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Book Club Week 6: De-centering Deliberative Democracy by Iris Marion Young

Hello everyone, my name is Monique Pierel. I live in southern New Hampshire. I work as a community and workplace mediator and an online group facilitator.  I have participated as a volunteer in public forums. Participating in this book club is one means for me to be a cog in the wheel of great changes occurring in our nationwide public venues!

For this week’s NCDD book club discussion, I offer you a brief synopsis of the late Iris Marion Young’s chapter – De-centering Deliberative Democracy. I hope my overview of her writing will inspire you to add your thoughts and comments on this fascinating topic.

Chapter Overview

In this chapter, author Iris Marion Young looks beyond the common view of deliberative democracy as “citizen dialogue in face-to-face groups,” stating that limiting our concept of deliberative democracy in this way actually “blunts its theoretical insight and critical force.”  Building on Jurgen Habermas’ work, Young argues that deliberative democracy should be conceived primarily as de-centered, involving “multiple forums and sites connected to one another over broad spans of space and time” (113).

Young recognizes that a broader and more de-centered view of deliberative democracy brings with it challenges in evaluating the quality of public discussion and decision making, and spends much of her chapter looking at criteria for evaluating de-centering processes.  She proposes a new criterion she calls “linkage” — which would look for “evidence that various mediated sites and occasions for discussion across diverse social spaces and over an extended time are connected to one another” (122).

Young begins with a critique of Jurgen Habermas’ book Between Facts and Norms that speaks to democratic processes inclusive of the ‘de-centered’ approach that she regards as an important stepping stone to her theory. Her thoughts on this are best described in “The Critique of a Centered Concept of Deliberation” section found on page 114 – an important read that expresses pertinent foundational details to her approach.

One aspect that she pulls from Habermas’ book is the common method of political and civic leaders presenting alternative responses to social problems, which are discussed then legislatively processed and enforced. These public policy transitions take place within a ‘space and time’ spectrum offering ‘outcomes that can be questioned and improved’ (119).

Young leads readers to the four criteria she considers necessary for a good democratic process: political equality, reasonableness, publicity and inclusion (119). She cites Joan Scott’s French discussion of ‘parite’ (122) as an example on how her suggested theory might apply.  Within the context of this example, she adds her fifth criterion, ‘linkage’ (120). A general explanation to this term is in part provided when she writes, “Thus in order to assess the quality of a de-centered deliberative process across mass democracy – whether and how sites and occasions that are part of the process appear to influence or refer to one another” (123).

I feel a bit frustrated with the broadness of her approach and the appearance of no specific solution to grasp hold of.  Because collaboration is an important factor in the work that I do, I can understand Young’s theory on ‘linkage’ and the need for agencies to work together. Yet I feel stumped at the magnitude of the tasks necessary to put her theory into practice and would appreciate your comments on how we can work together on creating the type of ‘linkages’ she suggests.

Questions for Discussion…

  1. My brief chapter review highlights factors I found interesting in Young’s chapter. I am curious to know what factors you found most interesting during your read?
  2. Do you lean toward a ‘centered’ or ‘de-centered’ methodology?
  3. What are the implications of a ‘de-centered’ view of deliberative democracy for our field, and the way we talk about, practice, and promote deliberation?
  4. What do you think of the implementation of her theory for democratic improvements and changes?
  5. What methods of compiling public data could be provided in fulfilling her criteria termed as ‘linkages’?
  6. If Young was sitting before you, what questions would you ask of her? What clarifications would be helpful?
  7. How might her criteria be used in your community or work?

This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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  1. One thing that really struck me in Iris’ chapter was the assertion (from Habermas) that “modern societies are too complex ever to engage in a single process that can be moved in one direction or another.” What implications does this have for large-scale efforts at national dialogue, such as those run by AmericaSpeaks on the federal budget and social security? Or National Issues Forums’ annual issue that they encourage people to run forums on? Or ideas like that proposed by Harold McDougall in the Huffington Post recently to establish a widespread “Citizen’s Assembly” process to establish an ingrained civic infrastructure (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harold-a-mcdougall/civic-engagment_b_1637398.html)? Or Jim Rough’s idea for a constitutional amendment to initiate a national Wisdom Council?

    It seems to me that many in our field would consider these types of broad-scale deliberative processes to be fairly de-centered — assuming they allow for multiple methods, multiple types of forums (large forums, small groups, online discussion, etc., etc.), multiple types of inputs, and so on.

