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Deliberating or quarrelling? Final draft of my thesis. November 7, 2010

Posted by Sverre in : Methods in political science, My master thesis, Political Theory , trackback

After a long and arduous process, the work on my master’s thesis is finally nearing the end. Here is a slightly adapted version of the introduction, and a link to the  print ready version (PDF).

Some of the inspiration for my thesis comes from an article in the student newspaper in Trondheim, Under Dusken, and similar comments over the following years. Political science professor Anders Todal Jenssen insisted that the student democracy in Trondheim lacked legitimacy because of the low voter turnout and that the introduction of political parties would be the solution to this problem. Binding platforms would make student politicians accountable to the voters and increase support for democracy. As a student representative myself at the time, I was provoked. We were proud of the lack of polarization within the student democracy and, although I didn’t know the term at the time, the level of deliberation. This started me on the quest for an alternative to Professor Todal Jenssen’s strong belief in the salience of political parties.

Democracy does of course seem unthinkable without political parties. Almost every democracy is dominated by a system of organized factions that structure, educate and drive the political process forwards. The necessity for such a system is no longer seriously questioned in political science. I do not believe, however, that any institution should be beyond question. Even if we have no intention to get rid of political parties, we should strive to understand the effect they have on democracy. As I will show in this thesis, one such effect may be reducing open and free deliberation among decision-makers. This may be a cost we are willing to pay, but not a cost we should pay without knowing its size. Deliberation should not be considered merely as a normative ideal for democracy, but also a descriptive model for understanding the workings of democracy. The amount and quality of deliberation may explain political decisions and outcomes that aggregative models do not. This should make deliberation a topic of interest even if one does not accept its normative justification.

Institutions influence the way democracy works. If deliberation is an important characteristic of democracy, we should take interest in how institutional design affects deliberation. There has been some research on this, but political parties, integral to almost all modern democracies, seem to have been neglected in this respect. I will show that there are sufficient theoretical reservations about their effect on deliberation that this should be a topic of proper empirical testing. To test the relationship between political parties and deliberation empirically, we need an approach for measuring deliberation. We should have a method with a theoretically sound basis, that measures what we want it to, and that is acceptable within the wider sphere of political science (a discipline that is both theoretically and empirically oriented).

I will examine various proposals for examining the amount and quality of deliberation and consider their respective strengths and weaknesses. The Discourse Quality Index seems to be the most promising such method in use today. I have tested the utility of the method for addressing whether political parties weaken deliberation in a political system. To do this I applied the method to two democratic bodies: the student parliaments of the universities in Trondheim and Oslo, Norway. Due to a limited amount of data I did not get significant results concerning the question itself, but I have collected practical experiences and new insight into the method and its applicability.

Quickly summarized, I find in my thesis that there seems to be sufficient theoretical grounds to support the assumption that political party systems are detrimental to deliberation. A major obstacle to empirical testing of this and other theories about deliberation is found in the current state of empirical methods. Several methods have been tried, but none seem to be able to completely combine the demands needed for the conclusions to gain general acceptance. The Discourse Quality Index seems to be the most sophisticated and promising of such methods, but there are still a number of problems that should be addressed. Read the entire thesis (PDF)

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