🦋 Mountains of data need a (democratic) horizon

Devoid of meaning?

Jean-Paul Gagnon has written a provocative piece. He argues that we must reorient the study of democracy away from the personal, intuitive, and arbitrary reflections that have largely defined it up to now. Gagnon instead proposes a ‘lexical approach’ modelled on the practices of information gathering in the natural sciences. This approach systematically documents and categorises the various instances of democracy across many different contexts.

Democracy: the empirical…

Our first difference is on the premise that it is possible — or even desirable — to build an exhaustive database of democracy that we can offer to both public and private actors. (And for what purposes?) As Matthew Flinders notes, Gagnon’s argument is informed by a positivist and naturalist conception of knowledge. It assumes, firstly, that such a project of gathering, labelling, organising, and digitising various types of democracy is feasible. And secondly, that this is a necessary prerequisite for interpretation, evaluation, and democratic innovation.

…and the hermeneutic

Gagnon does not deny that there is an interpretive and intersubjective element to the uses of democracy in his database. However, scholars of democracy are themselves not external to the power dynamics and social totality in which the hermeneutic games of democracy take place. My research on knowledge production in political science concerns concepts such as ‘democratic transitions’ and ‘the state’. I have argued this process of information gathering is always conditioned by those participating in this enterprise. Their conscious and unconscious motivations, ideologies, and value-judgements shape their results.

Democracy as reinvention

This leads me to my second key disagreement. Gagnon suggests that without this preliminary gathering of data, conceptions of democracy remain tainted by our subject positions and thus necessarily arbitrary and guided by convention.

A democratic horizon

More than that, it also means that contestations over the boundaries of democracy are always already internal to its structures. We can understand democracy as a set of political practices that both self-consciously draw on history and aim at a democratic horizon that seeks to realise — however partially — modernity’s original promise of autonomy and equality.



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The Science of Democracy

The Science of Democracy

Republished essays, in chronological order, from The Loop’s short essay series on the “science of democracy”