The Methodological Relevance of Reconstruction in Democratic Theory

WP 1 - Theoretical framework

WP 1 events

Oslo, 26-27 May 2011


Workshop outline

Scholarly thinking about democracy as an idea and about democracy as political practice is still largely divided along disciplinary lines – normative political theory and empirical political science. Democracy as an idea is almost exclusively discussed within political theory. Here, the focus is on saving the idea of democracy against challenges of transnationalisation. Growing complexity and pluralisation of values seem to lower problem-solving capacities of western democratic nation-states. At the same time, decisions are increasingly made by intergovernmental bodies, which are still perceived as elitist or technocratic executive legislation. In the light of these challenges, citizens seem not only to challenge a particular government's legitimacy, but democracy itself. In turn, political theory focuses on how to legitimise different forms and levels of governance. Is it possible to institutionalise democracy in multi-level governance (EU) or even in a global context – or do we need an alternative value-basis for a just political order? Can transnational governance be democratically legitimate? On the other hand, democracy as a political practice is largely covered by empirically oriented political science. Here, the main focus still is on the actual practices in and around the institutions of the democratic nation-state (voting behaviour, party politics, media coverage, protest movements, the role of deliberation and so on). However, recent empirical research has reacted to the processes of transnationalisation. More attention is paid to the democratic characteristics of international or transnational sites of governance, mainly analysing their quality of deliberation.

In our view, this disciplinary divide encourages complementary fallacies. Normative proposals for how to rescue the idea of democracy often remain up in the air. They usually pay little attention to actual practices of governance and public discourse in democratic societies. Empirical research on the other hand divides and disaggregates the idea of democracy analytically and focuses on certain parts of democratic practice only. Thereby the meaning and essence of the idea of democracy as a whole often gets lost.

To put it briefly, we believe that both views do not adequately reflect democracy as an idea in practice. To see whether and how democracy can be preserved on the European or global level, we need to know more about how democracy as idea actually works in the political practice of current democratic societies and how it is engrained in the presuppositions and practices of modern governance. For example: Under what conditions do people judge politics to be democratic or undemocratic? Is their view related to the idea of a community or to certain political institutions? Do they view political rule as justified even if they see it as undemocratic? If yes, on the basis of what alternative values? Have these views changed historically? How do international institutions and other forms of governance beyond and beside the state rely on democratic ideas in their practices? To what extent is the idea of democracy constitutionally enshrined in international institutions?

The impasse created by the disciplinary division of normative and empirical reasoning is now increasingly felt in the various sub-disciplines of political science. In democratic theory, it is mainly the concept of 'deliberative democracy' around which cooperation of empirical and normative studies has been intensified. However, we believe, that to pursue the questions above and also to evaluate the merits of the research on deliberative democracy, it is first necessary to take another, prior step. In the questions above and the research on deliberative democracy the task of normative analysis (illuminating the idea of democracy) is intrinsically related to empirical analysis (describing the constitutive or causal impact of that idea in political practice). It is, however, not sufficiently explored what follows from this connection for the analysis of democracy. Is it possible at all to 'describe' the impact of a normative idea in political reality? How can we gain a normative account that on the one hand relies on practice, but on the other can authoritatively challenge and reform it? How can we detect possible effects of transnationalisation on the everyday understanding and working of democracy?

The aim of the workshop is to shed more light on these methodologically oriented questions. It takes up a particular view and focuses on the methodological concept of 'reconstruction' in democratic theory. It is no coincidence that efforts to bring normative and empirical research closer develop around the theory of deliberative democracy. One of its social theoretical foundations – the discourse theory of Jürgen Habermas – is closely associated with the idea of reconstruction. A core theme of discourse theory is the role and functioning of normative ideals in social practice. However, whereas other parts of discourse theory are prominently discussed in contemporary democratic theory, Habermas’ methodologically important idea of a 'reconstructive social science' is not adequately reflected – especially in its connection of views from political science, sociology and philosophy.

We think that further reflection on the concept of reconstruction is beneficial in two regards. For one, it fosters the development of research methods that overcome a false dichotomy between empirical and normative views in democratic theory. For another, a turn to the theoretical view of democracy as an idea in practice leads to a better understanding of the challenges to current democratic societies – and thus helps to evaluate the need and impact of measures to save democracy in a transnationalising world.



Organised by ARENA - Centre for European Studies in cooperation with the Research Programme on Democracy at the University of Oslo. The workshop takes place within the framework of RECON's work package 1 'Theoretical Framework'. Read more on the research objectives of WP 1 and on the overall research objectives of RECON.


For further information, please contact Daniel Gaus, ARENA: daniel.gaus(at) or Christoph Humrich, University of Bremen: christoph.humrich(at)