Could radicalization be prevented or reversed by bringing together those that have seemingly entered this path, with other not (yet) radicalized citizens, to discuss fundamental issues like: democracy, pluralism, freedom, autonomy, respect and gender? The research on deliberation and radicalization suggests that this might indeed be the most promising instrument available.


Deliberation can be seen as a decision-making procedure, as an instrument of political education and development, or both (Dahl 1950, 1970, 1989; Fishkin 1995, 2009; Lindblom 1990, Elster 1998; Bohman and Rehg 1997; Gutmann and Thomson 2004; Dryzek 2005; Kahane & Weinstock, 2010; Nabatchi & Gastil 2012; Steiner 2012, Blokland 2011, 2016). We address the second form of deliberation, aimed at strengthening political competences and communities. We see deliberation as an open and courteous exchange of ideas and values, which furthers the discovery, understanding, contextualization and development of preferences. Deliberation is not about transferring the undisputed, fixed preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies; it is about the mutual reflection and development of “volitions” regarding the public cause. Concomitantly, deliberation strengthens the notions and emotions of political community, civility and citizenship that democracies need to thrive.

In the last couple of years Social Science Works has organized large numbers of deliberative workshops with German citizens and refugees. Throughout, we discuss basic principles such as: ethical and political pluralism; democracy; civic society; freedom (of expression, association and religion); personal autonomy; tolerance; human rights; identity; discrimination and racism; gender; sex equality; homosexuality; and others (an overview of these projects can be found here: Together with the participants, by asking questions and prompting discussions in our deliberative workshops, we try to understand the pivotal values of an open, democratic society: What are these values? How can they be defended? How do they hang together? How can they be understood and justified as a comment on (social) life? (on our deliberative approach see, among others, Blokland 2018a and 2018b).

The idea on deliberation goes back to the Greeks and has been put on the agenda of political scholars and philosophers on a regular basis. Alongside themes like citizenship, social cohesion and social capital it has come to the fore again in the last two decades (see Blokland 2011). Whilst the discussion on deliberation and political participation in the past was mainly theoretical, increasing amounts of empirical research has been conducted. Despite the methodological challenges research can be done on: the optimum institutional, cultural and personal conditions needed for deliberation (from party systems and cultures to personality types); on the deliberative process itself (assuming that deliberation has an independent effect, we can research what actually happens when people deliberate); and on the end results (Bächtiger and Wyss 2013). These results could be manifold: the preferences can change, preferably in the direction of the common good; the preferences can become better informed and more coherent; people can get a better understanding of each other’s positions, and become more willing to reach a working agreement or compromise; and as a side effect people can get more trust in the political abilities of themselves, others and in democracy itself.

We concentrate on the results or effects of deliberation. Most of the research that has been done in this field is looking at Deliberative Polls, initiated in the nineties by James Fishkin (1995, 2009). Deliberative Polls have a somewhat comparable format as the deliberative workshops Social Science Works organizes: for two days citizens gather to discuss a particular topic in depth. They get information, talk to experts, and discuss the topic among themselves. At the beginning and the end they are polled about their opinions and ideas.

Since the nineties Fishkin organized more than 70 deliberative projects in 24 countries, including Japan, China, Mongolia, Argentina, Poland, Britain, Hungary, Bulgaria, United States, Korea, Ghana, and the European Union. Topics ranged from: health care; urban governance; energy and environmental policies; unemployment and job creation; voting rights for immigrants; policies towards the Roma; rights and responsibilities of citizens; to the future of the European Union (see: The deliberative method can be applied in other contexts as well: Ackerman and Fishkin (2004) proposed to organize “Deliberation Days” where voters would, before casting a vote, first debate the most important issues with experts, political representatives and each other.

