ARENA Working Papers
WP 01/14


Taking Deliberation Seriously

Jeffrey T. Checkel


University of Oslo

First presented at a workshop on "Ideas, Discourse and European Integration," European Union Center, Harvard University, 11-12 May 2001. Thanks to Andreas Føllesdal, Johan P. Olsen, Thomas Risse and Martha Snodgrass for helpfull comments and suggestions.


For political theorists, Europeanists and constructivists within international-relations (IR) theory, deliberation is a process with potentially transformative effects.Indeed, students of deliberation are very open to the possibility that social agents may leave an interaction different from how they entered it.However, these commonsensical insights hide a good deal of controversy and gloss over unresolved analytic challenges.For example, is deliberation always a �good� thing?What theories and - equally important - methods should be used to study it?Just how prevalent is it in contemporary Europe?Can deliberative dynamics partly be captured by more nuanced versions of rational-choice theory?

My intention is not to provide comprehensive answers to these (and many other!) issues.Instead, I �take deliberation seriously� by asking three questions whose goal is to bring its study down to an operational, real-world level.Empirically, do deliberative dynamics ever occur?Theoretically, what toolkits are available for their study?Methodologically, whatever the toolkit employed, how would we recognize deliberation if we saw it? [1]

A Definition and a Clarification

As much of the recent EU work draws on the deliberative democracy tradition in political theory, I turn there for a foundational definition.According to Rawls, when agents deliberate:

they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions.They suppose that their political opinions may be revised by discussion with other citizens; and therefore these opinions are not simply a fixed outcome of their existing private or nonpolitical interests (Rawls as quoted in Freeman 1999, 579-80; see also Bohman 1998, 2-3).

This description has strengths and weaknesses.On the plus side, it is consistent with the intuitive insights with which we began: Deliberation is a (potentially) transformative process.To an IR theorist, it is thus one possible social setting where the core properties - preferences or interests - of individuals may come to be reshaped.A clear weakness is that such a definition underspecifies the precise causal mechanisms underlying this �exchange [of] views and debate� among social agents.While many equate deliberation with arguing (Eriksen and Fossum 2000, 44-45, for example), I will suggest below this is at best a starting point for theorizing such transformative dynamics.

The clarification concerns the particular understanding of deliberation on offer here.My concern is to explore its causal role within institutions, and not in the broader setting of the public sphere.While deliberative dynamics in the latter are surely important in both Europe (Schlesinger and Kevin 2000; Risse 2001) and elsewhere (Lynch 1999), the macro-focus inevitably short-changes the micro - in particular, the specific micro-mechanisms that can lead to a change in agent preferences.Moreover, the EU�s densely institutionalized structure would seem an ideal laboratory and �social soil within which actors� preferences might be transformed� (Caporaso and Jupille 1999, 440) - that is, where deliberation within institutions might have causal effect.

The Empirical Reality

Does deliberation - understood as a process during which social agents may come to change their preferences - ever happen?I have two answers: �Of course!� and �Well, maybe.�The former is simply an observation based on an empirical case I know well - myself.Indeed, I have often been in situations approximating the deliberative ideal, where I debate with colleagues, provide justifications for my views and, in some instances, reconsider my basic interests on an issue.

The more hesitant answer is my response to the EU literature that talks about deliberation.While many Europeanists have drawn intriguing connections between the Union�s decentralized, multi-level, polyarchy and a enhanced role for deliberation, there is surprisingly little robust empirical verification that the latter does occur.By �robust,� I mean that the empirical work of which I am aware fails to employ a transparent research methodology, where the data (and their limitations) are clearly identified, proxies for measuring deliberation are established and alternative explanations are considered.Lacking this, it is difficult for other scholars to see deliberation�s causal role (Joerges and Neyer 1997a, b; see also Joerges and Everson 2000, 182-85).

