🦋 Who determines the practical meanings of democracy?

Jean-Paul Gagnon’s endeavour to capture the many meanings of democracy has great potential for bringing unknown or ignored definitions to the fore. However, argues Friedel Marquardt, to better understand democracy's meanings, we should enable the communities these definitions are about to articulate their understanding and experiences

This tapestry of a debate began with Jean-Paul Gagnon’s post about the lexicon of democracy. In it, he outlines the purpose for his project to capture the many meanings of democracy. This blog series has since transformed into a multi-layered, multi-dimensional conversation about what democracy means, why, how, for whom, and much more.

While considering contributions to this conversation, questions arise, such as: What are the purposes of definitions? Are definitions enough? How much can we understand from a definition? And how can we give voice to the people these definitions are about?

Defending the definitions

The definitions of democracy capture a manifestation of it within a particular context and community. The many thousands of definitions already captured show just how widespread the concept of democracy is, and how diversely it can manifest itself. This provokes us to look beyond the contexts and countries we have assumed to be typically democratic, such as Western liberal states, and to consider other, not so obvious contexts which may be associated with democracy.

Recognising the various definitions of democracy provides a place for them, and those practicing them, at the democratic conversation table

This naming and recording of various definitions of democracy gives place to those definitions that may not have been considered or acknowledged before, often eclipsed by more prominent definitions like liberal democracy. Identifying a manifestation as 'democracy' and applying the term to it has the effect of recognising a wide range of practices as democratic. It gives them legitimacy among the other more prominent democracies identified.

This is a good thing.

Recognising the plural definitions of democracy provides a place for them at the democratic conversation table. By extension, it also creates a place at this table for the groups these definitions are about. It recognises their ability and legitimacy as practitioners of democracy, and it embraces the diversity of responses they bring to the question 'what is democracy?'.

This, one could argue, is in itself democratic.

Diversity of democracies

However, just because a definition contains 'democracy', does not necessarily mean it is a copy-and-paste version of another democracy. Can one definition be applied to another space and format, yet manifest itself just as effectively? This is where nuance comes into play. Here, we should consider other factors, such as the people involved, values, infrastructure, norms and the like.

For example, 'representative democracy' may be manifest in many contexts. Meanwhile, 'YouTube democracy' may manifest only in an online, video context. This is not to dismiss any overlaps between the two, such as voting. It is, however, a caution to pay attention to the factors unique to each definition.

Just as we celebrate diversity in each other, so we can appreciate diversity in democracy

This lack of translatability across contexts is not necessarily a bad thing. Neither does it diminish the legitimacy of a definition if it only manifests in one or a handful of spaces. Just as we celebrate diversity in each other, so we can appreciate diversity in democracy. One definition may be quite broad and encompassing, and can therefore be applied to multiple, even varying spaces. Another definition may be highly specific and much better suited to a niche space. This does not make one definition 'better' than another. Each definition simply is.

Discussing the meanings

Yet, to truly appreciate the multiple meanings of democracy, we must define their parameters. We cannot make judgements based on what we think a meaning is if we do not know its bounds. This is difficult when we only have definitions to work with. How can we truly know the meaning and parameters of a democracy if we only capture their names? And do the names themselves do justice to that particular practice of democracy?

The example above is based on my interpretations and general knowledge of what the definitions of representative and YouTube democracy mean. I have not explicitly consulted with the people who engage in these types of democracy for this hypothetical. What I present here is mere speculation about these definitions, based on what I know about them thus far, and how they manifest. I therefore conclude that they are better suited to different spaces.

Perhaps this conclusion is correct. But can we know this for certain unless the people who engage in these spaces are able to share how they experience and practice these definitions of democracy? This is a key component of understanding the diverse meanings of democracy. (See also Hans Asenbaum's contribution to this conversation.)

We cannot know our understanding is correct unless we listen to those who practice each definition of democracy

Identifying and recording the many definitions of democracy is very important. It lends voice to the previously unknown meanings of democracy and, by extension, the communities to whom these definitions refer. However, the definitions in and of themselves are not enough to truly understand and appreciate the 'total texture of democracy'. These definitions, while many and diverse, remain confined to the language and words used to describe them, and are often subject to the actors doing the defining.

Diving deeper

Capturing the many meanings of democracy is a valuable undertaking and a notable start. But if we choose to remain at definitions, we cut ourselves short. We rob ourselves of a deeper understanding of what democracy is, and hinder the empowering potential of this pursuit.

As we investigate further, we must engage with, consult and listen to the communities these definitions refer to. Enabling these communities to speak about how they know and practice their democracies is crucial for understanding the definitions, as well as empowering them in their practice. This should be a natural progression from Jean-Paul Gagnon’s current project. And undoubtedly, it would also be another mammoth undertaking in and of itself.

Number 44 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 Friedel Marquardt
Friedel Marquardt
PhD Candidate, University of Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society / Research Assistant, Centre of Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance

Friedel's PhD thesis explores to what extent social media can empower marginalised communities.

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