The results of Deliberative Polls are mainly positive. Fishkin observes: “Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views” ( Bruce Ackermann and Fishkin write in 2015: “We find statistically significant changes in bottom-line judgments more than two-thirds of the time. There are also large gains in knowledge and in mutual understanding. In project after project we can show that participants focus on substance not sloganeering.” A project in Northern Ireland involving Protestants and Catholics discussing their local schools showed for instance, that “even in deeply divided societies … mass deliberation … can be helpful” (Fishkin, Luskin, O’Flynn and Russell. 2012: 133). It turned out that ordinary citizens “may actually have less intractably opposing views than the elites who speak for them, and the experience of grappling together with policy issues may both help them to see this and bring their views still closer. It may also, perhaps still more importantly, reduce their levels of mutual hostility and distrust. In turn, an event demonstrating all this may encourage elite-level compromise – emboldening moderates while making it harder for hardliners to ‘play the ethnic card’” (2012: 117).

Bächtiger and Wyss (2013: 178) summarize: Deliberative Polls “induzieren in der Regel deutliche Meinungsänderungen, oft in Richtung progressiver und liberaler Positionen (wie beispielsweise weniger Ausländerdiskriminierung oder mehr Freihandel)…  Der Anteil derjenigen, die ihre Meinung ändern, liegt vielfach über 50 Prozent und radikale Meinungsänderungen können bis zu 20 Prozent betragen (Luskin et al. 2002). Zudem steigt das Wissensniveau der Teilnehmenden an (gemessen als korrekte Antworten zu Wissensfragen). Daneben finden sich auch eine Reihe von wünschbaren Nebeneffekten: Bürgerdeliberation erhöht das politische Interesse, das politische Vertrauen sowie die kollektive Handlungsbereitschaft (siehe Grönlund et al. 2010). Schließlich finden sich kaum unerwünschte Gruppendynamiken, wie Konformitätseffekte oder Meinungspolarisierung (siehe Fishkin und Luskin 2005)“(translation[i]). Perhaps surprisingly, it also seems that the influence of culture is rather low; the changes in preferences and in knowledge are comparable in different cultures. Bächtiger and Wyss conclude: “Deliberation scheint somit in der Tat eine universelle Dimension sowie kulturelle Übertragbarkeit zu besitzen“ (2013: 179) (translation[ii]). This is in accordance with the findings from three years of our deliberative workshops, where the participants came from a huge variety of ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds (Blokland 2018).

The participants of Deliberative Polls are per definition a representative sample of the population: one wants to know how the citizens would have voted when they first had an informative deliberation. Since not everybody has the time to deliberate two or three days on criminality or any other topic, the sample speaks for the entire polis. Apart from professional politicians (that turn out to be rather lousy deliberators in comparison to normal citizens) deliberations of subgroups of the population were rarely researched. At Social Science Works we are especially interested in deliberations with young men and women that are prone to extremist or monistic worldviews. In these worldviews all questions only have one right answer and all the right answers can be organized in one harmonious, consistent system. To what extent can we open these up through an extensive deliberation on essentially contested concepts like democracy, freedom, identity, tolerance and equality (cf. Blokland 2018b)? We consider this issue of prime importance since the literature on radicalization and deradicalization shows that early interventions via deliberations with mixed groups of young people might be one of the most promising policy instruments in this field.

Radicalization and Deradicalization

The most recent attempt to bring all the available knowledge and expertise in the fields of radicalization and deradicalization together was the project Gesellschaft Extrem: Radikalisierung und Deradikalisierung in Deutschland. The project was supported by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung and coordinated by the Hessischen Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (PRIF/HSFK). For historical reasons it is no coincidence that German authorities have a special interest in this topic.