In addition, much of the EU research on deliberation has been normative in nature, exploring the case for it in restoring a greater sense of legitimacy to the European project.This is an important analytic concern in its own right, one that has led scholars to suggest new strategies for repairing the Union�s democracy deficit (Eriksen and Fossum 2001).Unfortunately, it has left us no closer to an empirically testable deliberative research program.

A final reason for skepticism concerns the results of my own work.As part of a larger project on norm compliance in post-Cold War Europe, I have theorized and empirically reconstructed deliberation�s causal role in small-group settings at the European level - in my case, committees within the Council of Europe, the main European rights institution.Operationalizing deliberation as attempts at persuasion, I have discovered the latter occurs only under certain conditions - marked by de-politicization and privacy, for example (Checkel 2000a, b; Idem 2001b).

In sum, the empirical answer is �yes and no,� which will come as no surprise to any scholar who has sought to operationalize and test ideal types.However, the conclusion is not to dismiss deliberation as causally irrelevant, but to explore and theorize conditions of scope and domains of validity.That is, when and under what conditions will deliberation have causal force in changing people�s minds?

The Theoretical (Micro) Gap

To answer such questions, work on deliberation must move from the realm of meta- or political theory to the practical level, addressing the tough �why, how and when� issues.Two examples suggest the importance of the latter move.Some proponents of deliberation argue that individuals must share a �common life world� for it to occur (Risse 2000, for an excellent and nuanced discussion).From what does such a life world derive?Professionalization into common community norms is one answer, while, in other cases, it is created by repeated meetings over time - say, in the Comitology procedures under the Commission and Council.Thus, it is in part the duration of contact that promotes deliberative forms of interaction.This is a plausible hypothesis, yet it fails to control for an equally likely result of prolonged exposure: decoupling.The longer a social agent resides in a particular setting or unit, the more he/she learns �to just talk the talk.�Such behavior may shield an actor from the deliberative force of group arguments. [2]

In addition, many claim that deliberation leads to a better outcome, a consensus reached through principled debate instead of a crude aggregation of interests.Maybe, but, then again, maybe not.Deliberation implies an intense exchange of opinions and debate, which sometimes occurs among a small group of individuals.Social psychologists have developed a robust experimental literature for describing what happens in such situations: �group think� (t�Hart, Stern and Sundelius 1997).By leading a group to ignore certain arguments or options, group think would likely produce a sub-optimal outcome.Again, the point is not to suggest that deliberation never occurs; rather, without further elaboration as a substantive theory, it is not clear how one would distinguish or predict the good deliberative outcome from the bad group-think one.

For students of deliberation within institutions, these examples suggest that more attention must be payed to the micro-mechanisms in such processes.The good news is that several literatures in the broader discipline might be especially helpful in this regard.Below, I briefly consider three: work by IR constructivists on Habermasian communicative rationality; research by social psychologists on persuasion and social influence; and arguments drawn from institutional theory.All these literatures provide more systematic insight into the basic assumption of the deliberative school: that social communication can bring about changes in the core properties of actors.

IR Theory and Habermas.In recent years, IR scholars have theorized and begun to operationalize the argumentative motor that lies at the heart of many deliberative frameworks.Explicitly drawing upon Habermasian notions of communicative rationality (Risse 2000; Lynch 1999; see also Reus-Smit 1997), these analysts have not only addressed the difficult issues that arise when one moves from theoretical ideal types to the real world (for example, that few social agents really share a common life world).Equally important, in social-theoretic terms, they have decisively broken with �either/or� reasoning - either deliberative arguing or strategic bargaining, say - and begun to develop synthetic frameworks.3

The latter has inevitably focused attention on the development of scope conditions - for example, that deliberative argumentation is more likely in non-hierarchical, network-like settings or where agents operate in situations marked by a high degree of international institutionalization.Of course, the methodologically-inclined scholar will note that such conditions are imprecise, fuzzy and, thus, non-falsifiable.While this may be true at present, several empirical projects underway are designed precisely to test and refine such propositions.4

