Author Biography

Caroline W. Lee is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College. Her book Do-it-Yourself Democracy is an ethnography of the public engagement industry in the United States. Her edited volume with collaborators Edward Walker and Mike McQuarrie, entitled Democratizing Inequalities, explores the challenges of what we call “the new public participation”– the dramatic expansion of democratic practices in organizations of all types– in an era of stark economic inequalities.


The public participation field grew dramatically in the United States during the 1990s and 2000s, in part due to the flagship dialogue and deliberation organization AmericaSpeaks and its trademarked 21st Century Town Hall Meeting method for large group decision-making. Drawing on participant observation of three such meetings and a multi-method ethnography of the larger field, I place these meetings in context as experimental deliberative demonstrations during a time of ferment regarding declining citizen capacity in the United States. AmericaSpeaks’ town meetings were branded as politically authentic alternatives to ordinary politics, but as participatory methods and empowerment discourses became popular with a wide variety of public and private actors, the organization failed to find a sustainable business model. I conclude by discussing the challenges for contemporary town hall meetings in an era when political authenticity is a valuable commodity.