28 March 2013

What can ethnography bring to the study of deliberative democracy?

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Open government initiatives offer new, often technologically enabled avenues for civic participation. But which populations have the access and motivation to use these channels? Frequently, programs and platforms privilege certain groups over others.

An ethnographic study of participatory budgeting in Rome (conducted by Julien Talpin of the University of Lille) found that participation skewed towards those who were already active in civic affairs and in relative positions of power. Sixty-three percent of participants were activists. White-collar workers and those over 50 were also over-represented.


The study of the individual effects of participation has mainly focused on the impact of deliberation on actors’ preferences, mostly based on quantitative and experimental research. I argue here that ethnography, based on a praxeologic and process approach, can offer broader results on actors’ learning in participatory devices than the cognitive effects generally emphasized.

Grounded in a case-study of a participatory budget in Rome, the research shows participation allows learning new skills and civic habits but may also bring about a greater distrust with politics.

Explaining the learning process, the paper stresses the different learning potential of participatory institutions. A condition for the durability of the effects observed is that participation be repeated over time. This requires integration within the institution, which happens for only a few; the majority of participants being disappointed stop participating. Speaking the language of the institution, some participants are however integrated enough to acquire further civic skills and knowledge, and even to endure a politicization process.

Finally, the study of actors’ long-term trajectories allows drawing conclusions on the social conditions of civic bifurcation. Ethnography thereby allows grasping the long-term consequences of civic engagement.

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