The recommendations of the diverse workgroups are largely in accordance with the approach we defend:

  • “Prävention sollte breit und universell ansetzen“ (Srowig et al 2018: 27).
  • „Radikale Kritik ernst nehmen… Substanzielle partizipative Angebote stellen das Bild vom unveränderbaren Status Quo in Frage und ermöglichen Selbstwirksamkeitserfahrungen. Repressionsansätze führen dahingegen zu Eskalationsspiralen und Ko-Radikalisierungen.“ (Meiering et al 2018: 26)
  • “Radikalisierungsverläufe sind stets abhängig von individuellen Biographien. Eine Stärkung persönlicher Resilienz durch die Förderung von Ambiguitätstoleranz und breit angelegte Präventionsmaßnahmen sind das vielversprechendste Mittel in der Deradikalisierungsarbeit“ (Baaken et al 2018: 23) (translation[iii]).

Srowig, Roth, Pisoiu, Seewald and Zick (2018) show in their end report, Radikalisierung von Individuen: ein Überblick über mögliche Erklärungsansätze, that most research in the field of (de)radicalization has been conducted on what kind of individuals radicalize under what kind of circumstances. The number of variables that could explain radicalization appear to be huge, and different researchers attach different weights to these variables. Consequently, they often come to different conclusions.

Nevertheless, the research does show that people that radicalize are not, to state it bluntly, mentally ill. It is obviously comforting for societies to define extremists as ‘mad‘, but Srowig et al point to the “beschränkte Aussagekraft psychischer Erkrankungen als Ursachen für Radikalisierungsprozesse und Gewalttaten“ (2018: 2). Referring to Borum (2014) and Koomen & Van der Plicht (2015) they notice that “die Psychologie weder durch theoretische Annahmen noch durch empirische Befunde eine radikalisierte oder terroristische Persönlichkeit definieren [kann]“ (2018: 3) (translation[iv]). Consequently, it is possible to talk sense to these people. Despite everything, they are reflective actors. They have a particular “mindset” that brings them to radical positions, but it is a sound one.

Young people between 15 and 35 are particularly vulnerable to radical political ideologies. Srowig et al notice that there is a bigger change that people radicalize when: they feel disrespected, excluded or betrayed by other individuals, groups, or entire societies and cultures; when they are hit by personal setbacks like failed relationships, unemployment, broken educational or professional careers; when they fail an interpretation model, an ideology or a narrative that offers them an identity, an identity that gives meaning and direction to their lives and that enables them to understand the situation in which they find themselves; and when they are already vulnerable for radical thoughts because their personalities make them more prone to think in black/white schemes, show signs of narcissistic self-absorption, authoritarianism and/or “Sensation Seeking Behavior”.

Radical groups and ideologies offer the people concerned the needed community, respect, social identity, direction and perspective on reality. Srowig et al write that radical milieus and groups are in a competition with “diversen bürgerlichen und staatlichen Sozialisationsangeboten. Sie bieten nicht nur alternative Deutungsmuster, sondern verbreiten ein stark vereinfachtes Weltbild von Gut und Böse”. Consequently, in order to prevent or reverse radicalization, better ideas or narratives than those offered by radical groups and ideologies are needed.

Besides, roads to radicalization are extremely diverse.[v] There are too many variables at play and as a result it is impossible to develop a policy directed at individuals. Therefore, the conclusion must be that “Prävention breit und universell ansetzen (sollte)” (Srowig et al 2018: 27).

Concomitantly, Meiering, Dziri and Foroutan observe in their report Brücken-Narrative – Verbindende Elemente für die Radikalisierung von Gruppen, that radicalization of individuals particularly takes place in groups. Groups offer identity, community, narratives that give hold to people. All groups have narratives that exclude others and defines other groups in different degrees as challengers, rivals or even enemies. When groups are stigmatized, criminalized or repressed they become more closed, inaccessible and radical. These group dynamics can be observed in all groups, irrespective of their ideology or narrative.

Ideologies and narratives of different radical groups often have a lot in common. “Bridges” create unexpected allies. Thus, anti-imperialism, anti-modernism, anti-universalism and anti-Semitism are shared by “Neue Rechte, Islamisten und antiimperialistische Linke”. Anti-feminism is shared by “völkische Nationalisten, christliche und islamische Fundamentalisten und islamistische Dschihadisten“. And the idea of  ”resistance“ is shared by all radical groups: it is believed that they are in a resistance fight which legitimates the use of violence.

