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My thesis and my blog June 24, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : My master thesis , trackback

This blog hasn’t gotten the attention it did a few months ago. There are several reasons for this, but most of them boil down to the fact that I’ve been occupied with other things, among them my Norwegian language blog Det politiske dyr. Another thing that has gotten too little attention has been my master thesis. I’ll now be trying to kill two birds with one stone through using this blog as a tool for my master thesis work. Beginning with right now I am going to start posting bits and pieces from my thesis in temporary versions as I write them. My hope is that someone will actually read it and comment on any errors, weaknesses, disagreements or even encouragement. I don’t believe in hogging my secrets, arguments and data. If I open myself to continuous commentary, I might possibly have some insights I otherwise wouldn’t have.

I start off with posting the last rewrite of the outline of my thesis:

Thesis outline

I start out with a belief that deliberation is important to democracy and that our current systems of democracy are in several ways detrimental to good deliberation. I believe that this affects the quality and outcome of political decisions without actually empowering the people in the way supposed by much of current thought.

I do however realize that my beliefs are not very important to anyone but myself. My beliefs have no relevance to scientific debate if I cannot transform them from beliefs into complete scientific arguments. I am furthermore of the impression that current thought on deliberation, although far advanced, suffers a lack of credence in the social sciences because of weak empirical underpinnings.

This has led me to single out three research topics, each of which will be devoted a separate section of this thesis. The topics are separate and will be handled with different methodical approaches, but will hopefully constitute a meaningful totality. My main goal is to effectively argue that deliberation is important to democracy and to contribute in the search of effective ways to strengthen that idea through empirical research.

I) Why deliberation is important in representative democracy

The first research question is the simplest, but also easily the most controversial. But it is my opinion that one cannot start a theoretical debate without first asking “why?” What makes this a relevant topic of research? That is what I will try to answer in the first part of my paper.

I will not try to argue that deliberative democracy is a completely different type of democracy, one that is superior to and inconsistent with the current trend of liberal representative democracy. Quite the contrary, I will try to argue that deliberation is neither inconsistent with liberalism nor the ideals of representative democracy, but are in fact necessary parts of any working system of democracy. Following this I will not argue for the overthrow of the modern style of democracy, rather just to highlight some potential problems so that they may in the future be properly addressed, and some of the potential harmful effects remedied.

This section will mostly be a theoretical argument, drawing upon the classics of democratic thought, the major liberal thinkers and the recent day theorists concerned with deliberation.

II) How some aspects of our current institutions serve to discourage deliberation

Although I will not argue the overthrow of the current institutions of democracy, I will try to show how the current system doesn’t facilitate good deliberation, but in some instances actually discourages it. In particular I will examine the formation and power of political parties, and how we can expect these to have a particularly detrimental effect on deliberation within the political system.

This section will also to a large degree be theoretical in focus. I will however try to supplement theory with existing empirical research to the degree this is available.

III) How deliberation may be studied empirically

Studies of deliberation, despite having spawned a rather rich theoretical literature over the last few decades seem to have had a disproprtionally weak impact on the mainstream of political science. I attribute much of this to a view of deliberation as a utopian concept that has so far belonged mostly to the realm of philosophy with too little empirical research. In particular, its perceived non-quantitative nature seems to be at odds with the dominant naturalistic methodoligcal paradigm of current political science. This thesis aims to remedy some of that through exploring possibilities for empirical studies of deliberation.

Using two Norwegian student political bodies as the basis, I will apply a method developed by Jürg Steiner et al. in their book Deliberative politics in action, the most promising method yet to see extensive empirical testing. This comparative study will be used as a basis for evaluating the effectiveness of this method for testing the effect of political parties on deliberation as well as its general applicability to studies of deliberation.


1. LFC - September 6, 2009

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I am not very familiar with the literature on deliberation so I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer much in the way of substantive comment. Just based on reading the outline, however, I would raise a question about the relation of parts II and III. In part II you’re going to argue that “we can expect” political parties to have a deleterious effect on deliberation. So is this going to be a hypothesis-testing exercise in which you hypothesize in pt. II that political parties are “bad” for deliberation and then proceed to test this hypothesis (not definitively, no doubt, but test it after a fashion) in pt.III? Or have I missed the point?
The outline sounds ambitious, btw, which is not necessarily a criticism. And it sounds like you’re going to draw on both normative and empirical theory (if i can use that distinction) as well as data, which is all to the good, at least imho.

2. sverrebm - September 7, 2009

You understood my intentions pretty good. One of the things I try to address is the philosophical and normative nature of deliberation literature. Empirical research is sorely lacking, imho a reason why it is not taken seriously enough by “mainstream” political science.

The relation between II and III, as you suggest, is to make a quantitative comparison to test the hypothesis. The results will surely be far from decisive, but the main goal is to show a method that might with more data give sufficient results to support the hypothesis. With the current state of research on deliberation, such methods are yet largely untried and theoretical.

3. LFC - October 1, 2009

I wrote a comment and erased it by mistake. Short version: Just in case you aren’t aware of it (though you probably are), Nancy Rosenblum’s recent book On the Side of the Angels, subtitled ‘a defense of parties and partisanship,’ may have some relevance to what you are doing. I haven’t read it but I think there was an online forum about it a while ago on Jacob T. Levy’s blog. It’s also no doubt been widely reviewed.

4. sverrebm - October 2, 2009

No, I wasn’t aware, and it isn’t in the ever-increasing pile of books on my desk. Thanks for the tip, I will be sure to look it up!