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September 07, 2005

a review

The book that John Gastil and I recently published (as editors), The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, has received its first review on Amazon. I hope it's not the last review, because someone called "environmental planning professor (Virginia, USA)" has written:

I ordered this book hoping that it would indeed be a handbook that would be appropriate for teaching college undergraduates about this exciting approach to problem-solving and capacity-building. With gathering dismay I leafed through the chapters, finding one after another to be merely a collection of breezy comments, written principally by the originator of one or another slightly varying technique, that uncritically promoted the value of that technique. The material appears plucked from a foundation grant proposal. Surprisingly, considering the deep familiarity of the authors with these techniques, the book contains little in the way of actual operational advice. Rather, most of the chapters are unsupported and grandious [sic] claims for the utility of each approach, presumably designed to entice the reader to sign a lucrative consulting contract with the author. Folks, this is why we have academic research - to avoid empty and meaningless self-promoting efforts like this one.

I can't respond without seeming defensive, but this is really quite unfair. First of all, the suggestion that that the authors are after "lucrative consulting contracts" is just mean. Our book has 42 contributing authors, about 38 of whom I know personally. Very few ever see a dime for consulting. All the ones I know struggle at low pay to create constructive opportunities for democratic participation in their communities and countries.

While the Handbook does not provide step-by-step advice, anyone who reads it with any sympathy will recognize a variety of methods and choices. Some chapters describe jury-style deliberations of randomly-selected citizens. Others are voluntary meetings embedded in local associations. Some are online. Some have the power to make binding decisions; others are discussion forums or study circles.

It's true that the chapters are (with roughly three exceptions) written by people who are involved in the projects under discussion. Since they have invested sweat and passion in this work, they are probably biased in its favor. Thus there would have been advantages if we had used independent evaluators. However, that was impossible, since there is not enough money in the field of deliberative democracy to support extensive independent evaluation. Besides, independence has its disadvantages. These chapters are useful--in part--because they clearly express the practitioners' perspective on what they are trying to do. Each chapter is a statement of goals and principles, and each is different from the others.

Moreover, the authors do not simply provide favorable anecdotes, although we did encourage them to begin each chapter with a compelling story or example. The authors also assemble whatever data and evaluation exists, and often they take pains to note drawbacks or unresolved challenges in their work.

In the field of deliberation, it would be useful to have more controlled, experimental studies. Such research could measure the effects of deliberation on individuals' attitudes and behaviors. However, proponents of deliberative democracy are not solely interested in effects on individuals. We also hope that public deliberation will produce better policies, strengthen communities, and educate policymakers. A randomized experiment is not a good tool for assessing such broader outcomes. A combination of normative argument and case studies strikes me as the better approach. Again, there would be advantages to more independent research, but it is also valuable to let practitioners describe and defend their own experiences.

Posted by peterlevine at September 7, 2005 11:27 AM


First: that's awful you're getting intruders and bad comments. Can't imagine why this site would provoke that kind of stuff.

But mostly: I haven't read the book. But the review seems to come from an irritated individual who expected you'd do the work for him/her...

"Operational advice"!... for deliberative democracy! Maybe that's what Bush has needed all along...

Posted by: PW [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2005 02:49 PM


Although this review is unfairly harsh and mean, it has some real grains of truth of in it. The Handbook is mostly a collection of case studies, which underdelivers from the critical analysis that one might expect from a real handbook.

To reply, I'd first want to acknowledge the valid crticism of the misplaced expectations of the lofty title. Secondly, though, I'd point out the tremendous value that gathering all these varied techniques in one place has. For example, Vince Price at Annenberg has told me that he uses my chapter on e-thePeople as a reading assignment in a grad class. Wouldn't this professor think that the book could provide interesting data for his students to analyze?

- Mike

Posted by: Michael Weiksner [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2005 04:19 PM

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