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Abstract

Critics of public deliberation as conventionally practiced have charged that it is “just talk” in the sense both that it substitutes sociable conversation for practical deliberation and that it substitutes political talk for political action. I argue that both criticisms rest on unnecessarily restrictive models of talk and politics. Drawing on participant observation and interviews with eighty participants in two forums convened to deliberate about the future of the former World Trade Center, I tease out the variety of models on which people styled their discussions, models that included education, negotiation, and advocacy. In ways not often recognized by deliberative theorists, these models helped participants to hone their own opinions and reach agreement across difference. Participants also perceived less of a conflict between deliberation and advocacy than deliberative theorists have tended to do. Insofar as participants’ understandings of what made for good deliberation and appropriate modes of political influence differed from those of forum organizers, they point both to practical challenges in organizing deliberation and to possibilities for organizing it more effectively.

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