    But Young says that “to be useful for theory and practice of democracy today, experiments with deliberative participation in citizens juries, deliberative opinion polls, study circles, and face-to-face consultation should be understood as a part of a democratic process between tens of millions of strangers in multiple locales over a period of months or years.”

    What are the implications of this thinking for our practice, and especially for these broader efforts (which don’t seem broad enough, by far, to be truly considered de-centered)?

    • You’ve asked a million dollar (pound, euro, etc.) question here in your final sentence: What WOULD be the implications of decentered practice? The principal thing that comes to mind immediately is the possibilities of integrating deliberative processes in all major social institutions and deciding key decisions.

      A very provocative topic, indeed, but I can’t say I begin to fully comprehend what its implications may be.

    • I don’t mean to start a disciplinary/professional food fight here, but one possible practice approach along the lines of my previous comment that would outline a practice approach consistent with Young’s de-centering would be to replace or expand current public relations and marketing approaches in institutions of all types – government, business and nonprofits – with staff whose function was not to tell the world what the institution wants it to hear but to engage the world in dialogue on the relevant questions.

      • Monique Pierel says:

        Thanks all for your comments and for moving this flow of conversation. There seems to be a multitude of avenues in which to direct this discussion so I’ll just start with a point that is important to me…how can the information gathered from the citizens (no matter what the venue) be used by the decision makers, and often times this means politicians, to create the change that these processes can produce.

        I haven’t quite grasped how Young’s ‘de-centered’ method can be logically and practically implemented. Did she mean for her theory to be applied nationwide, globally or other? I got the impression from this chapter that connecting communities was a basic thread to her theory.

        So what I’m now visualizing is concentric circles integrated into one another that can eventually reach our social decision makers who use the information gathered from the citizenry. Sounds a little ethereal but I’m trying to understand how to apply Young’s ideas in a manner that makes sense to me.

        I will join you again later to learn more from you…

      • Sarah Read says:

        I agree that could be a good criteria for evaluation!

    • Sarah Read says:

      I thought that this chapter is like chapters 2 and 5, in that it grapples with the reality that (p. 117) “In large democracies, what happens locally is complexly conditioned by actions and decisions that are global, national, or regional in reach.” One thought that stood out for me in reading this chapter was that, because of the nature of this complex, de-centered system, the changes introduced by more “centered” deliberative processes may be more organic than linear in effect. This does not mean that change will not happen or that it will not have a direction that can be mapped over time, although the nature, extent, and timing of that change might be hard to predict.

      I also read this chapter not as suggesting that as facilitators in either “centered” or “de-centered” processes, when we help promote the skills of critical thought in facilitating discussion, uphold values of inclusiveness and reciprocity in designing processes, and challenge “linked” modes to be accountable for the decisions made, we are helping to introduce changes that over time can take hold more broadly. I think Young’s essential point is that we should look more intentionally at how to apply the values of the more centered deliberative processes to the more complex “de-centered” system, and that we could speed change by introducing evaluation processes that challenge that system to improve. More on this in my post below.

      • I’d like to connect Roger’s (upstream) reference to public relations with Sarah’s call for “evaluation processes that challenge that system to improve”, and Tom’s comment as well.

        The public relations function (as I understand, from way on the outside) has some responsibility for how the organization, politician, or other client is viewed by a possibly well-defined but often quite broad audience. To the extent that “public acclaim” is like weather, a good PR person is expected to do something about it, across all sorts of boundaries.

        Linkages and linkage evaluation, practically speaking, also crosses all sorts of boundaries. If I facilitate a harmonious town meeting to, say, raise taxes for the town’s new school, and decision is later overturned because of an uproar sparked by local newspaper editorials, the broader process or, a la Mansbridge, the link between the formal deliberation and the larger deliberative system has turned out not as was planned.

        PR is often required to deal with this bigger picture. Is that ever part of the scope of work for a D&D practitioner?

  2. David Kahane says:

    We’ve been wrestling with these questions in Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD)(www.albertaclimatedialogue.ca), where our objective is to increase the involvement of citizens in climate change policy making. Our first major project is a Citizen Panel in partnership with the City of Edmonton and the Centre for Public Involvement, where 60 diverse citizens will spend six days together coming to grips with issues of climate change and energy vulnerability, and with their own values and priorities; they’ll then make recommendations to the City about pathways to GHG mitigation and energy resilience.

