Representativeness and deliberation

A couple of interesting features on the OpenDemocracy site. The first questions the nature of deliberative meetings meant to represent a cross section of society – in this case, Europeans, taking part in the Tomorrow’s Europe event organised by Jacques Delors and James Fishkin.

Another description by Timothy Garton Ash can be found on the Guardian’s site.

[The delegates] were fed lots of information. They were divided into groups that debated topics such as pensions, Turkey and foreign policy, interspersed with plenary sessions addressed by experts and Euro-luminaries. Trained moderators facilitated the multinational discussion groups. At the end of the weekend, they were polled once more, and we can see how their views changed. This is the essence of the technique of deliberative polling, developed by Fishkin, which attempts to restore something of the interactive quality of ancient Athenian democracy – citizens arguing in the public square – to contemporary polities. […] Interpretation and translation costs amounted to £175,000 for just one weekend.

He concludes:

More interesting than any individual result is the experiment itself. “Among a people without fellow-feeling,” wrote John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government, “especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist” (my italics). This, not any mind-numbing minutiae of a treaty, is the European challenge: to create fellow feeling while still speaking different languages.

For what it’s worth, the actual results can be found here [PDF] (with interpretation here), and a discussion of the difficulties of interpreting them here.

And the second item in OpenDemocracy (continuing with JS Mill) is a light-weight but readable overview of the different perspectives on debates:

Models of debates varying from elitist shaping of the commoners’ opinions, through to expecting them to reflect a community’s consensus(es).

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About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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