Conceptual clarifications and theoretical reflections

Deliberation is not a term of everyday language. Rather, it belongs to the domains of political philosophy and social sciences. In its broadest sense, deliberation refers to an individual operation or interactive process in which claims and/or arguments are submitted to scrutiny and reflection. In a more narrow understanding that is adopted here, deliberation is a specific way of interaction resulting from a conflict or disagreement. This interaction is characterized by a respectful articulation of claims, viewpoints, arguments and experiences among the participants who ultimately seek a grounded judgement on the validity and legitimacy of their positions. At any rate, all concepts of deliberation set it apart from the use of power based on coercion, hierarchy, threat, manipulation and the like.

Deliberation, translated into the language of movement activists, roughly equals what they term ‘democratic debate’, ‘democratic decision making’ and/ or ‘consensus-building’. When applying notions of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ with respect to their own structure and internal ways of solving conflicts and making decisions, these activists usually imply a specific meaning of democracy. It is not democracy as an institutionalized framework based on the election of representatives, the rival interplay between government and opposition, and the reliance on the majority rule. Rather, the activists refer to communication among equals who, preferably under conditions of absent or minimized internal power structures, actively participate in regulating their own affairs without repressing or marginalizing dissenters.

Scholarly literature has provided different conceptualizations of deliberation and how it is linked to democracy. Probably the most prominent and influential approach has been presented by Jurgen Habermas who, in his early writings, used the term discourse instead of deliberation. According to him, discourse (or deliberation) is a specific form of communication. It presupposes a conflict or disagreement that it aims to settle by means of specific requirements and rules that, taken together, produce an ‘ideal speech situation’. These requirements are: free access to deliberation, identity of meaning and saying (Wahrhaftigkeit), comprehensibility (Verstandlichkeit) of speech acts, and elimination of all forms of power except the forceless force of the better argument’ (Habermas 1971: 137, my translation).2

Habermas’ concept of deliberation received mixed reactions. Some praised it as key for rational conflict-solving and a model for public debates in democracies. Others criticized the concept for its normative baggage, its alleged unreal assumptions3 and/or its cognitive bias.4 However, most scholars tend to agree that coercion, hierarchy, inequality and other forms of power violate the very idea of deliberation. In line with this idea, several social scientists have suggested various essentials for deliberation. Burkhalter et al. (2002: 398) define public deliberation as ‘a combination of careful problem analysis and an egalitarian process in which participants have adequate speaking opportunities and engage in attentive listening or dialogue that bridges divergent ways of speaking and knowing’. Della Porta (2005: 74), drawing on various strands of the literature, lists preference transformation, orientation to the public good, rational argument, consensus, equality, inclusiveness and transparency. Overlapping with such proposals, I characterize deliberation as an interaction of speakers who (1) do not exclude other people willing to speak, (2) consider themselves as equal in their potential to reason, (3) present experiences, facts and arguments, and (4) are open to modify their original views, attitudes and opinions in reaction to the perceptions and reasons of others. In short, deliberation is a non-exclusive discursive interaction in a spirit of mutual recognition, understanding and search for a consensus instead of playing power games.

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