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Deliberation - What?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The practice of deliberation has had its place in participatory governance, in development and other areas, for some time. What do you think of when you hear "deliberation"? Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting? India's Gram Sabhas? Parliament? America Speaks? It's all that - and so much more.

In the most common understanding, deliberation is some form of interpersonal discussion about an issue of public concern. This can range from everyday talk about political issues at, say, the kitchen table, to formalized group discussions that aim at solving a common problem. One definition comes from Delli Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs*, who state that deliberation is "the process through which deliberative democracy occurs," a "specific, important, and idealized category within the broader notion of what we call 'discursive participation'." The category is ideal because, à la Habermas, it requires a range of ideal characteristics to be truly deliberative, first and foremost openness and equality of discourse.

So much for the formal understanding. At our recent conference on "Deliberation and Development" we learned about an entirely different understanding of what deliberation can be. Arjun Appadurai pointed to the role of ritual as an embodiment of deliberation - in particular singing and dancing. Yes, singing and dancing.

Now, it took me a while to wrap my head around the notion that singing and dancing could be a form of political participation. As Appadurai outlined it at the conference, the idea is based on the principle of a performative speech act, which means to 'do something' rather than to just 'say something'. Ideal deliberation is unlikely to happen in most contexts, because it is very difficult to isolate such discussions from the political reality of every participant. The voices of the poor are unlikely to be effective even in the most formalized circumstances that aim at equal participation. Rituals, however, can empower the very poor and the marginalized by reshaping the context of deliberation. By, for instance, singing and dancing, people assert - perform - their claims and demonstrate strength as the ritual connects them. Appadurai talked about a gathering of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) at the United Nations Headquarters, as part of the UN General Assembly on Habitat. In the hallowed lobby of the UN, the slum dwellers engaged then Secretary General Kofi Annan in a round of spontaneous singing and dancing. Appadurai argued that the slum dwellers thereby performed the empowered presence of the poor, with Annan's presence in the circle of singing and dancing slumdwellers legitimizing their claims and thereby somewhat levelling the playing field for them.

So, why I still find it questionable that singing and dancing - performative speech acts - are indeed a form of deliberation, they may well be a means to create the ideal situation in which deliberation is most likely to successful. We know very well in development that culture and context are crucial to the success of development initiatives, as hard as it is to take them into account. Culture and context may, however, go beyond the local chain of decision-making and social power. Indeed, it may well be about - singing and dancing.

* Delli Carpini, M. X., Cook, F. L., & Jacobs, L. R. (2004). Public deliberation, discursive participation, and citizen engagement: A review of the empirical literature. Annual Review of Political Science, 7, 315-344.

Picture: Flickr user le Korrigan

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