Social Psychology and Persuasion.The starting point for much of this literature is that the �power of the better argument� thesis advanced by students of deliberation (Eriksen and Fossum 2000, xii, for example) is underspecified.In part, this is a real-world response to Habermasian claims, where many who conduct field work have discovered that it is not the force of the better argument that changes minds, but the persuasive appeal of one�s interlocutor (the persuader) and the open-mindedness of the persuasion target (the persuadee).The most morally compelling or logically correct argument may matter little if it is advanced by a weak debater, or is presented to an individual with deeply held and countervailing beliefs.A second reason for the turn to persuasion is more substantive, with several scholars suggesting that, if one examines Habermasian arguments carefully, most of the causal weight falls on (unspecified) mechanisms of persuasion (Lynch 1999, chapter 1; Checkel 2001b).

Persuasion can be defined as a social process of interaction that involves changing attitudes about cause and effect in the absence of overt coercion (Checkel 2001b, 13).While the social psychology literature on persuasion is mainly laboratory-experimental (Zimbardo and Leippe 1991; Brody, Mutz and Sniderman 1996), it does highlight a key point: Persuasion does not always change minds.Using these experimental insights as a starting point, recent work by IR scholars has documented that persuasion is more likely to work in particular contexts, defined by cognitive uncertainty and noviceness on the part of the persuadee, in-group status of the persuader and, more generally, in less politicized and more insulated, in-camera settings (Johnston 2001; Idem nd; Gheciu 2001; Checkel 2001b; Finnemore nd, chapter 5; see also Chayes and Chayes 1995).

Precisely because these are scope conditions, they open up analytic space for strategic perspectives to play a role in deliberative settings.For example, if several of the conditions do not hold (Checkel 2001b, for details), the process is more likely be driven by the manipulative use of persuasive appeals (Payne 2001) or by rhetorical action - the strategic use of norms and arguments (Schimmelfennig 2000; Idem 2001).5

Institutional Theory and Multiple Embeddedness.With its emphasis on the role of agent noviceness, persuasion research begins to explore an issue largely ignored by deliberative and argumentative accounts.Simply put, social actors, when entering a (possible) deliberative setting at the European level, are in no sense free agents; they arrive with a certain background.

Institutional theorists studying the EU most systematically explore this issue of background conditions.Their starting point is that individuals are embedded in multiple international and domestic organizational contexts.However, these analysts go an important step further, theorizing and documenting how particular features of domestic and Europeanization organizations can hinder or promote preference and identity change within, say, the Commission (Egeberg 1999; Idem 2000; Hooghe 2001).6

The validity of the institutional arguments is bolstered by the degree to which they overlap with those drawn from other research traditions.Symbolic interactionists have theorized this same notion of multiple embeddedness in terms of role conflict (Stryker 1980; Barnett 1993; see also Meyer and Strang 1993).More important, these insights are supported by a new generation of methodologically rigorous work on socialization in central EU institutions (Beyers 1998; Beyers and Dierickx 1997; Idem 1998).This research has consistently shown that the possibility of preference change at the European level is heavily influenced by the amount of prior, national pre-socialization.

Summary.Europeanists who study deliberation could benefit in two ways from the literature surveyed above.The work on arguing and persuasion operationalizes the central processual claim of deliberationists: that the very process of social communication can lead to a change in core actor properties.Institutional arguments on embeddedness help to specify the initial conditions prior to the onset of deliberation.

The Methodological Challenges

On the research methodology of deliberation, it is necessary to address and rebut two strikingly similar claims - advanced from opposite ends of the epistemological spectrum.Each revolves around individual agents and their intentions, that is, the extent to which one needs �to get inside people�s heads� when studying the causal motors of deliberation.Choice-theoretic critics will claim such an exercise is impossible, while deliberation theorists will say it is not necessary.Both are wrong.

