Archive for the ‘e-democracy’ tag

E-democracy and the Web – Freedom, governance, civil society and elections   no comments

Posted at 11:11 am in Politics

Having discussed democracy as a form of government, it is only natural to continue with the concept of freedom (or liberty). Freedom is most often defined by using is opposite, that is freedom is the absence of constraint. Although freedom is considered intrinsically good, there are sometimes legitimate reasons to limit freedom in order to protect other values, so even in a democracy, there is no such thing as complete freedom. Even though democracy seems closely related to freedom, there are examples of democracies limiting freedom, albeit with sufficient reasons.

A type of constraints of freedom which are relevant to e-democracy, are economic impediments. Due to the economic inequality of society, not all its members are free to participate in political affairs, and more importantly, may not even have access to the internet.

Another matter that needs to be discussed is freedom of speech. Even though the web offers anonymity, there are cases of “imperfect democracies” where activities and websites with political content were deemed subversive by the regime and access to them was terminated. There is also the case of developed democratic states that have passed legislation that terminates internet access to users that have broken the law online. This could be argued that it limits their freedoms in an overwhelmingly excessive way and thus constitutes unfair punishment.

One interesting aspect of the Web is that it can enhance the -already high- efficiency of state bureaucracy. According to Weber, its characteristics are amongst others precision, speed, unambiguity, reduction of material  and personal cost. All this advantages can be augmented by the Web and that is why states have invested a lot in this direction, trying to establish an online bureaucracy and e-government portals. This is in part done in order to improve the quality of governance, according to the elements of “good governance” which are the following:

  • Participation in making and implementing decisions
  • Clear legal frameworks with respect to human rights
  • Transparency in decision making
  • Responsiveness towards social needs
  • Consensus-oriented
  • Equal opportunities for all
  • Effectiveness and efficiency
  • Accountability of decision makers

Some of the above elements can be clearly enhanced by the Web, while others are still bound to the offline realm.

Civil society is the framework that those without political authority live within. It stand apart from political authority (and even commercial institutions), however no clear boundary can be drawn between them. It is composed of voluntary civic and social organisations, for example non-governmental organisations. The Web has been used extensively by such organisations, which understood its benefits faster than governments.  Better horizontal communication as well as the ability to organise in online communities have enabled them to become larger and better coordinated. Faster mobilisation of supporters helped organise protests and activist ‘instant mobs’. There is also the use of blogs to post alternative versions of events, as mentioned above when discussing freedom of speech. Of course, as always, there are also negative effects. Political blackmailing, propaganda and libel were also used by some organisations, sometimes by posting anonymously on blogs and there are extremist groups recruiting in this way.

Finally, a concept that fits with my previous post about democracy. Voting is a mechanism for making collective decisions where the majority preference dictates the final decision. In the case of representative democracies, the representatives are also elected by vote. So far there have been various attempt to use electronic voting, with mixed results. It seems though that, being cost-effective and fast, it will eventually replace traditional voting. This however has little to do with the Web, as it just uses the internet. However, the Web has played a role so far in elections: it has facilitated the communication of political manifestos to voters, gave additional chances for debates and even helped candidates approach their voters directly with the use of social networking sites. As mentioned in the previous post, it remains to be seen if the Web can play a larger part in decision making. It has to be added that there are two schools of thought as to how electronic decision making should be used. Some propose using it as an efficient way for representatives to ask directly for the citizens’ opinion by referendum. Another more direct, albeit more small scale proposal is to have local communities try a direct version of democracy, perhaps as a pilot for larger scale adoption. Again, there is criticism that stems from the long identified problems of direct democracy, which current technology cannot so far alleviate.

Written by el3e09 on May 8th, 2010

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Community, Deliberation, and Participation: E-Democracy (Part 2)   no comments

Posted at 11:44 am in Politics

Currently reading: Internet Politics – Andrew Chadwick

Brief overview of what has been read:

This week’s blog is a continuation of looking at Andrew Chadwick’s Internet Politics book. Last week I looked at Chadwick’s description on Conceptual tools, with this week focusing in more detail regarding E-democracy.