    The structure of this Edmonton process would be familiar to NCDD’ers — facilitated deliberation involving a small proportion of the City population that will give a read on what Edmontonians in general might want if they had the opportunity and incentive to dwell with the issue, exchange perspectives, weigh trade offs, reason publicly, etc. Within time and resource constraints we’re also seeking to involve civil society organizations in advising on materials and process, and to give the Panel a profile in media and social media.

    Young’s chapter challenges ABCD to see exercises like this one as part of a broader ecosystem of deliberation. More fundamentally, though, it invites us to increase linkages with this broader ecosystem in the design of deliberations. Some quick thoughts on how this might play out for D&D practitioners:

    * It might move us away from random recruitment and toward drawing participants from civil society organizations that are themselves homes for broader and more sustained conversations. And it might move us to institutionalize deliberative bodies so that these linkages can become robust. (E.g. more like Brazilian health councils, less like short-duration citizen assemblies, panels, etc.)

    * It might lead us to invest more heavily in supporting participants in formal deliberative bodies to participate in other settings of communication and action in their communities.

    * It might lead us to deprofessionalize deliberative models, so that they’re much more closely linked to popular education, community organizing, and grassroots energies.

    * It might lead us to build centralized, formal deliberations on the foundation of ‘distributed dialogues’ in civil society organizations. (This is a strategy that ABCD is exploring now — providing materials and support for dialogues within churches, unions, community leagues, farmers’ groups, etc.; and then bringing together a province-wide assembly that draws from this learning and these participants.)

    Lots to think about here — and it strikes me (including as an alumnus of the Citizenship DRC — http://www.drc-citizenship.org/ ) that this is a place where North American researchers and practitioners could learn a lot from more embedded and grassroots forms of deliberation in the global south.

    Looking forward to others’ thoughts.

    • Monique Pierel says:

      Hey David,
      Best of luck with the Alberta Climate Dialogue. It sounds like this project will take months perhaps even years to complete. The citizenry seems to be very involved with the participation. I am curious to know if the information gleaned will be utilized by the decision makers of Edmonton. Given Young’s theory on de-centered processes do you believe that the Alberta Climate Dialogue contains the criteria that she mentions on pg 119 as “political equality, reasonableness, publicity, and inclusion”?

  3. Phil Neisser says:

    Hello everyone, and thank you Monique for your guidance in our encounter with Young’s essay.

    I see Young’s argument as useful in the same way that many of the essays in “Democratizing Deliberation” are useful, in reminding us that we — as practitioners and advocates of dialogue and deliberation — should do our work with a normative vision of the public sphere in mind. I also think we would be wise to heed Young’s normative vision of the public sphere as one that involves “multiple forums and sites connected to one another over broad spans of space and time.”

    On the other hand, it seems to me that Young’s vision of the public sphere is entirely compatible with the advocacy of individual dialogic and/or deliberative events that are “centered.” Also – or to say what I just said another way – I see nothing wrong with understanding deliberative democracy as consisting of “citizen dialogue in face-to-face groups” as long as it is understood that democracy requires (a) many such groups and (b) democratic forms of linkage between these groups.

    Along these same lines, I should perhaps say that I’m not convinced that Young is right when she says that many advocates of deliberative democracy utilize a centered vision. She might exaggerate in this respect, in her effort to make her point about the need for a de-centered vision.

    Finally, I agree with the rest of you in thinking that the challenge that Young offers us is to expand and democratize society’s public sphere linkages. How can we create or encourage democratic forms of linkage between D and D events? How more generally might society become more democratic on the degree of linkage it provides between the thousands of conversations that are underway at any given time? And how can linkage be created such that those of lesser means, or those who are otherwise somehow marginalized, become better connected to the ongoing public conversation?

    Thank, Phil

  4. How do the facilitators here “connect” deliberations that are meant to be part of a larger whole? If I’ve facilitated a session for the “North Campus” and you’ve facilitated a parallel session for the “South Campus”, do we just staple reports together? Do we bring in representatives of each campus for a third, facilitated “summary session”?

