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Abstract

This essay draws insights from Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory for the development of a sociological theory of deliberation. Most work on deliberative practice is strongly shaped by the concerns of deliberative democratic theory, and that theory tends to approach deliberation as a procedural mechanism for decision-making. Thus, there has been very little effort to theorize the sociological dimensions of deliberative practice. Bourdieu’s theory highlights a crucial dilemma in that practice. Efforts to infuse community politics with deliberation represent a politics of the most fundamental kind: a struggle to redefine the preferred categories, rules, roles, values, and behaviors that structure public life. But deliberation itself does not constitute a cohesive field of social activity. There is no common sense definition of what deliberation is, or how to tell a good deliberator from a bad one; moreover, as yet one can achieve no social distinction or status from embracing deliberation. Thus, members of a community engage in a fundamental political struggle without a shared sense of what they are doing or why they are doing it, and without the rewards of status or distinction that come with participation in an ongoing social field. Illustrated with examples from two years of ethnographic fieldwork into the practice of deliberation, this theory shows deliberation to be a fluid, sociologically complex and politically charged exercise.

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