🦋 What is democracy? An empirical response to the Butterfly Collector

Contextualising the question

Before unpacking the question ‘what is democracy?’ we should make three contextual points. First, the Scottish philosopher Walter B. Gallie was right when he regarded ‘democracy’ as one of the best examples of a ‘contested concept’. By this, he meant a concept ‘used with a variety of meanings with no possibility of settling the consequent disputes on an empirical ground, linguistic usage or some sort of logical tenet.’

Mapping the analytical space

Second, we are focusing on reconstructing the ‘total texture’ of democracy. What interests us, once we have collected all the material, is mapping and circumscribing the analytical space of the notion of democracy. Within such an analytical space, the ‘splendid fragments in splendid isolation’, mentioned by Sartori, would make much more sense. Indeed, we might reveal compatibilities (even partial) between them.

A latent concept

Third, ‘democracy’ is a ‘latent concept’. We cannot observe it directly, but it is, theoretically, built indirectly through other directly observable empirical variables. It is not like the butterflies we see in front of us, but a theoretical construct we link to indicators and aspects we can empirically and directly detect. Thus, the presence of butterflies can be a leading indirect, empirical indicator of democracy, based on the theoretical assumption that if there are butterflies, there is democracy. Of course, that assumption will have gone through a previous empirical check.

Unpacking the question

When we ask ‘what is democracy?’, what exactly are we asking? How do scholars define democracy? How do politicians or a larger group of experts define democracy? And how do people define democracy? Or, what are the notions of democracy in the public opinion of a given country or area, such as Eastern Europe? In a closely empirical perspective, what regime has been created that we collectively define as a democracy? And what different democratic regimes (or regimes that scholars have defined as democracies) have been created?

Building a research strategy for democrats

To make the work more do-able and at the same time politically relevant, we should first single out the salient empirical issues about the implementation of democracy in different countries. This is not too difficult because there now exist rich empirical datasets. These include Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), Quality of Government, International IDEA Dataset on the Quality of Democracy, Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index, and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World. There also exist several specialist datasets on media, rights, justice, and other areas. Through these, we can establish a good empirical picture of what today has been implemented under the democratic label.

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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”