Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2003

Consociational Theory: Cross National Comparisons of Institutions, Discourse Quality and Outcomes

Lecturer: Professor Jürg Steiner
Department of Political Science, University of Bern, Switzerland

Main discipline: Political science
Dates: 4 - 8 August 2003

Consociational theory tries to explain how democratic stability is possible in culturally segmented political systems. The objective of the course is to look at the logical structure of the theory and to apply the theory to various societal contexts. A consociational political system is characterized by peculiar institutional arrangements, in particular proportionality for parliamentary elections, grand coalitions in cabinet formation, federalism and strong veto points in the system. Within these institutions, political negotiations are not exclusively driven by bargaining based on interests, but to some extent also on deliberation where the force of the better argument prevails. Concepts closely related to consociationalism are consensus democracies, power sharing, accommodation, and corporatism. All these concepts contrast with the competitive model of democracy based on interest group pluralism.

Looking at the two basic models of democracy, we will address the question of how much cooperation and competition is needed from the perspective of normative democratic theory. Does the answer depend on the specific circumstances and what are these circumstances? For example: In Austria after World War II, was a grand coalition between the two major parties necessary but was the grand coalition kept too long allowing the right wing politician Jörg Haider to emerge? In discussing such issues, broad theoretical questions shall be closely linked with current events.

Basic books

Outline of Lectures

Lecture 1: Presentation of consociational theory
Consociational theory is presented in the logical structure of its hypotheses, key concepts of the theory are defined, and the theory is put into a broader theoretical context, in particular in relating it to theories of consensus democracy and corporatism.


Lecture 2: The concepts of bargaining and deliberation in consociational theory
In bargaining, actors know their interests and they interact reciprocally to seek to realize them. Instruments to attain a bargain are threats of punishments and promises of rewards. Actors make cost-benefits analyses in order to determine whether they should participate in a bargain. By contrast, in the ideal type of deliberation actors are willing to yield to the force of the better argument with their preferences not being fixed but open to change. Consociationalism contains strong bargaining aspects but ideally also some aspects of deliberation.


Lecture 3: Deliberative politics in action
Up to now the discussion on deliberation mainly took place at an abstract philosophical level. Recently some efforts have been made to apply the concept to real world phenomena. A good example of such an empirical approach is the investigation of Thomas Risse on the international deliberations leading to German unification in 1990. The investigation of Risse is of a qualitative nature. In our own project we go a step further in attempting to measure deliberation in a quantitative way with strict reliability tests.

We then investigate the institutional preconditions for a high discourse quality and the impact of a high discourse quality on the social justice dimension of the political outcomes. To test our corresponding hypotheses, we investigate parliamentary debates in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. For the time of the 2003 Oslo Summer School we hope to have available also the data chapters with the test of the hypotheses.


Lecture 4: Application of the Consociational Theory to the Netherlands and Belgium
The Netherlands is a good case to begin with since in the 1960's Lijphart used it to develop the consociational theory. At the time, the Netherlands was segmented in the three pillars of Calvinists, Catholics and seculars, and Lijphart argued that it was thanks to consociationalism that despite its segmentation the country was politically stable. In the mean time, the Netherlands has become quite a homogeneous society but still practices a high degree of accommodation.

It is an interesting question what the development in the Netherlands since the 1960's tells us about the validity of the consociational theory. In Belgium consociationalism gained prominence in 1958 when the "school pact" could diffuse a severe crisis about the role of the Catholic church in educational matters. More recently, Belgium tries to manage the language issue of the country through consociational means, not always very successfully.


Lecture 5: Application of the Consociational Theory to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany
Switzerland had five civil wars from the 16th to the middle of the 19th century pitting Catholics and Protestants against each other. A good argument can be made that it is thanks to consociationalism that relations between the two religious groups became increasingly harmonious and that today the religious cleavage has lost most of its importance. By contrast, the language cleavage keeps its importance although consociationalism is practiced as much as ever among the four language groups. It is an intriguing question why this difference in the development of the two cleavages.

Austria had even more recently a civil war, in the 1930's between the two camps (Lager) of the bourgeois clerical blacks and the Socialist anticlerical reds. After 1945 the two camps practiced consociationalism, and a good argument can be made that this allowed Austria to become a stable democracy. Today the cleavage between the two traditional camps has been greatly reduced, yet consociationalism continued to be practiced for a long time. One may wonder whether an earlier change to a more competitive model would not have prevented the rise of the right-wing Freedom Party of Jörg Haider. The Austrian case is also interesting because consociationalism was always strongly intertwined with corporatist structures. Germany has on the one hand strong competitive elements, but on the other hand also significant consociational-corporatist aspects, and the latter can be traced back to the peace of Westphalia in 1648.


Lecture 6: Application of the Consociational Theory to the European Union
The European Union has strong cleavages among its member states, but also cleavages of a linguistic, religious, regional, and ethnic nature. Is the European Union currently practicing consociationalism, and if not, should it be advised to do so?


Lecture 7: Application of the Consociational Theory to Northern Ireland
The conflict in Northern Ireland has deep historical roots. It is not just a conflict about religious matters between Catholics and Protestants. The key of the conflict is of an ethnic nature with the Catholics being of Irish, the Protestants of British descent and both groups claiming Northern Ireland as their home land. The Good Friday Accord of 1998 promised a consociational solution to the conflict but the implementation of the accord is not easy at all.


Lecture 8: Application Consociational Theory to Bosnia-Herzegovina
Bosnia-Herzegovina gained independence 1992, but immediately a horrendous war broke out among Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. In 1995 the Dayton accord was reached with key consociational elements. Since then the situation remains fragile, but there is some progress towards a more stable situation.


Lecture 9: Application of consociational theory to South Africa and Afghanistan
In the early 1990's South Africa had a transition from the white Apartheid regime to democracy with whites and blacks sharing power. Since then many features of power sharing have been abolished, but one may make the argument that power sharing on a wide societal basis is practiced within the African National Congress (ANC). In Afghanistan, after the defeat of the Taliban regime, a conference on the future of the country was convened in Bonn, Germany. The issue was to find a solution for the peaceful coexistence of the many ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras, and the Uzbeks. The solution offered was the implementation of a power sharing regime. First steps in this direction have already been undertaken, but much more needs to be done.


Lecture 10: Evaluation of Consociational Theory
How good is the logical structure of consociational theory? How well does the theory survive empirical tests? Has the theory any use for practical politics?


The Lecturer
Jürg Steiner teaches political science at both the University of Bern and the University of North Carolina. In the academic year 2003/04, Swiss Chair at the European University Institute in Florence. Current research is discourse ethics and deliberation and hereby to link normative and empirical questions. Recent publications: European Democracies, fourth edition, New York: Longman 1998. Editor (with Thomas Ertman) of Consociationalism and Corporatism in Western Europe, Amsterdam: Boom 2002 (also published as special issue of Acta Politica, Volume 37, Spring/Summer 2002). Scheduled publication for 2004 (with André Bächtiger, Markus Spörndli and Marco Steenbergen): Deliberative Politics in Action. A Crossnational Study of Parliamentary Debates, Cambridge University Press.