PB Research Series: An Interview with Daniel Schugurensky

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PBP is proud to be working closely with such an incredible network of PB researchers and research teams in North America. We’ve decided to launch a PB Research blog series that will throw the spotlight on these researchers, so that our readers and supporters can learn more about what’s happening in the world of PB research!

This week, we’re featuring Daniel Schugurensky, professor in the School of Social Transformation and School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University (ASU). Daniel is a leading international researcher on PB, an advisory board member of PBP, and has been supporting the evaluation of PB since it arrived in North America in 2001. Daniel’s most recent research, with Matt Cohen and Arnim Wiek from ASU, has been on the PB process at Bioscience High School in Phoenix.

 

Daniel, where do you fit in the world of PB research?

I started doing research on PB in 1999, first in Porto Alegre and two years later in Montevideo (Uruguay). Later on I had the pleasure of continuing that line of research in collaboration with great colleagues like Josh Lerner, Beth Pinnington, Erica McCollum, Behrang Foroughi, Matt Cohen, and others in other countries like Argentina, Canada, Venezuela, and the USA. As a curious person with an interest in participatory democracy and social change, I have a general interest in all things PB, and this covers a variety of areas, from inclusive strategies to quality of deliberation, redistribution of resources, creativity of decisions and diffusion dynamics, among other topics.

Having said that, from the beginning I was particularly interested in the educational dimension of PB.  Education here is understood broadly, including psychological, social and political development – at both the individual and collective level – and the specific acquisition of certain democratic and political skills, values and attitudes.  It is possible to argue that one of the best ways to learn democracy is by doing it, be it through self-governance, like a workers’ co-op, or through co-governance, like participatory budgeting. In sum, the main argument of this theoretical tradition is that participatory democracy provides powerful opportunities for democratic learning, and for this reason it can be considered as an informal school of democracy. This learning can also contribute to the development of the political capital of participants, particularly the disenfranchised and marginalized.

I have been motivated in my work by Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist who started a speech in the mid-nineties with these provocative words: “Participation does make better citizens. I believe it, but I can’t prove it. And neither can anyone else.”  She acknowledged that those who have participated in democratic governance often experienced important changes, but argued that these changes cannot be captured with the blunt instruments of social science. When I read that, I took it as the ‘Mansbridge challenge’ and wanted to make a modest contribution to address it. So, my research has been exploring the learning and change experienced by PB participants.

More recently, I became interested in doing research on school PB, youth PB, comparisons between PB and other democratic innovations (particularly citizen initiative reviews and 21st century town hall meetings), and process evaluation and impact evaluation of PB.

 

What have been some of your main findings?

Our research on the PB process at Bioscience High School in Phoenix has uncovered some exciting findings for advocates of PB in schools. We found that PB was a highly effective strategy for developing the civic competencies of students, particularly when it was paired with formal learning in the classroom.

In this and other research, I have found evidence that PB can be considered a ‘school of democracy’, particularly for participants with limited prior civic and political participation, and that for some of them PB can even act as an entry point to political life. PB can help participants to develop a great variety of competencies and attitudes, from political efficacy and solidarity to deliberative skills, knowledge of other communities, understanding of trade-offs in public decision-making and of the tensions between self-interest and the common good. Participants also develop an increasing disposition to meet people who are different from them. For those interested in this, I suggest the article “Who Learns What in Participatory Democracy?, written with PBP executive director Josh Lerner in 2007.

 

What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in researching PB, and how have you tried to overcome them?

Many PB participants know that they have experienced at least some learning and change as a result of their involvement, but they have difficulties to articulate that in words, in the same way that any of us would have difficulties to describe what we have learned during the last weekend. In this context, one of the main challenges is to elicit the ‘tacit knowledge’ that comes from informal learning, which Polanyi referred to as “all that I know but I cannot tell”.

To address this challenge, I developed a methodology includes both a quantitative and a qualitative dimension to help participants to ‘uncover’ that tacit learning acquired through their PB experience. I reflected on this methodological challenge in a short paper called “Strategies to elicit informal learning and tacit knowledge: Methodological notes from the fieldthat I presented at a meeting in Toronto in 2006.

 

What are some insights that your research has uncovered for PB practitioners?

Our research has provided some evidence to address the ‘Mansbridge challenge’, showing that participation can indeed make ‘better citizens’, provided that the process was well designed and well implemented. This research shows the importance of considering PB not only as a space for deliberation and decision-making, but also as a space for collective political and democratic learning, that is, an educative space. In this regard, it is important for practitioners to recognize this potential and to cultivate educative experiences through the entire PB process, even from the beginning, like the PB ‘bus’ of Porto Alegre in which elected PB delegates visited the different regions of the city before starting their mandates.

 

What do you enjoy most about engaging with PB in your work?

In doing PB research, I enjoy talking with PB actors, from elected and appointed government officials to grassroots participants, particularly those who have been more deeply involved in it like delegates, councilors, and steering committee members. Their stories are inspiring and compelling. I enjoy observing PB meetings, from small meetings to large assemblies to voting day activities. I also enjoy interacting directly with PB participants, like in a course on participatory democracy that my colleague Beth Pinnington and I offered a few years ago to 20 PB delegates of Toronto Community Housing at the University of Toronto. It was one of the most gratifying courses of my life.

I also enjoy the fantastic growth of PB in North America thanks to the great work of PBP. I remember our discussions a decade ago debating whether PB could ever work in developed countries, and I am happy to see that ten years later that discussion is now an object of curiosity for PB historians. Finally, I like meeting with different social actors in Arizona who are interested in the concept of PB and in its potential implementation. Hopefully we may have some good news next year.

 

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