Lessons from the Virtual Agora Project: The Effects of Agency, Identity, Information, and Deliberation on Political Knowledge
A key impetus toward increasingly widespread use of deliberation has been the claim that deliberation helps educate citizens about political issues. Past research has confirmed that people learn in deliberative contexts. This research, however, has not been careful to separate the effects of informative readings or other information sources from the effects of discussion. Knowledge of the exact mechanism of learning is key to determining how best to design for learning. In addition, past research has not examined what individual-level factors affect deliberative learning. These factors must be examined to address concerns about possible inequality in deliberation and may suggest ways to increase equality. This paper introduces a theory of political agency that suggests possible factors for explaining learning in deliberative contexts, including political reflectiveness and conceptions of citizen identity. The paper tests a statistical model that explains learning with the agency variables, socioeconomic factors, and experimental conditions—including a no-discussion condition. The model is tested with data from pre- and post- surveys of a representative sample of 568 Pittsburgh residents who came to a one-day deliberation experiment. Analysis proceeds with exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, HLM, and OLS with group-robust p-values. We find, overall, that discussion has no effect on knowledge above the effect of reading and contemplating—a finding with important deliberative design implications. Deliberation remains crucial as a motivator. Discussions do prompt learning in people with certain citizen identities, though not on average more than those merely contemplating the topic. Finally, results show that socioeconomic characteristics play an important role in learning, but one that is partly counteracted by the agency variables. Interventions to reduce inequality are suggested. Agency theory may be a valuable theoretical framework for deliberation research generally.