We are at a unique juncture in the conceptual and empirical academic landscape regarding integrated democratic research. The following will provide just a few (albeit brief) points regarding two currently relevant streams of thinking about democracy in an attempt to position them in relation to each other. While the implications are intended for comparative historical research, this entry is limited to normative critique. I suggest that those interested in examining the extent to which political systems are deliberative, factor in aspects of the politics of scale literature. Meanwhile, those seeking to understand how the (re)production of scale is political, should incorporate facets of the deliberative systemic democratization literature.

On the one hand, deliberative democracy has gone through several phases, and the current one is recognized as the systemic turn.[1] In part, this approach asserts that empirical assessments of democratic states must incorporate the ways and means that deliberation is a polity-wide activity.[2] Indeed, as Niemeyer et al. note, this is partly in response to the growing field of democracy promotion and categorical assessment by indexes like Freedom House. In their view, comparative studies of democratic assessment fail to incorporate empirical manifestations of deliberative democracy. To be sure, the claim is that deliberative democracy must be represented on an equal formal footing to representative democracy’s classifications. Moreover, it introduces large contextual issues and systemic inadequacies that have an impact on individual sites that shape effective deliberation.[3]

On the other hand, the politics of scale literature has arisen as a critique of traditional IR/state theory. It challenges the fetishism of space as timeless and self-enclosed while also recognizing that there has been an active role of states in reterritorializing authority.[4] Scales are not stable in this perspective, which means that the task of analysis is to deconstruct rather than reify them. Seeing the state as a political process in motion allows for an examination of the role of political strategy in the production of new sites of governance.[5] Indeed, the questioning of territorial sovereignty has mattered because the way the state is equated with sovereignty has influenced how politics and democracy have been considered.[6]

We can claim that both the politics of scale and the systemic theory of deliberative democracy have the objective of challenging the statism promulgated in mainstream social science. With their own respective nuances, each seeks a reformulation of how we understand democratic scale and participation. A question arising from this is whether or not both paradigms have normative or empirical research gaps that can be supplemented by each other?

Systemic deliberative democracy has tended to view political systems as discursive, measurable on a continuum of Habermasian discourse ethics alongside institutional capacity afforded for deliberation. The (non)possession of particular deliberative structures appears to be at the crux of the debate. However, examining deliberative institutions in the systemic approach has not translated enough into the struggles over implementation. A system with any deliberative capacity is contingent, which means we should be mindful of any limits in predetermining how objective discursive institutions will constitute deliberative capacity.

Methodological deliberation – as a form of designing the connotations for measuring deliberative democracy – is wound up with notions of legitimacy. The specific form of decision-making attached to certain discursive rules becomes the appropriate way to see and value democracy, or how (non)deliberative it is. While measurement can be strictly a matter of understanding deliberative phenomena, the politicization of measurement can be lost. Thus, the extent to which measurement pervades our understanding of decision-making might obfuscate factors that are not captured in codified data, such as the lengths to which political actors underscore the implementation of alternative sources of power in making binding decisions.

The deliberative capacity of a political system (if there is any at all), is borne out by conflict driven from contradictions in the political and territorial structures of a state. The point is that there is a tendency for partisan politics to be void in the deliberative democratic paradigm, and consequently, a political-economic analysis of the systemic deliberative capacity of states. The question thus becomes how are particular historical spatial formations of capitalist democracy encompassing differently democratic processes and forms of participation and decision-making over time?

How we choose to critically reassess the lengths to which democratization is premised on different conceptual and procedural grounds should not merely be about grafting alternative deliberative institutional fora onto existing representative or legislative political systems and then attempting comparative analysis. Democracy is more than just a number of formal rules and regulations about public participation.[7] To be sure, how comprehensive of an analysis is needed in order to discern if an entire state – top-to-bottom, spatially and temporally – is more or less deliberative? Part of this would require an examination of the extent to which specific forms of democracy – electoral/deliberative, elite/non-elite – are produced, are reformed, get removed, and endure.

