Experimentalist Democracy

July 15, 2022 Nina Sartor
May 25, 2018 richards1000
May 21, 2018 richards1000

"Experimentalist democracy" is a method of participatory governance described by John Dewey and Elizabeth Anderson, in which citizens and public officials deliberate together in an iterative process to identify and address public problems.


"Experimentalist democracy" -- sometimes called "experimental democracy" -- is a method of participatory governance described by John Dewey in "The Public and Its Problems" and Elizabeth Anderson in "The Epistemology of Democracy," in which citizens and public officials deliberate together in an iterative process to identify and address public problems. In experimentalist democracy, citizens and public officials meet regularly to deliberate in order to identify public problems, devise policies to address those problems, implement the policies, examine and evaluate the consequences of those policies, develop improvements to the policies, implement the improved policies, examine and evaluate the consequences of the improved policies, and so on.

Problems and Purpose

According to Dewey, in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, many public officials had lost touch with ordinary citizens, and many citizens had begun to feel alienated from the state and from their local communities. As a result of these circumstances, many public policies lacked effectiveness because they were not informed by knowledge of local conditions, and many communities lacked cohesion. Experimentalist democracy has the potential to address these problems. Citizens' participation in policy development, evaluation, and reform introduces citizens' rich knowledge of local circumstances into the policy process, leading to more effective policies that are likely to become still more effective over time. In addition, citizens' regular participation in policy deliberation with their neighbors, as well as with public officials, is likely to increase citizens' social ties with their local community and their identification with that community, and their sense of the relevance of and need for the state. Further, the need to identify criteria for evaluating policies is likely to cause citizens to acquire a greater understanding of and concern for the public interest.


Examples of experimentalist democracy include the Community Score Card method of participatory program evaluation developed by CARE, Community Forestry Groups described by Agarwal (2000, 2001) and Anderson (2006), Ecosystem-Based Management, community-based ecosystem management (Bliss et al., 2001; Gray, Enzer, & Kusel, 2001; Gray, Fisher, & Jungwirth, 2001), and the embedded funding approach to community philanthropy (Allen-Meares et al., 2011).

Participant Selection

In the descriptions of experimentalist democracy by Dewey and Anderson, the mode of participant selection is not specified. Dewey suggests that the mode is self-selection, as deliberation about public problems arises naturally among neighbors in the course of daily interactions in local communities, and that public officials come to participate in these interactions on a regular basis.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

In Dewey's and Anderson's accounts, in experimentalist democracy citizens' interactions with each other and with public officials are characterized by deliberation, in identifying public needs, designing and choosing policy solutions, evaluating the consequences of implemented policies, and devising reforms to those policies in light of those consequences. The image is generally of citizens deliberating together in their local communities, with the participation of public officials. In Dewey's and Anderson's accounts, the precise methods of decision making are not specified.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

As described by Dewey and Anderson, experimentalist democracy is expected to have a number of desirable outcomes. These include more effective public policies -- because policies are informed by citizens' knowledge of how public problems and policy consequences manifest in local communities -- improved social outcomes in local communities, increased social capital and a heightened sense of community identity among citizens, a greater sense among citizens of the relevance of the state, augmented political efficacy among citizens, and, for citizens, an enhanced understanding of and concern for the public interest.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

To date, analyses of experimentalist democracy appear to be limited in number. The implementation of experimentalist democracy in the Community Score Card method of participatory program evaluation has been evaluated in a series of empirical studies, described in the Participedia case study of that method . Results of those studies indicate that many of the expected desirable outcomes of experimentalist democracy can be realized in practice, but that implementation of experimentalist democracy also entails several challenges. These include needs for effective facilitation and for extensive preparation in order to take into account context-specific factors influencing deliberation in local communities, practical difficulties of administering evaluative criteria devised by citizens, the demands imposed on citizens by the deliberative process, and the difficulty of engaging regional or national governments in the development of policies to address problems that have substantial local consequences but that are regional, national, or international in scope.

Secondary Sources

Agarwal, B. (2000). Conceptualising environmental collective action: Why gender matters. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24, 283-310. doi:10.1093/cje/24.3.283 

Agarwal, B. (2001). Participatory exclusions, community forestry, and gender: An analysis for South Asia and a conceptual framework. World Development, 29, 1623-1648. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(01)00066-3 

Allen-Meares, P., Grant, L., Shanks, T., & Hollingsworth, L. (2011). Embedded foundations: Community change and empowerment. Foundation Review, 2(3), 61-78. doi:10.4087/FOUNDATIONREVIEW-D-10-00010 

Anderson, E. (2006). The epistemology of democracy. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 3(1-2), 8-22. doi:10.1353/epi.0.0000 

Bliss, J., Aplet, G., Harwood, P., Jahnige, P., Kittredge, D., Lewandowski, S., & Soscia, M. L. (2001). Community-based ecosystem monitoring. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 12(3/4), 143-167. doi:10.1300/J091v12n03_07 

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Holt.

Gray, G. J., Enzer, M. J., & Kusel, J. (2001). Understanding community-based forest ecosystem management: An editorial synthesis. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 12(3/4), 1-23. doi:10.1300/J091v12n03_01 

Gray, G. J., Fisher, L., & Jungwirth, L. (2001). An introduction to community-based ecosystem management. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 12(3/4), 25-34. doi: 10.1300/J091v12n03_02 

Müller, J. F. (2018). Epistemic democracy: Beyond knowledge exploitation. Philosophical Studies, 175, 1267-1288. doi:10.1007/s11098-017-0910-9 

Zavediuk, N. (2016). Epistemic democracy and republican freedom (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. Retrieved from 

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