What will be discussed is how the Web has played a role in enhancing community cohesion, political deliberation, and participation, i.e. E-Democracy. What will be looked at is community networks, development of online political communities, and uses of online mechanisms to involve citizens.

Knowledge gained and relevance to issue:

To start with let’s looks at some theoretical foundations of E-democracy, the UK Hansard society takes the view that it is:

“The concept of e-democracy is associated with efforts to broaden political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their representatives via new information and communication technologies.”

From this, two major conceptual offshoots have formed from the many attempts to enhance political participation, the Social Capital, and the Public Sphere.
The Social capital, defined by Robert Putnam as: “the features of social organisations such as networks, norms, and trust that facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit”. This assumes that all groups, political or social enhance overall levels of political awareness. It is also argued that increased participation between civic associations increases the level of trust amongst citizens. Furthermore for such communities to occur, it is assumed that contributions will be reciprocated at a later stage, without this, communities would not exist.

The Public Sphere, another influential approach to understanding the role of communications in encouraging citizen’s engagement. Jurgen Habermas’s concept of Public Sphere suggested that since the early-modern capitalistic age, the new forms of communication and media has given cultural enlightenment, allowing for information to be much more freely disseminated. This level of media has allowed citizens to form political opinions. Lincoln Dahlberg used the Habermasian theory to form 6 main conditions that e-democracy schemes must try to fulfil if they are to genuinely create deliberative public spheres.
To begin with, there must be Autonomy from the state, and economic power. This means that discourse must be from citizens concerns not that of the media or corporations. Furthermore, situations or concerns must be reasons, not asserted. Another key condition is participants must reflect on their own cultural values, interests and other personal views, and also take note of the larger social context. This then implies that participants must see an argument from all viewpoints, being respectful and listening to each other. To be able to view all sides of the argument, all information and knowledge must be learned, which leads to the next consideration. Finally, all participants must be treated equally, and entitled to participate in deliberation.

Community Networks
Community networks, first appeared in the 1970’s, with relatively small numbers. But with the cost of electronic goods, during the 1990’s they began to grow tremendously. Bruce Tonn defines a Community network as:

“A Computer based system or set of systems designed to meet the social and economic needs of a spatially-defined community of individuals.”

Three main features which could be argued that are needed to form a Community network are: a high speed network, offered free of charge or at a subsidised rate, some are of centrality for the technology, i.e. servers, and thirdly, an emphasis on providing content specific to the local community.

Although modern community networks are more technologically advanced than their ancestors, they still rely on the basic principle that for people to shape the production of information about their local community, the must be willing to volunteer. Relating back to Social Capital, almost all community networking projects have been inspired by the idea that virtual community can improve geographical communities by creating new social ties and reciprocal trust.

One view is why ‘join’ citizens together who already happen to live in the same neighbourhood, instead why not encourage ‘real’ interaction. However many of the proponents of community networks come from a background in urban planning and are therefore acutely aware of the history of attempts to generate community through the physical world. It is suggested that contemporary life erodes the possibility form such ‘real’ interaction, driving the need for web based community networks. Tom Petrich suggests 5 areas of contemporary life which forms these constraints. Work-related constraints, where working hours play a large role. Another constraint is consumerism, where time is spent on goods and services, i.e. Playstation, Cinema rather than interacting. There are also social capital constraints, where local social networks are insufficient to create communities. Delving more towards the individual, there are personal constraints, confidence and skills are issues when meeting in the real world. Finally there are the constraints due to the real world, i.e. no meeting places.

Although there are hundreds of virtual communities, to begin with there was a total lack of state led virtual communities. However, central and local governments have slowly started to experiment with online forums, which have specific interest groups. A space for deliberation that are relatively unconstrained by corporate and state influence, inspired by the need for increasing citizen deliberation have opened up, some believe (Grossman) showing the true potential of the web in bringing about true participatory democracy.