The politics of scale is relevant to deliberative systemic research when we consider that the rescaling of institutions has the potential for rejiging power, and that space is liable to recurrent redesign and restructuring because of its conjunction with social and economic pressures, constraints and transformations.[8] This means that with political struggles occurring at different scales, new divisions and mutual influences take place between civil society and the state at each scale.[9] Any limits of the state must factor in economic processes alongside political organization. For Cox, given the territorialization of political power and the spatial design of democratic authority in relation to social and political life, it is necessary to know the history and geography of capitalism.[10] Considering this, we cannot wish away real political struggle over the meaning of democracy, and deny how it can be mobilized to pursue a political agenda.[11]

From this angle, the politics of scale offers up something relevant, by emphasizing the territorial nature of political relationships. How diverse forms of political engagement respond to contradictions of spatial unevenness for example, potentially challenging predominant forms of political decision-making, becomes relevant for systemic deliberative analysis. Yet while it is important to read the state in terms of scaling and rescaling in relation to class relations and the contradictions of capitalism, there is a surprising lack of emphasis on alternative forms of policy-making in the politics of scale literature, and the political actors that factor into political rescaling.

Participatory devices are not only innovative to different degrees and embedded in different contexts, but characterized by dissimilarities, as decisions can be binding or merely consultative, and emerge at different territorial levels or stages of a policy cycle.[12] This is a key point considering that most nations have experienced some form of political decentralization, which more or less asserts participatory forms of subsidiarity. In order to understand the political reorganization of different scales, it becomes imperative to go beyond analyses of only traditional modes of representative political decision-making. For instance, as regional or local governments are newly created or redesigned, the lengths to which they are democratic are not simply in the party system or electoral model, but also in the extent to which deliberation by the public takes place in relation to formal as well as informal channels.

If the point is to ensure that partisanship and class power is taken seriously with regard to the rescaling of political institutions, or in other words indicating the context in which deliberation is influenced by the broader political-economic system and the struggles that occur within it, it appears that both the politics of scale and systemic deliberative theory have something to gain from each other.


[1] See Stephen Elstub, “The Third Generation of Deliberative Democracy,” Political Studies Review 8 (2010): 291-307.

[2] Simon Niemeyer, Nicole Curato and André Bächtiger, “Assessing the Deliberative Capacity of Democratic Polities and the Factors that Contribute to it,” (Paper Presented at Democracy: A Citizens’ Perspective at Åbo, Finland, May 27-28, 2015), 1.

[3] See Jane Mansbridge, James Bohman, Simone Chambers, Thomas Christiano, Archon Fung, John Parkinson, Dennis Thompson and Mark Warren, “A Systemic Approach to Deliberative Democracy,” in Deliberative Systems, ed. John Parkinson (Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.

[4] Neil Brenner, “Beyond State-Centrism? Space, Territoriality, and Geographical Scale in Globalization Studies,” Theory and Society 28(1999): 39-78.

[5] Mark Goodwin, Martin Jones and Rhys Jones, Rescaling the State: Devolution and the Geographies of Economic Governance (Great Britain: Manchester University Press, 2012), 13, 16.

[6] P. J. Taylor, “On the Nation-State, the Global, and Social Science,” Environment and Planning A 28(1996): 1919; John Agnew, “Sovereignty Regimes: Territoriality and State Authority in Contemporary World Politics,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95, 2(Jun., 2005): 438.

[7] Michiel S. de Vries, “The Bureaucratization of Participation,” International Review of Administrative Science 66 (2000): 346.

[8] Neil Brenner, “Open Questions on State Rescaling,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2 (2009): 126; Neil Brenner et al., “Introduction: State Space in Question,” in State/Space: A Reader, ed. Neil Brenner et al. (UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 5.

[9] Jamie Gough, “Changing Scale as Changing Class Relations: Variety and Contradiction in the Politics of Scale,” Political Geography 23 (2004): 188-192.

[10] Kevin Cox, “The Territorialization of Politics and What Happened in Western Europe” (Paper Presented at the International Political Geography Colloquium, Reims, France, April 2, 2008), 5.

[11] Mark Purcell, Restructuring Democracy: Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures (New York: Routledge, 2008), 36.

[12] Yannis Papadopoulos and Phillipe Warin, “Are Innovative, Participatory and Deliberative Procedures in Policy Making Democratic and Effective?” European Journal of Political Research 46 (2007): 448.