by Agustín Goenaga, The Loop
October 27, 2021
Jean-Paul Gagnon’s project to collect a ‘lexicon of democracy’ is promising. But not for the reasons he himself states, writes Agustín Goenaga. His database documents how thousands of people have thought about democracy. We can use those insights to reconsider what democracy should be for us
Jean-Paul Gagnon has proposed to build a lexicon of democracy. His proposal has sparked a discussion about the promises and pitfalls of applying positivist research methods to elucidate the nature of democracy. I agree with those who think that a ‘data mountain’ will not get us closer to answering what democracy is. But it may nonetheless help us address two other pressing questions: What shapes people’s ideas about democracy? And, what should democracy be for us?
Democracy as an ideal
Gagnon argues that without a full understanding of the myriad ways people have talked about democracy, we can draw only incomplete, partial and arbitrary pictures of what it is. This presupposes there is a definition of democracy we could grasp if only we collect, measure and classify every way democracy has been conceived.
However, the problem is not only that democracy is complex and multi-dimensional, and thus difficult to capture in its every manifestation. The problem is also that it is a normative concept. Definitions of democracy are partial, not because they are incomplete, but because they entail subjective judgments that emphasise certain values, institutions, practices, or social relations, and downplay others.
When political scientists ask ‘what is democracy?’, they often seek to clarify the shared understanding of democracy among members of a specific epistemic community. Or, they set out to propose an alternative view of what they think democracy is about. In both cases, the goal is to provide an ideal yardstick against which to evaluate ‘actually existing’ political arrangements.
Robert Dahl aimed to develop a normative ideal to evaluate political regimes based on preferences for certain values and practices
Take, for example, Robert Dahl’s work. Dahl did not survey all theories of democracy because his purpose was not to build a definition of the concept that could capture every specimen. His goal, rather, was to develop a normative ideal to evaluate political regimes based on his preferences for certain values and practices. He famously coined the term polyarchy to describe societies that approximated that ideal but inevitably remained short of attaining it.
What positivist research methods can do
Positivist research methods focus on the collection and analysis of empirical data. As such, they are not well suited to adjudicate between competing normative ideals, such as those that feed debates about what democracy is or should be. Positivist methods’ contribution to the study of democracy lies instead in their ability to identify and explain empirical regularities. Through them, we can better understand what factors push communities closer or further from whatever ideals we settle on.
Gagnon’s data mountain will not tell us much about what democracy is. However, it can put on display the range of normative ideals that others have attached to democracy
Hence, Gagnon’s databank of the vocabulary of democracy will not tell us much about what democracy is. However, it can put on display the range of normative ideals that others have attached to democracy. This can help us answer other questions that may be even more pressing for our current democratic challenges.
What shapes people’s ideas about democracy?
First, we can collect the texts and metadata (dates, times, sources, actors, etc.) of discussions about democracy. By so doing, we can learn what shapes people’s ideas about it. Recent studies suggest that people hold different understandings of democracy. They prioritise different practices and institutions, and expect democratic arrangements to solve different kinds of problems.
Michael Hansen and I analysed data from the European Social Survey. We found that women tend to consider more important for democracy those practices and institutions less likely to reproduce broader gender inequalities, such as direct participation through referendums. In other work, I have found that members of sexual and cultural minorities in Europe are more likely than the rest of the population to consider public spheres in which alternative perspectives can be voiced a central component of democracy.
A large corpus of democracy-related texts offers another way, free from the restrictions of survey data, to study how conceptions of democracy vary across people, time, and cultures. By applying Natural Language Processing techniques and other methods of content analysis to Gagnon’s databank, we could answer a number of questions: When is the language of democracy used to promote restrictive notions of citizenship? In what contexts are references to representation, participation, equality or accountability more prominent in discussions about democracy? Which actors are more likely to refer to deliberation rather than voting when talking about democracy?
Second, a repository of conceptions of democracy can serve as the point of departure for comparative democratic theory. Every time someone uses the word ‘democracy’, they evoke values, institutions, practices, and social relations they associate with democratic decision-making.
Every time someone uses the word ‘democracy’, they evoke values, institutions, practices, and social relations they associate with democratic decision-making
Gagnon urges us to critically explore a wide array of alternative conceptions of democracy. This, I believe, would give us more resources to think about what we do and don’t want our democracy to be.
For instance, we could reconsider which kinds of normative problems our political systems should solve to count as democratic; and rediscover forgotten or overlooked practices and institutions that have served democratic functions in other contexts. We could also interrogate what kinds of social relations we should democratise: from the family, to the workplace, to our relationship with nature.
Not a museum, but an archive
Gagnon is not a butterfly collector but the youngest of the Brothers Grimm. He is not collecting and dissecting dead specimens, but stories charged with meaning, dead-ends, mistakes, tragedies, hopes, and ideals. That is the most promising aspect of his proposal. It does not create a museum of natural history. Rather, it creates a living archive, one that offers us a way to study how thousands of people have thought about democracy. We must use its insights to reconsider what democracy should be for us.