Political Influence
The influence of such community networks and other forms of e-democracy has introduced the web in-to a rich set of projects, from this two broad models have been defined, Consultative and Deliberative models.

A consultative approach stresses the communication of the citizen’s opinion to the government. It is assumed that information is a resource which can be used to provide better policy and administration. Furthermore, governments can seek voters opinion from such information. A good example of use of such a model is the U.S. Federal governments e-rule making program. This was designed to allow citizens to air their opinion on specific agency rules that are being developed.
The deliberative model takes a different view on communication between the government and citizens, where a more complex multi-directional interactivity occurs. These models are thinner on the ground than their consultative counterparts.

From what has been discussed it can be seen that the impact that the Web has had on Communities, political deliberation is indeed significant. The use of the Web is a way to allow people to maintain social ties or extend them where possible. Furthermore, political interests have now started to be transferred online; furthermore the views which are being given in an online world are now transferred to an offline world.

The question of is the Web increasing Social Capital, allowing for more opportunity for public political participation? Chadwick argues that it is doing both, communities of interest tend towards being homogeneous echo chambers. However, what needs to be remembered is that individuals have more than one interest, and this creates the problem that the e-democracy is creating more complex communities, deliberation and political participation.

Written by rt506 on March 19th, 2010

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E-democracy and the Web – Power and Democracy   no comments

Posted at 11:30 pm in Politics,Sociology

This week’s reading was focused on politics. The books that I have used are Introduction to Politics, by Garner et al and An Introduction to Politics, State and Society by James McAuley. I have organized my reading so far, so as to approach e-democracy from different angles. While in my previous posts there was an approach through society, groups and even individuals, for my first post on Politics I have chosen to have a look on the concept of State. Although the role of the State in e-democracy is potentially smaller than in ordinary politics (where it is overwhelming), it is not of less importance.

Two of the concepts that are associated with the State are power and authority. While both are used for similar purposes, that is to control behaviours, power uses coercion while authority uses consent. Power and authority are evident on the Web: due to the Web’s decentralised structure, power has been distributed possibly in a more even way than in other areas. Furthermore, authority has often been an easier (or the only) way to influence behaviours in online communities.

There are various theories that have been developed to interpret the distribution of power within a society. The pluralist theory suggest that society is composed of various groups, each with its own interests and government just act according to the balance of power of these groups, which means that all groups are represented relatively to their power within society. The exact opposite is elitism, where power is considered to be concentrated to the hands of powerful elites. Of course, the distribution of power in a society may be somewhere between pluralism and elitism. Marxist theory is similar to the elitist, with bourgeoisie being the ruling class and the proletariat being the dominated one. It is different however, in claiming that true power exists only in the economic sphere of society, and that an egalitarian society can only be established through a communist revolution.

Since measuring political power in a society can be difficult, an analysis according to each of these theories can give different results. The same is probably true for the Web, and particularly e-democracy. A pluralist could argue that the Web by default allows all groups to pursue their interests and prevents one seizing disproportionate power. However, an elitist could argue, that those having access to the Web are a de facto elite, as the digital divide suggests and also, that in some groups some individuals are more influential than others. Another possibility is that the Web could provide some groups with a lower barrier to entry, and so allowing more groups to share power (Interestingly, the existence of barriers to entry in the political system is a matter of debate between pluralists and elitists).

In a study of e-democracy, it is obviously necessary to identify what is Democracy. Since the word has acquired a positive connotation, even dictatorships have been self-proclaimed as such. So a more clear definition is needed. As the word’s etymology suggests, democracy is a political system where the people have the political power. This implies some kind of equality of political power. This was vague enough for Lively (1975) to come up with seven different possibilities. While all  have this characteristic,  three of them are not considered truly democratic, because there is no accountability of the rulers towards the ruled. The remaining four are versions of democracy, with half being cases of representative democracy and the others of direct democracy. The difference is the involvement of individuals in the decision-making process, with more involvement in the case of direct democracy.

