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Ideational Change through Collective Learning:
Public Deliberation and the Decentring and Re-centring of Structures of Meaning

Final Report Summary - LEARNINGDEMOI (Ideational Change through Collective Learning: Public Deliberation and the Decentring and Re-centring of Structures of Meaning)

LearningDemoi is a 24-month project funded through a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship within the Seventh Framework Programme, hosted by Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. It pursues three objectives. First, it seeks to contribute to our understanding of the processes of collective learning that happen in the public sphere. Thereby it expects, secondly, to advance current theoretical debates within deliberative democratic theory. In this way, the project attempts to contribute to current efforts to improve the deliberative dimension of public communication and enhance the legitimacy of public policies and political decisions. Unlike thus far dominant approaches in this field, which have mostly focused on minipublics and specific participatory arenas, the LearningDemoi project concentrates on communicative interactions as they happen spontaneously in the public sphere, that is, outside spaces specifically designed to enhance the quality of the democratic debate. Thirdly, the project, along with additional training activities, has been designed to support the fellow in attaining a leading independent position in research, which is in line with the general goals of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.
As regards the first two goals, the project brings together empirical research and normative political theory. More precisely, it is based on the empirical analysis of three case studies—namely, the main debates and events that took place in Spain between 1987 and 1996 leading to the abolition of universal conscription in this country (case 1); the main debates and events that took place in (West) Germany between 1987 and 2010 linked to the suspension of military service (case 2); and the most relevant debates and events sparked by, and about, political discontent in Spain after 2008 (case 3). Insights gained from these cases are used to assist current efforts by political theorists in formulating normatively sound, yet practical, views on how to strengthen the deliberative dimension, and thus legitimacy, of contemporary democratic systems.
The project has reviewed the specialised literature on these three cases and analysed the most significant secondary data available. On the basis of this review, a qualitative sample of documents was designed, in order to reconstruct the public debates linked to these case studies. This sample brought together the transcripts of parliamentary debates, law preambles and policy documents (e.g. white papers, guidelines, etc.), as well as political manifestos. These documents have been subjected to several rounds of coding, to this end using discourse network analysis techniques and software. Finally, the resulting data has been analysed together with the findings already provided by the specialised literature and secondary data.
The project has identified two mechanisms through which public communication, although being poorly deliberative, can promote collective learning and produce outcomes in line with deliberative democratic standards. The first mechanism, as illustrated by cases 1 and 2, consists in the recurrent problematisation of a situation and the concomitant generation of political demands and proposals. In modern democracies, such an iterative process can be expected to show a self-correcting dynamic, whereby conditions are gradually created for the attainment of three crucial democratic goals—namely, to reach mutually justified decisions, to secure the free, reasoned, and informed consent of citizens, and to promote substantively correct decisions. However, this argument holds within specific theoretical parameters that should be spelt out. It is consistent with a view of democracy that concentrates on the functioning of the political system as a whole and with an ideal of mutual justification understood along the lines of the reasonable rejection test.
The second mechanism, illustrated by case 3, consists in the creation of windows of opportunity for political entrepreneurs. The concept of embedded deliberation refers, first, to the intermingling of deliberative elements with non-deliberative ones within public communication. In this regard, public discourses can be conceived of as event-driven forms of interaction, greatly conditioned by contextual scripts—which constrains their deliberative dimension. Secondly, embedded deliberation refers to the fact that these discourses are also placed within a broader field of interaction where non-linguistic forms of communication, such as voting, can sometimes act as functional substitutes for linguistic communication. Even in cases where public communication shows a poor problem-solving capacity, as illustrated by case 3, public communication can open up windows of opportunity by reflexively problematising the status quo. The subsequent process of interaction between political entrepreneurs and the citizenry through linguistic and non-linguistic means can lead to collective learning.
From a scientific perspective, the project LearningDemoi contributes to current debates among political theorists by showing the cogency of systemic approaches to deliberative democracy and reconstructing two mechanisms through which public communication, although being poorly deliberative, can promote deliberative democratic goals. This is done, furthermore, by bringing together different theoretical traditions (i.e. reconstructive theorising and Habermnasian cognitive sociology) that have been particularly strong within the European Research Area (ERA). This should strengthen the position of the ERA within this research field. Besides, the project draws attention to the potential deliberative democratic value of non-linear processes of public communication and interaction, where discursive and non-discursive communication, strategic action, experimentation, and so on, come together. These are processes which have thus far been understudied.
From a socioeconomic perspective, the project’s findings could be particularly relevant to policymakers and political activists, as they might draw lessons as to how the deliberative quality of modern democracies and modern public spheres can be enhanced under non-ideal conditions.
The project was terminated approximately three weeks earlier than planned due to the accomplishment of its third goal, namely, supporting the fellow in attaining an independent position.