All narratives, Meiering et al write, “sind zwar in den jeweiligen Bereichen unterschiedlich zugeschnitten, gehören aber zu den gleichen narrativen Bündeln und erfüllen ähnliche Funktionen. Sie strukturieren Wahrnehmungsmuster, Zugehörigkeitsattributionen und Handlungsoptionen und wirken dadurch als Transmissionsriemen für Radikalisierungsprozesse“ (2018: 10) (translation[vi]). Consequently, group dynamics can generally be observed, but this dynamic does not explain what brought people together, how they see themselves, and what they are going to do; for this they need a narrative, they need ideas. These narratives should be addressed. However, to avoid stigmatizing (and thus potentially radicalizing) we are not interested in isolated narratives of specific groups, but in “gruppenübergreifenden Brückennarrativen”.

This idea aligns with the analysis of the workgroup concentrating on deradicalization. Baaken, Becker, Bjǿrgo, Kiefer, Korn, Mücke, Ruf and Walkenhorst observe that radicalizing people define themselves more and more on the basis of just one identity (“German”, “Muslim”) and stop building up a differentiated, more layered self-understanding needed in a complex, modern society. Deradicalization should not mean that people are guided to a middle position in society. Radical positions are not intrinsically unhealthy, for either individuals or for societies. Instead, the goal of deradicalization should be ”dem Individuum Fähigkeiten zur Ambiguitätstoleranz zu vermitteln.“ (2018: 11) (translation[vii]).

According to Baaken et al, the academic literature on deradicalization is underdeveloped, incoherent and barely plays a role in the practical work of people actively involved in deradicalization.[viii] Because processes of individual radicalization are very diverse and context-dependent, it is impossible to formulate universal laws or theories that could be of help to observe, describe, explain and predict radicalization. Therefore, the most promising policy is to make people, and youngsters in particular, resilient for diversity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Intervening when people have been radicalized, is also too late. One should prevent that people ever get in that stage: “Die erfolgreichste Deradikalisierung ist jene, die nicht stattfinden muss“ (2018: 24)[ix]. Educators and youth workers play a central role here (cf. Kiefer 2018).


The research on deliberation and (de)radicalization raises several questions: Can a mixed group of youngsters (including some people that seemed to have already entered a path of radicalization) deliberating on related themes (like democracy, pluralism, freedom, autonomy, identity, respect, equality, gender, masculinity, homosexuality, and human rights) bring what scholars and practitioners in the field of radicalization hope for? Does deliberation empower people by showing them respect and enabling them to think through values that bind and give meaning and direction? Do we develop the needed strong alternative narrative by discussing all these themes as an interwoven pattern of mutually supporting ideas? Although this narrative is open-ended and pluralistic, is it sufficient to make youngsters resilient for diversity and ambiguity? In other words: we deliberate how values clash, how values have different weights in different circumstances and how the need to balance values is a never ending challenge. Simultaneously, we show that we can do this in a rational, reasonable way and that there is always a minimum of shared intuitions regarding values on which we can fall back (Blokland 2018b). Does this demanding narrative further sufficiently the resilience for diversity and ambiguity needed in a modern pluralist society?

More research is needed, but we are strongly tempted to answer these questions affirmative. This on the basis of the existing research on deliberation and of our own experiences with deliberative workshops with participants with many different social, cultural and religious backgrounds. We also do not see an alternative. It is not possible to formulate one general theory on which concrete policies exclusively targeting people vulnerable for radicalization can be based and developed; the number of variables and their interactions explaining radicalization is too big. The best we can do, is to strengthen the resilience (of young people in particular) for extremist, monist thoughts and groups. Deliberation can play an important role here.

*Many thanks to Jess Haigh for her comments and the editing of this article.