It has been often suggested that the Web could allow a more direct version of democracy to feasible. Since the Web significantly lowers the communication costs, as can be seen for example in social networking sites, larger groups/networks can operate more efficiently. But it can be argued that lack of time is not the only reason that direct democracy has been rarely chosen. A study of relevant examples, for example classical Athens, could demonstrate the quality requirements that such a system would have to meet in order to succeed. Populism and ‘mob rule’ have been identified as disadvantages of such systems.

While the classical theory of democracy emphasises participation of citizens, the elitist theory claims that democracy and elitism aren’t mutually exclusive and that “elites sometimes can protect democracy from the authoritarian values of the masses”. According to elitism, participation is not that important. But, declining participation in elections and increasing political apathy are some of the reasons that e-democracy has been considered as an alternative. Furthermore, elitist theory has been criticised as undemocratic because of the accountability issue, and since modern democracies have elitist aspects, one could go so far as to call them “imperfect democracies”.

A development of the classical democracy is the deliberative democracy, which was mainly influenced by the ideas of J. Habermas. In addition to participation, it emphasises public discussion of matters and claims that this leads to “more rational and legitimate decision making”. It seems possible that this model could ameliorate the problems of direct democracy mentioned above, since it has been criticised on the basis that sufficient deliberation takes time. If this is true, then technologies that could help large scale real-time deliberation are needed. The Web is not any more just about information, but also about knowledge; this could prove crucial to successful implementation of such a process for decision making. Another criticism of this model has been that “it exaggerates the level of consensus that can be reached through deliberation”. With the possibility of being wrong or just too optimistic, I would suggest that agents could help break such stalemates, perhaps using game theory techniques and utilising the Semantic Web.

However, as most web scientists know (and of course sociologists), viewing social change that is caused by technology in a deterministic and linear way is wrong and can often lead to embarrassing predictions. While some ideas seem fantastic in theory, in practice they sometimes fail. Could e-democracy be such an example?

If we are to believe the elitist and Marxist theories of power distribution within society, the powerful elites are not necessarily in favour of such changes and are possibly able to prevent them. They would certainly be able to do so if the Web didn’t have such a decentralised and global structure (thanks to Tim Berners-Lee’s and others’ efforts). So, some aspects of e-democracy (for example online activism) cannot be influenced, regulated or stopped by a government. Making sure that global forces are controlled by democratic means, often called cosmopolitan democracy, could be a way to maintain the status quo, or even improve it. It would be too optimistic to assume that the Web could never be controlled by non democratic entities, it is almost like saying the Web can only be used for good.

However, for some other aspects of e-democracy, such as e-voting, the role of governments is crucial. If governments are influenced by elites, their priorities and choices in how the State will use e-democracy will be dictated by them. So the quality of an e-democracy paradigm will generally be proportionate to the quality of democracy in the State that sponsored it.

I have already read about the concept of freedom, but since the post has grown too long, I will incorporate it in next week’s post. I plan to continue next week by reading about state institutions, bureaucracy and governance, parties and elections and if there is time about civil society.

Written by el3e09 on March 14th, 2010

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E-democracy and the Web – More on Sociology   1 comment

Posted at 7:34 pm in Sociology

After careful consideration, I have decided to revise my reading list as follows:


Sociology – John J. Macionis

Sociology – Anthony Giddens

Political Science:

Introduction to Politics – Robert Garner, Peter Ferdinand & Stephanie Lawson

An introduction to Politics, State and  Society – James W. McAuley

It may be necessary to read some more specific textbooks, especially for Politics. In this case, they will be referenced in future posts.

For the past week, I continued my reading as planned, by moving from basic concepts of sociology to those more relevant to the subject of e-democracy. I used both books from my reading plan, but concentrated more on the book by Macionis, while using the book by Giddens as secondary reference.

Despite of what I had decided last week, I read more on social stratification, the hierarchical ranking of categories of individuals within a society. I was interested in the social class system, as this is the common form of stratification in modern democratic societies, which have been interested to adopt e-democracy.

