Catching Methods Up to Concepts: Using Interpretive Methods to Study Public Deliberation

Selen Ercan (University of Canberra), Carolyn Hendriks (ANU) and Soton’s own John Boswell were last week awarded the prize for Best Article in Policy & Politics in 2017. The blog post below highlights the key messages in the paper – but you can read the full version, open access for a limited time, here.


 

Deliberative democracy is one of the fastest growing fields of normative political theory and empirical research. Over the past 15 years, it has expanded in at least two directions. The first expansion occurred as a result of the ‘empirical turn’ in deliberative democracy. It has seen a growing number of empirical studies on deliberative sites both within and outside of the institutions of representative democracy. The second significant expansion occurred as a result of the ‘systemic turn’ in deliberative democracy which views public deliberation as a broader communicative activity, taking place within and beyond discrete forums. For the most part, these two ‘turns’ in deliberative democracy—the empirical turn and the systemic turn—have pulled in different directions. Empirically, deliberative democrats have been increasingly fascinated with the micro-dynamics of deliberative forums, while, theoretically, the push has been to expand understandings of public deliberation beyond the forum into the public sphere. In other words the conceptual expansion has not necessarily been accompanied by a methodological expansion. Many of the tools and techniques developed to examine deliberation in structured forums are not well-suited to understanding the complexities and dynamics of entire deliberative systems. Furthermore much of the empirical research on such forums have been grounded on what Mark Bevir and Nabil Ansari label a ‘modernist’ research tradition. Derived from the natural sciences, a modernist approach to Political Science sets out to make ‘value free’ observations of the social world, subject hypotheses to empirical testing, identify causal relationships between the dependent and independent variables and, ultimately, develop generalizable laws to explain past events, or predict future ones. The limitations of this research tradition has become particularly visible as notions of public deliberation have expanded from ‘a forum’ to a ‘deliberative system’.

In our recent article ‘Studying Public Deliberation after Systemic Turn: The Crucial Role for Interpretive Research’ we argue that understanding the complex world of deliberative systems requires empirical researchers to go beyond the modernist research paradigms, and look for alternative ways of defining and studying public deliberation. A conceptual expansion without methodological expansion may easily fail to capture the uniqueness of the new concept. Considering the unique characteristics of the notion of deliberative system that sets it apart from the prevailing understandings of deliberation, we argue that interpretive research methods are particularly well suited to study the deliberative systems in practice. Interpretive research methods provide an in-depth, close-up, context-specific understandings of a phenomenon or experience that is ‘in the dark’.

A central challenge for empirical studies of deliberative systems is to identify the various components of the system and its boundaries. By drawing on existing and emerging studies we show that interpretive research can help 1) to identify and portray deliberative sites, agents and discursive elements in a deliberative system, 2) study connections and transmissions across different sites, and 3) understand the broader political context of both small-scale deliberative forums, and entire deliberative systems. We acknowledge that this list of roles that interpretive research can play in the study of deliberative systems is not definitive but it represents some of the most significant contributions that interpretive methods can make to empirical studies of deliberative systems.

Selen A. Ercan, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance

Carolyn M. Hendriks, Australian National University, Crawford School of Public Policy

John Boswell, University of Southampton, Politics and International Relations