Why the concept of democracy, and data collection, matter

Tetsuki Tamura argues that we need a better and wider concept of democracy to capture democratic practices in unlikely places, such as the family

Gagnons challenge

Jean-Paul Gagnons original blog on The Loop, about collecting data on democracy, is a provocative work. Pointing out the partiality of previous democratic theories, he observes that the conventional understanding of democracy, no matter how comprehensive and universal it may seem, is based ultimately on modern, Europeanesque political iterations and has narrow Western-imperialist tendencies.

Gagnons prescription for this is to collect an unrestricted amount of data about democracy. He argues that a modern, Western, or European dataset alone is too narrow to convey what democracy really is.

Its significance

The merit of Gagnon's argument is easy to recognise. A broad, truly unbiased collection of democracy data can help us see how narrow was our previous understanding of democracy. In fact, some recent works seem to support Gagnons argument. John Keanes The Life and Death of Democracy alters our idea of ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy. In his book, the author looks at examples of democracy from the ancient world outside the West.

A broad, truly unbiased collection of democracy data can help us see how narrow was our previous understanding

Eva Meiers When Animals Speak also raises the question, as Gagnon himself once tried to do, of considering democracy as including animals. By broadening our horizons to include animals, we can enrich our understanding of democracy. Gagnons reference to lunar democracy, on democratic governance of the moon, also reminds us of the possibility of democracy in and/or on unlikely places.

Still the concept of democracy matters

Nonetheless, I would like to insist that we still need the concept of democracy. A concept is the lens through which we see phenomena. In order to see a creature as a butterfly the metaphor Gagnon uses we need the concept of a butterfly. Otherwise, we would not be able to find a butterfly in the world, no matter how much we searched.

It is only because we have the concept of democracy that we can find it in places where, at first sight, there is no such thing

The same is true of democracy: without some definition of democracy, we cannot find it. It is only because we have the concept of democracy that we can find it in places where, at first sight, there is no such thing.

Democracy in the private sphere

As for democracy in unlikely places, I have advocated democracy in the private sphere, including in the family. Democracy in the private sphere can include what its members see as democracy. Therefore, identifying it may require a great deal of data collection through fieldwork in various private spaces and relationships.

At the same time, however, I think there must also be practices we can conceptualise as democracy, even if people in private spheres do not perceive them as such. In this case, it would be the power of the concept that makes such practices democratic.

Polishing the fogged lenses

Despite the importance of the role of the concept of democracy, it is still important to collect data from as wide a range of sources as possible. The existing lenses through which we view democracy are often fogged, and may obscure what needs to be seen.

The original definition of democracy is simply everyone deciding on what concerns everyone. Yet existing definitions of democracy, in my view, have become excessively tied to the idea of the state or government. As a result, we are too often able to speak of democracy only in relation to state- or government-like institutions.

we are too often able to speak of democracy only in relation to state- or government-like institutions

This methodological statism or governmentalism in political theory is why most political theories fail to talk about the private spheres as units of democracy in their own right. Our view of democracy is indeed foggy; elements not necessarily essential to the concept of democracy have become attached to it. One way to dispel this fog is to collect a large number of cases of democracy which, through the existing lens, would not be judged as such.

The concept of democracy is necessary to capture what is conducted in unlikely ways, forms, and places as democracy. But we cannot find real varieties of democracy without refining the concepts we have. For this purpose, it is important to collect all kinds of butterflies, or data about democracy, in a broad and unbiased manner.

This article is the thirteenth 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 Tetsuki Tamura
Tetsuki Tamura
Professor of Political Science, Graduate School of Law, Nagoya Univerisity

Tetsuki is also an associate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra.

His fields of expertise include deliberative democracy, radical democracy, and feminism and political theory.

He is particularly interested in how a focus on politics and democracy in the private sphere can transform political science.

Tetsuki's research has been published in the Journal of Deliberative Democracy and the Japanese Political Science Review.

He has published widely in Japanese, including four single-authored and many (co-)edited or co-authored books.

Follow him on Twitter @ttya70

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
穢 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram