy, advocates for 'democratising democratic theory' and explores the role of political theorists in democratic societies.


She tweets @DannicaFleuss

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