Any response to the former must begin with a clarification.The claim here is not that we must get inside heads when studying deliberation; rather, we should and can shrink the black box that has been built around the actual deliberative process.Much of the research cited above is performing precisely this �shrinking� exercise.These scholars employ a process-tracing methodology, triangulate across multiple data streams, consider alternative explanations and, where appropriate, conduct counterfactual analysis - all aimed at understanding better the conditions under which and the mechanisms through which deliberation-arguing-persuasion occur.That is, they have gone some way toward answering a key question: How would we recognize deliberation if we saw it?

Of course, all this hard work will never �prove� that deliberation has occurred (Joerges and Everson 2000, 183).Then again, one should bear in mind that no social science ever proves anything!Rather, the methodological challenge is to enhance the plausibility of one�s findings and reduce problems of validity.

The argument made by students of deliberation is different.They claim that we need not care about what people really think; it is what they say that matters (Risse 2001, 2, 5, for example). I have encountered this stance on numerous occasions and do not understand it.How can we make claims that �the force of the better argument� has led social actors to alter their preferences when we only look at what they say?How does such an approach control for the possibility that individuals have strategically deployed arguments in an attempt to manipulate others (Schimmelfennig 1999; Idem 2001)?

For sure, one has Elster�s notion of �the civilizing force of hypocrisy� (Elster 1998, 109-112), which is often invoked by deliberative scholars.This is a claim that, even if a social agent is using arguments strategically, their public utterance - that is, publicity - can have a �civilizing� force on his/her more self-interested instincts.That is, what starts out as strategic behavior (a) may later lead to preference change (b).Well maybe.However, absent some theoretical explanation for how we get from (a) to (b), and, more important, empirical evidence that such a dynamic ever really occurs, this claim should be treated with skepticism.7

There is an even more basic problem with bracketing agent motivation and intention when studying deliberation.We do not study deliberation simply for deliberation�s sake.Rather, as deliberative scholars make clear (Eriksen and Fossum 2000, chapter 1), we examine it as part of a larger concern with social order and compliance.If this is the case, then let�s consider three ideal-typical ways in which order and compliance occur: an agent is coerced; he/she complies out of self-interest; or he/she complies because it is the legitimate and appropriate thing to do.The causal mechanisms of compliance in these three instances are very different: force; incentives; and internalization.8It seems intuitively obvious that the durability of compliance and social order will vary significantly between the second and third mechanisms.With the second, which corresponds to Elster�s �civilizing force,� compliance will be tenuous as an agent will calculate differently when the incentive structure changes.However, once internalization occurs, compliance will become more robust and enduring (see also Follesdal 2000, 91-92).

In sum, given their own professed concerns, students of deliberation do need to care whether the �force of the better argument� has convinced someone (internalization) or whether arguments are being deployed strategically (incentives).And, methodologically, this will require greater attention to agent motivation.


I conclude by addressing three issues: the potential benefits of the micro-oriented deliberative research program sketched above; continuing points of weakness in it; and the role of deliberation in an enlarged European Union.9

Why Going Micro Isn�t Such a Bad Thing.This move to the micro-level by students of deliberation could have four benefits.First, it minimizes reliance on �as if� assumptions in theorizing deliberative dynamics - that is, agents acting as if they have been persuaded by the force of the better argument.While it is true that we can never get inside people�s heads, the work cited above, by being methodologically self conscious and employing multiple data streams, has demonstrated that the choice-theoretic criticism of the impossibility of measuring preference change is no longer tenable.Second, an agency focus will force students of deliberation to contextualize their claims.In particular, much of the IR and social psychology literature surveyed earlier is cast explicitly in terms of scope, asking about the conditions under which persuasion (say) will change an actor�s preferences.Given that more and more students of deliberation recognize that their perspective supplements - but does not replace - strategic approaches, greater attention to questions of scope and boundary would seem essential.

Third, emphasizing the micro-level can promote theoretical bridge building.Indeed, in adopting a micro-focus, the work referenced above is moving onto the �home turf� of rational choice.It has thus theorized and documented not only �sincere� argumentation and persuasion in the deliberative process, but also the strategic use of norms and arguments and the manipulative use of persuasive appeals (see also Riker 1986).From a problem-driven perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such findings!They hold the potential for opening a much-overdue dialogue with students of rational choice (Checkel and Moravcsik 2001).