    Some other options: (1) Sarah Read’s “on-ramps” (search for the term in the Mansbridge comments), e.g. document drafts or world cafés that bring new people into the conversation; (2) Simon Wright’s purpose-built “everyday talk” space (search for “Nazi” in the Mansbridge post) suggests getting participants from the two campuses together in a commons space. [Links omitted to avoid wordpress comment spam filter :-( ]

    If you’ve been challenged to bring together results from multiple deliberations involving different participants, how did you handle it? I’m interested in de-centering in action.

    • I couldn’t read the chapter (not being a member yet, and my library not having the book), but I wanted to join Chris in a short reply to Monique’s comment: “I feel a bit frustrated with … the appearance of no specific solution to grasp hold of. …stumped at the magnitude of the tasks necessary to put her theory into practice and would appreciate your comments on how we can work together on creating the type of ‘linkages’ she suggests.”

      One possibility that I’m hoping to develop further is vote mirroring. It’s an online technique of linkage and aggregation for expressions of agreement or consensus (votes). It works by copying the votes from their various native forms, translating them to a single form, and combining them into a coherent whole. Consider an analogy with natural language: “Guten Tag, mon ami. How are you?”

      Imagine these phrases are not only disjoint in language, but also in space and time. When viewed in a “French” mirror, they might be combined and translated as, “Bonjour, mon ami. Comment ça va?” Or in an “English” mirror, “Good day, my friend. How are you?”

      This is roughly how vote mirroring works, except that it translates votes instead of words. A recent proposal for putting this technique into practice is called “public parties”. These are pseudo-political-parties that use a mirroring network in order to cut across, interlink and de-polarize the real parties. The hope is to reverse or remedy the “structural transformation of the public sphere”, as Habermas has called it. (Please click on the “discussion” tab for links to discussions.) http://metagovernment.org/wiki/User:Michael_Allan/Public_parties

      Chris, would it be possible to email the missing links to me? mike+dated+1343822523.cab50c@havoc.zelea.com

  5. Tom Atlee says:

    I like ALL of these – everything from Monique, Sandy, Roger, David, Phil, Chris.. – although I don’t resonate with the idea that we need to choose one approach over another. I think the question is not only what are the possible links between the modes, but what are the synergies. In my view we need
    * representative government;
    * methods for individual and collective input;
    * support for broad high-quality civic dialogue;
    * focused ad hoc randomly selected mini-publics (citizens juries, wisdom councils, etc.) who can recommend solutions and directions to officials and the public;
    * powerfully productive very visible conversations among archetypal opponents (left/right, pro-choice/pro-life, Israel/Palestine, etc.);
    * conversations involving whoever shows up, AND those involving randomly selected citizens, AND those involving civil society organization networks, AND those involving diverse selected stakeholders AND…. as well as active links among them all.

    Furthermore – and this may be my unique contribution to this conversation – I suggest there is a feedback connector between “centered” and “de-centered” that goes beyond Young’s “links” between separate conversations. This “connector” that has to do with the possibility of mass “field effects” generated by media, journalism, and other mass story phenomena. A well-publicized randomly selected mini-public conversation about a social issue or public concern can generate interests, shifts, and energies – and even vicarious participation, if designed well – in the broader population that can then be processed and harvested in mass conversations (formal or informal, face-to-face and online). The feedback loop is rounded out through iteration, as when a new mini-public is subsequently randomly selected from the now more sophisticated public, etc. This process, repeating, is a powerful form of collective intelligence, embracing both centered and de-centered modes and enabling the community or society as a whole to be more responsive to changes in and around it.

    I see an excellent example of this in the 40 pages of coverage provided by Canada’s MACLEAN’S magazine and Canadian TV in MACLEAN’S 1991 “The People’s Verdict” issue describing a Roger FIsher-facilitated deliberation among 12 Canadians scientifically selected to represent all sectors/vectors in Canadian society. See co-intelligence(DOT)org/S-Canadaadvrsariesdream(DOThtml) for full pdf of the MACLEAN’S issue and a summary, and The Tao of Democracy chapter 12 for my long description online at radio-weblogs(DOT)com/0120875/stories/2003/03/22/theCanadianExperiment(DOThtml)

    Peggy Holman’s efforts to bridge the world of leading-edge journalism (“Journalism that Matters”) with leading-edge D&D and community engagement practitioners seems to hold some promise for this.

    Drama, public relations, and other forms of impacting the public “field” are also possible connectors between centered and de-centered modes.

