Deliberation and Power Asymmetries in Citizens' Assemblies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Politics


Deliberative democracy places deliberation - a process of reason-giving, oriented towards reaching agreement - at the heart of democratic decision-making (Habermas 1996; Forst 2001). Advocates hold that deliberation offers emancipatory potential - in supporting participants to become better informed in relation to public policy issues, to develop skills in political judgement and to better understand the positions of others (Ackerman and Fischkin 2002). Through this, advocates hold that deliberation leads to better decisions, which take into account the interests of all participants, and to the establishment of more cohesive, more sustainable - and indeed, more legitimate - societies (Gutman and Thompson 2009).

A number of political scientists, politicians and activists have sought to develop real-world deliberative practices. Citizens' assemblies are a notable example - whereby a group of citizens are brought together to deliberative on a public policy question and to develop a proposal (Michels and de Graaf 2010). This can be seen in the recent Citizens' Assembly on Brexit, an ESRC-funded initiative which brought together a number of people broadly representative of the UK electorate to engage in discussions and make recommendations about what the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU should be (Renwick et al 2017).

Yet empirical studies have shown that deliberative practices do not deliver the benefits which theorists posit (Fournier et al 2011). This bolsters a prominent theoretical critique: that deliberation has an inherently conservative dynamic, and perpetually risks reproducing power inequalities. Critics argue that deliberation is skewed against the disadvantaged, whether because vested interests control the institutional setting, participants hold unequal deliberative resources, or internalised bias and hegemonic discourses hold sway (Sanders 1997; Young 2001; Mihai 2015). Thus far, deliberative democrats have failed to come to terms with this fundamental challenge. But critics have failed to fully appreciate deliberation's resources for addressing it.

Through this project, I seek to recover deliberation's emancipatory potential and answer this central question: to what extent can deliberation act as a mechanism for addressing structural power inequalities?


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2096287 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2026 Lewis Cooper