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Why and How Narrative Matters in Deliberative Systems



Narrative has become a fashionable concept in the everyday practice and analysis of democratic politics. Politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, activists and commentators all talk about the importance of constructing and controlling narratives in democratic debate. Yet astonishingly, the pre-eminent way of thinking about public debate in democratic theory – deliberative democracy – has almost nothing to say about narrative. Drawing on the substantial bodies of literature on narrative in general, and on its relationship to public debate in particular, this article argues that narrative is in fact a crucial aspect of democratic deliberation. In light of the ‘systemic turn’ in deliberative theory, which sees deliberation as occurring across a range of differentiated but interconnected spaces, it suggests that narrative is a crucial device by which people talk and think about complex and contested issues. It argues that deliberative democrats must come to terms with narrative because its pervasive influence can affect deliberative systems in important ways. The article outlines these potential impacts – both those that reinforce deliberative ideals and those that conflict with them. It concludes by looking at the broader implications for the practice, theory and study of deliberative democracy.