Methodological Magpie? by Michael Saward, University of Warwick

Political theorists clearly use methods and deploy methodologies (how could they not?).  But – to generalise, though I think fairly – many theorists are not explicit about how they ‘do theory’.  For example, in the analytical-normative tradition it is common to appeal to intuition – is this view of, say, social justice intuitively plausible or not?  But the origins and status of the intuitions is a marginal issue.

My own particular field, democratic theory, has a few off-the-shelf ways to do theory: you can buy the approach without interrogating the methodology that comes with the package.  The problem, of course, is that what you conclude (about democracy in this case) follows from how you get there.

There are some real shortcomings in democratic theory today (and some of my own previous work has contributed to that state of affairs).  In my view, we need to regard democracy as a much more diverse set of practices and mechanisms than current approaches suggest.  The narrowness of many prominent theories is – in my view – rooted in part in methodological choices, even if those choices are often implicit ones.  My current project on Democratic Design required a methodological rethink.  I needed to become a theorist more self-conscious about my methodological baggage, assumptions and presuppositions.  I have sought reasons and methods to enable flexible designs of democracy, and to build a new democratic design framework to capture this approach. Crucially, this has meant reaching outside democratic theory, and even the larger field of political theory which contains it.  In particular, it has meant engaging closely with design theory or design thinking[i], a body of work normally located in university departments of art or design (in some places called Design Studies), and sometimes in business schools[ii].  It has also meant engaging with practice theory in Sociology and Ethnography, to find a new set of tools to think with[iii].  Both design thinking and practice theory convey a view of the world, and of the political world, as more dynamic and adaptable (and therefore ‘designable’) that current approaches in democratic theory.

A shift of methodological stance can sharpen questions about methods and presuppositions that may be holding back one’s own field of study.  If democratic theory carries dominant assumptions about what democracy is or can be because (for example) it starts with the assumption that normatively democracy ought to be deliberative, then design thinking’s challenge – dare to think what democracy could be – can be liberating.  If democratic theory seeks certainty about democracy’s meaning and value, then the Design Studies precept of modelling within uncertainty (experiment with innovative institutions and see what happens), along with a certain humility (to design is normally to redesign) are likewise.  Design methodology also challenges a standard view of the theorist as omniscient observer, highlighting user perspectives and lived experience. In Design Studies, ‘co-production’ and ‘co-design’ are key guiding terms.  Applied to thinking about democracy, this approach prompts the view that many actors, including ordinary citizens, can play a role in design and re-design of political practices and how institutions work.

Perhaps the key methodological insight to be imported from design thinking is abduction.  Design methodology does not centre on deduction or induction.  It is not a search for one correct answer – for example, to the question ‘what structures of democracy will work best in Scotland over the next decade?’ – but rather a search that involves experimentation, reflection, and an openness to revision.  In this respect, it is a form of abductive reasoning.  In the words of C.S. Peirce: ‘Deduction proves that something must be; induction shows that something actually is operative; abduction suggests that something may be’[iv].  Design author Nigel Cross goes on: ‘It is this hypothesising of what may be, the act of producing proposals or conjectures, that is central to designing’[v].  There is no single best form of a democratic system or of its constituent practices – spatial, temporal and other contextual factors constrain in detailed ways what may be workable.

Time, place and culture matter in democratic design.  Democracy can legitimately look and feel different – different institutions, practices and principles –  from one context to another.  Methodologically, this will involve extending some promising existing political theory methodological insights, notably for example Archon Fung’s pragmatic approach, which ‘begins in media res – with the social circumstances and especially the governance problems of particular societies as they are’ (though of course what are the ‘circumstances’ and ‘problems’ are themselves open to debate)[vi].

The democratic design approach also takes a clearly contextual and pluralistic approach to normativity.  Political theory is often thought to be thoroughly normative in intent and orientation.  But contextual approaches highlight how normativity emerges in time and space, opening it up in turn to radical value pluralism.  Related to this, methods derived from the study of performativity in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies can foster the examination of how principles such as equality and freedom are rooted in practice and invocation.   Arguably, political principles are primarily things that we do – they are defined, adapted and applied through people’s practices in specific times and places – rather than acontextual norms, but dominant political theory approaches tend to see the meaning and moral force of principles as something that can stand independently of specific contexts.

Practice theory helps to unpack political theory presuppositions about the solidity of institutions.  From the perspective of practice theory, political institutions exist by virtue of practices, formal and informal, which create or sustain them.  Influential definitions of ‘institutions’ tend to downplay the potentially disruptive and unstable effects of practice.  Huntington’s definition of institutions as ‘stable, valued, recurring pattern of behaviour’ and March’s definition of an institution as ‘a relatively enduring collection of rules and organised practices’ emphasise the stability or durability of institutions[vii].  Democratic design methodology needs to be attuned to institutional change and contingency, rooted in practices characterised only in part by their regularity.  Practice theory can nudge political theory in a useful direction here.


In short, worries about methodology in my own field led me further afield; I have become a methodological magpie (hopefully not a gadfly).  Bringing such varied approaches together in one methodological narrative is the challenge.  But I move forward with an optimism that this cross-disciplinary combination of methodological insights distinguishes the incipient democratic design project from a number of existing threads in thinking about democracy.

This has meant challenging myself to do things differently, embracing real shifts in presuppositions and approaches.  They are selective imports, no doubt, but gaining new perspectives on democracy’s possibilities through methodological resources from design thinking, practice theory, performativity theory, and pragmatist philosophy’s focus on abduction, hold out the promise of breaking through some restrictive subject boundaries.  Such imports, because they involve methodological shifts in the context of democratic theory, provide tools to mount challenges to received wisdom.  There is plenty of the latter in democratic theory (and no doubt settled research paradigms can be productive, for a while at least), not least the regular privileging of deliberation over other democratic values, the divorce of principles from their institutional enactment and an emphasis on the separateness and opposition of different ‘models’ of democracy.  New methodological tools may help to interrogate such received wisdom.

Can such methodological borrowing and adaptation work?  We’ll see.  The wider point is one we know well enough, but can be tempted not to act on – that theoretical innovation demands methodological innovation, even among researchers for whom ‘methodology’ has not traditionally been a primary focus.

[i] Cross, N. (2011), Design Thinking (London: Bloomsbury)
[ii] Brown, T. with B. Katz (2009), Change by Design (New York: Harper Business)
[iii] Nicolini, D. (2009), ‘Zooming in and out: studying practices by switching theoretical lenses  and trailing connections’, in Organisation Studies 30, 12
[iv] Quoted in Cross, Design Thinking, p.27
[v] Cross, Design Thinking, p.27
[vi] Fung, A. (2012), ‘Continuous institutional innovation and the pragmatic conception of democracy’, in Polity 44, 4, p.610
[vii] Huntington, S.P. (1968), Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press), p.12; March, J.G and Olsen, J.P. (2008), ‘Elaborating the “new institutionalism”’, in S.A. Binder, R.A.W. Rhodes and B.A. Rockamn (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.1


Michael Saward is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His primary research interests lie in democratic theory, political representation and citizenship. He is author of The Representative Claim (Oxford University Press 2010) and co-editor (with Engin Isin) of Enacting European Citizenship (Cambridge University Press 2013). His current research on democratic design is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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