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Abstract

The tools and rhetoric of deliberative democracy are increasingly popular with governments, organizations, and researchers working to enhance ‘public engagement with science’. Deliberative fora such as citizen juries have also been heavily critiqued by social and political scientists – for positively and narrowly framing contentious new technologies to secure public support, and for privileging consensus over ‘difference’. This paper takes such critiques seriously. Drawing from ethnographic participant-observation and analysis of a deliberative public consultation on biobanking in British Columbia (BC), Canada, it argues for careful attention to deliberative event design. A multi-disciplinary approach, multiple media, and imagination-focused tasks were used in BC to produce inclusive deliberations in which members of the public were able to directly challenge expert assumptions. Ethnographic attention to narrative during analysis of the deliberation reveals the extent to which participants insistently questioned the framing of the event. Drawing from personal experiences, analogies, news stories and fictional events, the deliberants developed and embellished the figure of a ‘mad scientist’ to challenge certainties promised by scientific, legal, and ethical expertise. This paper argues that such questioning enhanced the accountability of the deliberation and participant trust in the event. It also argues that ethnographic attention to storytelling is a valuable and under-utilized pursuit in the field of deliberative democracy – a pursuit that can enable deliberative events to ‘listen’.

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