By applying the different theoretical approaches on the subject of social stratification, one can reach contradicting conclusions about its nature and causes. Marx has suggested that in a capitalist society, the ruling class owns the means of production and uses the working class’ labour to amass more wealth. This class structure is reproduced in each generation and that produces a corrupt and unfair society. On the other hand, Weber, while agreeing with Marx that stratification causes conflicts, he argues that economic inequality is only one of the factors that cause it, along with status and power. While Marx has considered social stratification as something harmful to society, the Davies-Moore thesis states the opposite: by offering greater rewards for important work, there is more motivation and efficiency than in a completely egalitarian society.

When plotting the average degree of stratification throughout human history, the Kuznets curve appears. While after the industrial revolution there was a tendency for less stratification, postmodern societies have exhibited a reverse trend, and that is shown by the curve. The question about whether the Web plays a role in this trend is important. There is also the matter of whether stratification exists inside the online societies. Both these questions are relevant to e-democracy.

After reading about social stratification, I had to read about Politics. However, in order to organise my posts in a better way, I will post the politics subjects in separate posts, while continuing to write about sociology and the subjects of collective action and social movements.

I started reading about collective behaviour, concentrating on the concepts that are relevant to e-democracy. Public opinion, which is widespread attitude around a controversial issue and propaganda, information presented in a way to influence public opinion, are two important concepts as they have been often observed in an online context.

A social movement is an organised activity in favour or against social change. Social movements are perhaps the most influential forms of collective behaviour, as they shape societies. There are four types of social movements as shown below:

There are various theories about what causes social movements. Deprivation theory, which claims that those deprived of something (income, insurance etc) organise in movements towards the goal of improving their condition. Mass-society theory suggests that people organise in order to gain a sense of belonging and importance. Structural strain theory identifies six factors that influence the development of social movements. Resource-mobilisation theory suggests that for a movement to succeed, substantial resources are needed and without them it will fail. Culture theory, that responds that people not only organise for material gains but also around cultural symbols. Marxist political-economy theory emphasises the failure of capitalism to meet the needs of the majority as the cause of movements. New social movements theory has been developed to interpret recent movements that do not target economic issues, but try to improve our social and environmental surroundings. No single theory can explain all types of movements, but in conjunction they can offer useful insights.

The tendency of movements to become increasingly global, without doubt, can be at least partially  attributed to the Web. As information flows easier and in larger volume, it is only natural that previously local matters become global. Social movements on the Web are as influential for e-government as offline movements for traditional democracy.

Even conservative and small scale adoption of e-democracy can lead to (or perhaps has already led to) social change. The process of social change has certain characteristics: it happens constantly, most often than not unplanned (the Web being one such example), can be controversial and not all changes are equally important. There are many causes for change: culture, ideas, social conflict and even demographic reasons. A central and recurring theme when studying social change is modernity, the social patterns arising from industrialisation. The process of modernisation has transformed societies in various ways. Progress has been considered good at all times and stability has been a synonym of stagnation. Postmodernists have criticised this way of thinking, but it is still an ongoing debate. Whether the Web will create postmodern societies in the way that industrial revolution led to the modern era, remains to be seen.

As I read more about Sociology, it became apparent that the lines between Political Science begun to blur. For the next weeks, beginning with the basics of Political Science, I will try to gain an interdisciplinary viewpoint to some of the issues already discussed, as well as to others relevant to e-democracy.

Written by el3e09 on March 7th, 2010

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E-democracy and the Web – Sociology basics and relevant concepts   no comments

Posted at 5:10 am in Politics,Sociology

In an effort to organise my reading in a practical way, and keeping in mind that the disciplines of Sociology and Political Sciences may overlap, at least in the context of e-democracy, I have decided to start from the core principles of Sociology and then go on to more complex concepts.

