What kinds of knowledge are the social and political sciences able to deliver? How could the involved scholars contribute, via different kinds of deliberation, to counter current trends of political malaise, populism and radicalization? What were the experiences of a group of scholars that grounded a social enterprise devoted to deliberation and tried to become more relevant? And what do these experiences tell us about the state of democracy in Germany and beyond?
In 2016, I left the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and founded the social enterprise Social Science Works. A pivotal motivation for this move was the rather limited social and political relevance of contemporary social and political science, the disciplines I was teaching at the university. For years I had lectured courses at different universities with subjects like “What prospects for social and political science? Creating useable knowledge for democratic societies”; “Inquiry and Change: How to change society in incremental steps via usable knowledge”; and “Power: What it is, where it is and how we can know – A search for the epistemological possibilities of social and political knowledge”. Following critical debates in political science and sociology, I tried to convince my audiences to devote more attention to problems that needed to be solved in our societies, and less on theories and methods. These theories and methods are assumed to stand for a universal, objective knowledge resembling the knowledge of the hard sciences. The search for this knowledge, though, has made these disciplines increasingly fragmented, scholastic, insulated, and socially irrelevant.
At Social Science Works, we decided to focus on the declining belief in democratic institutions. Democracies all over the world seem to lose attraction for increasing numbers of citizens. Many of the debates in Western social and political science and philosophy in the last decades have centered around concepts like citizenship, social cohesion, social capital, trust, or deliberation. Apparently, there is a widespread concern about citizens participating less and less in social and political associations, about citizens understanding less and less about social, economic and political processes and structures, and about citizens becoming more and more receptive to easy answers to complicated problems. Many scholars belief we urgently need to find new ways to participate meaningfully in social and political activities and, by participating, to strengthen political competences and political communities. Increased political competences would also enable the public to properly assess research and the many other communications aimed at influencing its opinion and behavior (Dahl 1950, 1989, 2000; Lindblom 1977, 1990; Wolin 1960; Bay 1965; Fishkin 1995, 2009, 2018; Habermas 1981; Putnam 1993, 2000; Bohman & Rehg; Gutmann and Thompson 2004; Dryzek 2005, Wolfe 2006).
Above and beyond, many scholars belief that citizens in our societies need to talk much more about normative or philosophical questions. Which values and goals should curb or direct currently unconstrained processes of rationalization, economization, bureaucratization and globalization? Which values, if any, define our shared identity and how should we go about to foster them? On the basis of which values and goals can citizens in increasingly diverse societies live peacefully together? For too long we avoided discussions on basics, also because we were afraid that these would never lead to any workable consensus and would only create conflicts that could escalate.
However, not talking about fundamentals creates societies without knowledge and understanding of their own foundations, and, consequently, societies that in the end are unable to justify and defend themselves. Moreover, this abstinence nurtures political communities without the ability to decide what is important and unimportant, and to decide in which directions they should steer themselves. Not talking about these fundamental issues creates societies at the mercy of blind social and economic structures and processes that few understand, societies that broil hidden and undirected resentment, societies that fall apart.
Particularly in political communities that undergo rapid change, there is an increasing need to discuss and to delineate what binds people together. Instances of such swift changes are the migration or flight of substantial numbers of people and the resulting growth of cultural diversity in the receiving countries; fast economic transformations due to globalization and technological innovations; or drastic changes in physical climates and vulnerabilities.
Fortunately, not only political scholars observe the urgency of a reinvigoration of democracy. Particularly in Germany, several political parties, governmental institutions, civic organizations and other funding agencies increasingly acknowledge this urgency too, and enable the development of projects and policies in this field. Often with their support, we have implemented a multitude of in particular deliberative projects. The theories and practices of deliberation play a pivotal role in our work since this perspective addresses many of the issues discussed above.
We see deliberation as an open and courteous exchange of ideas and values, which furthers the discovery, understanding, contextualization and development of political preferences. In the nowadays prevalent consumerist or economic views on democracy the aims of political participation are mainly the transfer of preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies. How these preferences came into being, whether they are informed and can be justified, whether they are “political” in the sense that they address public issues of communities, are questions seldom asked for. In deliberative views on democracy these questions are pivotal, though. Deliberation is not primarily about individuals and their organizations fighting for their specific interests. Instead, it is foremost about the joint development of substantiated preferences regarding the public cause.
Deliberation does not replace the existing democratic structures, but could be an important extension of these. In the last decades the interest in deliberation in political science and politics has increased significantly (again), under the influence of growing political alienation, disinterest, cynicism, and populism. Whereas existing political communications have become increasingly geared to the manipulation and manufacture of preferences, deliberation could help to diminish the gap between politics and society by offering new opportunities to get in an honest conversation about what keeps our societies together and what we collectively want to achieve. Therefore, deliberation could strengthen the notions and emotions of political community, civility and citizenship that democracies need to thrive. These notions and emotions have been undermined by defining democracy too much as a decision-making method (cf. Schumpeter 1942) in which power is central, inviting the contestants to gather electoral support with all possible means, including manipulation and deceit. Deliberation could bring back a bit of sincerity, civility and substance to politics.
Apart from an analysis of the state of our disciplines, this book offers a critical overview of our theoretical starting points regarding deliberation, and our trials, experiences and findings in this field. I describe our efforts to contribute to the societal integration of newcomers and of disillusioned, alienated natives, to the deliberation of the normative fundamentals of our societies with a huge variety of young and older citizens, and to counter political alienation and radicalization. Via this overview the book also provides an insight into the state of democracy in Germany and beyond.
Accordingly, Deliberating Useable Knowledge consists of theoretical and practical parts, mutually informing each other. In the theoretical parts I and II, the state of social and political science is discussed, respectively, the ideas behind our deliberative projects. The practical part III presents several of these projects: what were their assumptions, goals and contents, what were our experiences and findings? In Part IV, I discuss our trials and tribulations of building up a social enterprise devoted to democracy in Germany, especially in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic). These experiences do not less inform our understanding of the state of our democracies.
Aspired publication date: Autumn 2021