The term deliberation describes a communicative process with the goal of finding solutions to given problems. Definitions of deliberation vary greatly from very open conceptions that basically include any kind of talk to conceptions that focus on a rational discourse and specific ways of expression. These different notions of deliberation share the idea of the search of the solutions to a given problem. Thus deliberation is always a productive and creative process.

„Deliberation is actually an imaginative rehearsal of various courses of conduct. We give way, in our mind, to some impulse; we try, in our mind, some plan. Following its career through various steps, we find ourselves in imagination in the presence of the consequences that would follow: and we then like and approve, or dislike and disapprove, these consequences, we find the original impulse or plan good or bad.“ (Dewey 1960: 135)

Another important feature all definitions of deliberation share is the notion of publicity. The idea of deliberation is linked to conceptions of the public sphere as opposed to private talk. This link also explains why deliberation is a concept mostly discussed in political theory. Here deliberation is linked to the concept of democracy. Deliberative democracy is described as a process of those affected by a decision coming together to discuss the respective matter under conditions of fairness, freedom from domination, equality and reciprocity. However diverse the interests and identities of deliberators might be, they should keep an open mind and be open to opinion change as they perceive the arguments of others.

Deliberative democracy is best understood in comparison to common conceptions of democracy. The central mechanism of common conceptions of democracy consists of voting. The basic idea is that the will of individuals is expressed quantitatively. The rule of "one person one vote" ensures equality, while each can decide selfishly in accordance with his or her own interests. In this cumulative process the majority is decisive: 50 per cent plus one vote wins. In deliberative democracy, in comparison, deliberators ideally talk as long as it takes to reach a consensus. They are oriented towards the common good and thus seek to include the interests of others in their personal decisions. The openness to learning and opinion change enables the deliberators to grow together and overcome differences in opinion and fundamental objections. In the end of this process there are no clear winners and losers but rather everyone wins and loses a little. Ideally everyone wins as not a compromise but a true consensus emerges.

To understand deliberation one more distinction is key: the one between micro and macro deliberation. Micro deliberation refers to the unmediated conversation between those people affected by a decision. Micro deliberation is thus related to both participatory and direct democracy. Macro deliberation on the other hand describes a large scale communicative process characterized by mediation. Jane Mansbridge terms this the deliberative system: Citizens, activists, journalists and politicians talk to each other. Not all at the same time, but one to the other. They perceive different opinions through newspapers, television and the internet. The political decisions made in the end by office holders are a result of macro deliberation.

Some projects currently try to put the principles of deliberation into practice like James Fishkin's Deliberation Day using Deliberative Polling.


One cannot track with specificity when deliberation as a political practice started. On the search for the roots of the practice of deliberation one might start with the ancient Greek polis around 500 B.C. on which all those with citizenship (free men) had the right to gather and deliberate about public matters. This kind of deliberation is later reflected in the deliberative procedures in European and North American parliaments starting around 1000. And one should not overlook the role of social movements in developing deliberative practices. Many features of deliberation, like the notion of freedom from domination and decision making among equals, were key elements of anarchist movements.

In contrast to these practical experiences of deliberation, the history of ideas of deliberation can be traced with more precision. Some principles of deliberation can be traced back in democratic theory to works as early as Jean-Jaques Rousseau's (1712-1778). His idea of a social contract consisted of people of a polity coming togehter (micro deliberation) and discussing public matters in accordance with the common good. Rousseau's decision making process ended with voting, not with consensus. Nevertheless, most features of deliberation are apparent: unmediated communication in small, decentral units, a relatively equal distribution of wealth, and an orientation towards the common good and thus aiming at consensus.

The two founding fathers of deliberative democracy, however, are said to be John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. While Rawls and Habermas did not speak of deliberative democracy (at first) their conceptions of justice, an overarching consensus (Rawls) and a public sphere free from domination (Habermas) inspired the academic discourse that was to follow. This discourse actually started with Joseph M. Bessette coining the term "deliberative democracy" in the essay with the same title as early as 1980. Only after the translation of Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) in 1989 did the academic discourse on deliberative democracy pick up speed. Major publication by scholars like John Dryzek, Jon Elster, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Joshua Cohen, James Fishkin, James Bohmann, Jane Mansbridge, Iris Marion Young and many others followed.

Analysis and Criticism

The ideal of deliberation has been faced with different kinds of criticism. Realist democratic theorist argue that  a deliberative democracy can never be realized because modern capitalist societies are based on inequality. Deliberation is thus always governed by hierarchies which contradicts the ideal of freedom from domination. In this view a division of labour between leaders and followers is necessary. For the reason of scarce resources democracy can only take the form or representation.

Difference democrats argue that the ideal of consensus decision making and the orientation towards the common goods carries repressive features. If everyone is supposed to agree on one outcome those with fewer resources in a deliberative setting will feel greater pressure to conform. This inequality in deliberative setting mirrors inequalities and hierarchies in society. Thus marginalized groups like women, ethnic and sexual minorities, older, handicapped and poor people will be disadvantaged by deliberation. While voting secures the same influence by everyone, deliberation gives weight to the strongest arguments. The arguments that are perceived as the strongest will most likely be uttered by those with greater educational resources and rhetorical skills.

Another criticism uttered towards macro deliberation is that it might maintain the current status quo of inequality. If we perceive the current democratic system as deliberative, than it might be deduced that equality has also been achieved, since deliberative democracy requires equality. Radical democrats call for contestation, public demonstration and social movements activity to challenge the ruling order. Deliberation, in this view, appears reformist at best.

Secondary Sources

Bessette, Joseph (1980) "Deliberative Democracy: The Majority Principle in Republican Government," in How Democratic is the Constitution?, Washington, D.C., AEI Press. pp. 102–116.

Chappell, Zsusanna (2012): Deliberative Democracy – A Critical Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dewey, John (1960): Theory of the Moral Life, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Habermas, J. (1992). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society1st paperb. Cambridge: Politiy Press.

Mansbridge, J. (1983). Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2000): Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.



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