The book that I have been reading this week is Sociology by John J. Macionis. As the title suggests it is an introductory textbook to Sociology. It is a well written textbook, up to date and quite successful, at least judging from the fact that I am using its eleventh edition.

Despite having already been in contact with some terms, principles and methods of Sociology (through the Foundations of Web Science module), I decided to go through them again and in more depth. So I read about the theoretical approaches that are used such as the structural-functional approach, the social-conflict approach and the symbolic-interaction approach. The book has a great example on how to use these approaches and also has a paragraph for each that serves as a critical review. These will be quite useful if I will need to apply theories during my analysis of e-democracy.

But besides the three theoretical approaches, there are also three methodological orientations when doing sociological research: scientific sociology, interpretive sociology and critical sociology. There are also various methodologies, which I already came to know through the Research Methods Group Project module.  Although it is not necessary to read research papers for the purpose of this module, been able to understand how sociologists work may be helpful in getting a general understanding of their discipline.

After reading the introductory chapters, reading about Society was the obvious way to continue. What I found particularly relevant, was the concept of socio-cultural evolution (Nolan & Lenski, 2004) that describes how societies change due to technological changes, which obviously is what the Web is doing to our society. After this, the book presents the 3 great sociologists of the past: Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Their (sometimes conflicting) analysis of modern societies roughly corresponds to the three theoretical approaches mentioned before. Concepts like capitalism, rationalisation, alienation and anomie were introduced.

Between the individual and the society, stand various groups and organisations. The groups that are relevant to e-democracy (such as political organisations) are mainly secondary groups, that is groups that their members have relationships that are often short term and usually less close and broad than in primary groups (such as families). Moreover, they are also based on the pursuit of a common goal. Group leadership and group conformity are two important factors affecting the operation of groups.

A more formal type of secondary group is a formal organisation. Normative organisations, that is organisations that their members have joined to pursue a morally worthwhile goal, are the organisations of most interest, as these include both political parties and voluntary political organisations, both instrumental to e-democracy. Organisational models are discussed, with an emphasis on bureaucracy, with its shortcomings such as alienation stressed. Modern democracies seem to suffer from such shortcomings and these are some of the problems that e-democracy may solve.

I briefly read about social stratification and social class as I believe that they will be necessary for my subsequent understanding of Political Science principles. Although I continued reading about Politics and Government (from a sociologist’s viewpoint) and to keep this post simple, I will add this section to next week’s post or incorporate it in a post about Political Science. For the following week, my reading priorities will be the chapters about social change, collective behaviour and social movements. I may also start reading about Political Science basics.

Written by el3e09 on February 27th, 2010

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E-democracy and the World Wide Web   no comments

Posted at 5:55 am in Politics,Sociology

E-democracy (electronic democracy or digital democracy) is a relatively new concept. It can be defined as the usage of information and communication technologies (ICT) for the enhancement of the participation of citizens in the democratic process. However, it can be argued that these technologies and especially the World Wide Web can play a bigger role in that process, by providing opportunities for reshaping the way democratic institutions currently work.

In order to evaluate the above statement, a thorough study of the way Democracy works is needed. Furthermore, prevalent ideologies within democratic states are factors that affect the degree of adoption of e-democracy, so studying Political Science textbooks is a way to be introduced to the most important ones.

The study of issues like collective action, discourse and decision making is crucial for gaining an understanding of the democratic process on both an offline context and the Web. For this reason, knowledge of Sociology and its basic principles is needed.

Some books to be used as an introduction to the aforementioned disciplines are:

Political Science:

  • Political Ideologies: an introduction – Eccleshal et al
  • Political Sociology: a critical introduction – Faulks


  • Sociology – Giddens
  • Sociology: A Global Introduction – Macionis, Plummer

Some other books that may be useful are:

  • The Myth of Digital Democracy – Hindman
  • Sociology in the Age of the Internet (Sociology and Social Change) – Cavanagh
  • The Social Net: Human behavior in cyberspace – Amichai-Hamburger

Written by el3e09 on February 20th, 2010

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