Finally, the micro-perspective outlined here is mundane and �nitty gritty� in its attention to empirical operationalization and research methodology.It thus complements other work by Europeanists on deliberation, which tends to be more normative in orientation.While the latter is often - and appropriately - visionary in nature, suggesting, say, how deliberation could help resolve the EU�s growing legitimacy crisis, it comes up short at the operational - �how do we do it� - level.

Remaining Challenges.Of course, problems remain, with three being most central.First, this emphasis on the micro has come at the expense of the macro.In particular, social and material power receive insufficient attention.Do deliberative outcomes ever not coincide with the interests of materially powerful states in the EU?In a particular small group setting, what makes an argument prevail?Is it simply the force of the better argument?Or, does it have more to do with whether an agent�s arguments resonate and are thus legitimated by broader social discourses?Answers to this last question would likely necessitate attention to a literature I have bracketed throughout this essay: work on deliberation in public spheres.

Second, most of the deliberation studied by the scholars surveyed here is one-way.That is, the causal arrows run from one agent, whose properties are temporarily fixed, to another, who is the target of argumentation or persuasive appeals (Checkel 2001b, for example).Yet, this research design violates the true deliberative ideal, where the preferences of all agents are (potentially) up for redefinition.The failure to capture these more complex social settings arises partly for practical reasons: Process-tracing methodologies are resource and time intensive, and one can do only so much in a given project.

Epistemology plays a role as well, however.Most of the scholars discussed above operate within a positivist framework; for their analyses to work, something - one social agent�s preferences - has to held constant for the causal mapping to proceed.More interpretative epistemologies might better capture the recursive dynamics among multiple, arguing agents.Unfortunately, answers to the why and how of deliberation would then be lost.

Third, other techniques are needed as a supplement to the interviews that figure prominently in this micro-deliberation research.Possibilities include cognitive mapping, the adoption of interview methodologies from clinical psychology, and utilizing content analysis techniques that isolate argument structures.All three would serve to reduce the reliability problems that arise from the attempt to get inside heads, as it were.10

Deliberation and Enlargement.Contemporary Europe is a gold mine for testing and refining hypotheses on the role of deliberation-arguing-persuasion in changing actor preferences or promoting compliance and social order.�Europe� here means both West and East Europe, for the reality of enlargement will force students of deliberation to rethink their core arguments. Vast power differentials between East and West, dramatically differing degrees of domestic institutional embeddedness, great variance in the degree of agent noviceness, allegedly very different common life worlds - exploring these (and other) factors should lead to more fine-grained theses on how and when social communication can indeed change minds.


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[1] There is a fourth, normative, dimension as well, which explores whether deliberation can ameliorate the legitimacy problems created by the EUs democratic deficit.As this question has been well treated elsewhere (Eriksen and Fossum 2001), I do not address it here.

[2] Thanks to Johan P. Olsen and Jarle Trondal for discussion on these points.See also Trondal 2000, n6.

3 This move accords with broader trends in the discipline.See Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner 1998; Caporaso and Jupille 2000; and Olsen 2001.

4 For example, Harald Mueller and Thomas Risse, AArguing and Bargaining in Multilateral Negotiations,@ proposal submitted to the Volkswagen Foundation (no date).

5 Put differently, this move to the micro-level creates points of contact and possible overlap with rationalist accounts.See also Lynch 1999, 12; and Moravcsiks discussion in Checkel and Moravcsik 2001.

6 While most would not consider Hooghe an institutionalist, in this case her argument is organizational/bureaucratic.

7 For one attempt to document such dynamics, see the analysis of rhetorical self-entrapment in Risse, Ropp and Sikkink 1999, 25-28, passim.

8 Hurd 1999; Wendt 1999, 249-51.

9 The following draws from a larger work-in-progress.Checkel 2001a.

10 Thanks to Iain Johnston for discussion on these points.