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John Gastil Portrait


Communication Arts & Sciences and Political Science Senior Scholar, the McCourtney Institute for Democracy
The Pennsylvania State University


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Topic Map

Research Topic Map Civil society and protest groups Communication in small groups The Australian Citizens' Parliament Jury behavior The Democracy Machine (online platform) The Group in society Democracy in Small Groups Civic Engagment The Jury and Democracy Group Decision Making Governance Theory and Practice of deliberative democracy Political Communication and Deliberation Delib. Democracy Handbook Democracy in Motion By Popular Demand The Citizens' Initiative Review Public forums, civic education, political socialization Direct Democracy
Sortition as an alternative to elections Public opinion and civic attitudes Public Opinion and Atts. Elections Cultural Cognition Project Voter Behavior, election dynamics, and campaings

Theory and practice of deliberative democracy

Nearly all of my research has derived from the core concept of deliberative democracy. A deliberative democracy includes all of these elements: face-to-face deliberation among citizens in public institutions; a deliberative mass media and electoral process; and a larger set of cultural norms promoting deliberation as an essential mode of discourse. Citizen deliberation on public policy issues is the heart of the democratic process because it develops the public's political skills, discourse, and viewpoints.

Without deliberation, democracy is simply a relatively fair means of aggregating uninformed policy preferences. Democratic systems, both large and small, also need deliberation to maintain their legitimacy and vitality. Many modern political scientists, political philosophers, and communication scholars have turned their attention to the role of deliberation in democratic institutions.

In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook (2005), Peter Levine and I showed how the idea of deliberation has ebbed and flowed in the United States.1 After reviewing the larger social, political, and economic forces that cause these upturns and downturns in the fortunes of deliberative democracy, we cautioned readers not to take for granted the current interest in open public discussion.2 In the final Handbook chapter, Peter Levine, Archon Fung and I suggested that deliberative practices will face their greatest challenges when they seek to be institutionalized. At this stage, they become high-stakes political reforms that could become compromised by public agencies, captured by special interests, or rendered irrelevant by intractable cultural conflicts.3

The most in-depth conceptual work I have written on deliberation thus far is the article I published with two graduate students in Communication Theory titled “A conceptual definition and theoretical model of public deliberation in small face-to-face groups” (2002).4 This essay laid out the most comprehensive definition of face-to-face public deliberation to date,5 and it advanced an empirical model of how deliberation sustains itself. We hypothesized that deliberation’s effects on participants can reinforce the attitudes, dispositions, and perceptions that promote future deliberation. For instance, deliberation can reinforce a person’s sense of shared civic identity with fellow deliberators; when future opportunities for deliberation arise, that person is then more likely to perceive a potential for common ground, one of the predictors of successful deliberation.6

Since 2005, I have also published Political communication and deliberation(2008) and Democracy in motion: Evaluating the practice and impact of deliberative civic engagement(2012). The former acts as a textbook, seeking to aggregate and explain key concepts and research in the field of political communication through the unique lense of deliberative democratic theory; it argues that communication is central to democratic self-governance primarily because of its potential to facilitate public deliberation, and thus, the informed organizing, aggregation, and expression of public opinion. On the other hand, the latter seeks to evaluate the practical application of deliberative theory, in terms of its efficiency in implementation and impact on outcomes. The book examines deliberative civic engagement around the world, asking of it what we know, how we know it, and what remains to be understood; in the sense, the book acts as both a guide for current practitioners and scholars of deliberative engagement and a chart for where future research and experimentation might best be directed.

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