🦋 Wikis and music, not mountains and butterflies

Watching democracy — from the audience

In his articles, Gagnon describes his move away from debating theoretical claims regarding different understandings of democracy to entering a theoretical wilderness (see here, and a longer version here). He feels no longer up on the stage partaking in such wrangling — the role has become ‘ill-fitting’. Now he considers himself watching from the audience and endeavours instead to document the many varieties of democracy.

Wikis not mountains

Firstly, what does it mean for a data source to be mountainous? As John Min asks — how would we ever recognise the top? The nature of such a project is muddied when we think of it in big, solid, voluminous, imposing terms. Using Isaiah Berlin’s ‘total texture’ is also misleading. In relation to social activities (specifically the role of the historian), Berlin notes such a thick texture is inevitably:

Music, not butterflies

Other contributors, including Matt Flinders and Christopher Hobson, have raised doubts about Gagnon’s description of the butterfly collector. Gagnon himself also caveats the analogy somewhat in his extended article. Such language couches the approach in the ethos of natural science, when the object of study is a social construct. Hence, the analogy doesn’t do justice to our unit of analysis.

Beyond words

What then should we use Gagnon’s database for? It’s here I think his notions become somewhat utopian. To me, the issue lies in his cleaving of democracy into a first form, the lived and phenomenal, and a second form, as words. Such a distinction is overly neat, whereas we are faced with something much messier.

Democratic innovation

Finally, he notes that studying these labels of democracy encourages democratic innovation — but to have all these words suggests this is already happening. The ‘splendid fragments in isolation’ already do this. A database is a resource and cannot on its own encourage innovation. People must come to it already primed for such a thing. The information this database is generating is important, but just as important are our reflections on how to use it.



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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”