    FInally, Young seems to side-step the issue of where policy-making coherence comes from. It must come from somewhere. Does she leave it to politicians and bureaucrats to make that coherence out of the ocean of decentered public conversation and individual citizenship (and special interest lobbying and expert testimony and…), or is there a role for deliberating citizens to actually generate some of that coherence? If we want the latter, then those “centered” forms of public engagement must be included, if not featured, in our deliberative democracy formulations.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Tom! You put your finger on something that was bothering me about the general idea of de-centered deliberative democracy… coherence. How to make sense of zillions of inputs from various forums, comments, media, etc., etc., and WHO makes sense of them? The reality of any deliberative democracy process in the U.S. in our current system, no matter how large-scale and wide-spread, is that it can still only be one of numerous streams of influence and information coming at decision-makers. Yet what do we give up when we loosen our grasp of even the HOPE of our organized efforts to engage citizens being able to influence the decisions of those in power?

  6. Sarah Read says:

    For me the key thought in Young’s chapter was that if we can develop a common language for identifying and analyzing both the “linkages” discussed here and also the “disconnects” which need repair within our complex democratic processes, our field could have a broader impact, and the progress toward a more “deliberative democracy” would occur more quickly. As Tom notes above, evaluating “linkages” could include evaluation of both modes and synergies within the system. One criteria for evaluating “linkages” is suggested by a phrase on p. 116: taken as a whole, is it a “. . . process that relates the representatives to those whom they might be said to represent”? Another clue offered for evaluation criteria is in the contrast of the the illustration of the model of “de-centered deliberative democracy” on p. 118, with the pragmatic observations on p. 120-121 regarding how lack of linkages leads to opportunities for “allowing persons and groups with greater power to dominate discussion, or coerce and threaten others; for effectively excluding some persons and groups from participation; for allowing appeals to fear or selfishness to guide people’s opinions”. This suggests that we should ask where the flow of ideas and information, and the understanding of interrelationships and consequences, is unduly constricted within the system, how and why, in order to evaluate what might help. On p. 123 the author further notes that when various groups or segments of the population discuss issues in isolation, they are not able to effectively influence each other, and on p. 124 she similarly warns of situations when a “de-centered” discussion “in the main tends to express the of view of only some segments of the affected people.” So we might also ask – what are the “sites and occasions” that are affected by the issue or problem, and how if at all do they “influence or refer to one another” ? Asking questions like this will help us better identify what is happening and why, how we would like it to be, and where improvements might be made.

    As Young notes on p. 23, if we can find a way to address the issues of “linkage”, incorporating evaluation of the values of critical thought, inclusiveness, reciprocity and mutual respect, which were also discussed in various ways in chapters 2 and 5, in the “de-centered” system would be relatively straightforward.

  7. Simon Wright says:

    I’d have loved to have participated in this week’s discussion – great stuff – but it’s been one of those weeks.

    Just thought I say that this week’s talk reminds me of one of my favorite articles on deliberation. Is this an example of part of a decentred system? …

    The site: an online forum for a realatity TV show. Guess what, using a Habermasian frame, some researchers concluded that good quality political talk broke out regularly (about 25% of the time) and a lot of it was deliberative and resulted in participants coming to shared understandings and some level of agreement about how people should act and why. No moderator, no carefully structured process, no carefully balanced information. Just people going about the task of making their society, working out values and ethics, etc. Very cool.

    I read the article in the proceedings of a conference which I have on my work PC. I did a quick Google search and think this is probably it but haven’t got time to do a proper check now – I’ve a birthday cake to decorate urgently – but will check on Monday – http://javnost-thepublic.org/article/2010/4/2/

    • Simon – From your summary and the abstract, clearly it’s an example of the deliberative capacity (perhaps inevitability) of everyday talk – the meat of the last chapter.

      From the perspective of this chapter, the question would be – how did the deliberations in the reality tv forum link with other deliberations? Did they have an impact on the larger deliberative system?

      • Simon Wright says:

        Thanks for clarifying where this fits, Chris. Yes it is ‘everyday talk’, and example of how deliberation is in the normal repertoire group communications. It seems to me that we should be looking at social and political impacts very broadly in this context.

        I’ve checked my work PC and I did get the paper wrong. The one I wanted to refer to was “What’s Wife Swap Have to Do with It? Talking
        Politics Online” by Todd Graham
        http://www.od2010.dico.unimi.it/docs/proceedings/Proceedings_OD2010.pdf#page=109

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