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[i] Deliberative polls “generally induce significant changes of opinion, often in the direction of progressive and liberal positions (such as less discrimination of foreigners or more free trade) … The proportion of those who change their minds is often over 50 percent and radical changes of opinion can reach up to 20 percent (Luskin et al., 2002). In addition, the level of knowledge of the participants increases (measured as correct answers to knowledge questions). There are also a number of desirable side effects: citizen deliberation increases political interest, political confidence and willingness for collective action (see Grönlund et al., 2010). Finally, there are hardly any undesirable group dynamics, such as conformity effects or opinion polarization (see Fishkin and Luskin 2005). ”

[ii] “Deliberation thus seems to have a universal dimension and cultural transferability.”

[iii] “Prevention should be broad and universal” (Srowig et al 2018: 27).
“Take radical criticism seriously … Substantial participatory offerings call into question the image of the unchangeable status quo and enable self-efficacy experiences. Repression approaches, on the other hand, lead to escalation spirals and co-radicalization. “(Meiering et al 2018: 26)
“Radicalization processes are always dependent on individual biographies. Strengthening personal resilience by promoting ambiguity tolerance and broad-based prevention is the most promising tool in deradicalization work “(Baaken et al 2018: 23).

[iv] It is obviously comforting for societies to define extremists as ‘mad’, but Srowig et al point to the ‘limited significance of mental illnesses as causes of radicalization and violence’ (2018: 2). Referring to Borum (2014) and Koomen & Van der Plicht (2015) they notice that “psychology cannot define a radicalized or terrorist personality-type through either theoretical assumptions or empirical evidence”

[v] Typical is the following recommendation of the authors: “Aufgrund der lokalen und regionalen spezifischen Merkmale von individuellen radikalisierungsprozessen kann nicht davon ausgegangen werden, dass sich die im europäischen Ausland entwickelten Methoden und Methodologien eins zu eins in Deutschland adaptieren lassen. Lokale Gegebenheiten, regionale extremistische Milieus, Akteure und Konfliktdiskurse müssen bei der Konzeption von Maßnahmen und Forschungsanträgen berücksichtigt werden.“ (2018: 27) Translation: “Due to the local and regional specific features of individual radicalization processes, it can not be assumed that the methods and methodologies developed in other European countries can be adapted one to one in Germany. Local conditions, regional extremist milieus, actors and conflict discourses must be taken into account when designing measures and research proposals.”

[vi] All narratives, Meiering et al write, “are tailored differently in the respective fields, but belong to the same narrative bundles and perform similar functions. They structure patterns of perception, affiliation attributions and options for action, thereby acting as transmission belts for radicalization processes “(2018: 10).

[vii] Instead, the goal of deradicalization should be “to teach the individual skills for ambiguity tolerance.” (2018: 11).

[viii] „Die Literatur zum Themenfeld Deradikalisierungs (-praxis) .. bleibt insgesamt unzureichend und fragmentarisch. Dem Thema Radikalisierung wird nach wie vor viel Platz in der akademischen Debatte eingeräumt, obwohl die theoretische Aufarbeitung dieses Komplexes bisher nur wenige praxisrelevante Ansatzpunkte für die Deradikalisierung zutage gefördert hat“ (2018: 24). „Universitätsbasierte Forschungseinrichtungen priorisieren oftmals die Ursachenforschung und sind von den Herausforderungen, mit denen sich Fachkräfte im berufsbedingten Umgang mit radikalisierten Menschen konfrontiert sehen, weitgehend entkoppelt“ (2018: 25-6). Translation: The literature on the topic of deradicalization (-practice) … remains altogether inadequate and fragmentary. The subject of radicalization is still given a lot of space in the academic debate, but the theoretical work so far has revealed only a few practice-relevant starting points for deradicalization “(2018: 24).”University-based research institutions often prioritize root cause research and are largely decoupled from the challenges that practitioners face when dealing with radicalized people ” (2018: 25-6).

[ix] “The most successful deradicalization is the one that does not have to happen.”

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