What Is Democracy?

  • Harry CollinsEmail author
  • Robert Evans
  • Darrin Durant
  • Martin Weinel


There are many forms of democracy. Importantly, is there continual accounting to the public via referendums—‘direct democracy’—or do the people choose representatives who govern relatively independently between elections? It is natural in representative democracy for experts to be consulted by the elected government, whereas if directness is the ideal, experts can look like unaccountable elites. Under ‘pluralist democracy’ governments’ power is limited by institutional ‘checks and balances’, such as the judiciary, the free press and alternative parliamentary chambers, ensuring that minorities and minority opinions are not completely suppressed. Checks and balances require experts. There are many other dimensions of democracies including voting systems and the degree of devolution, but an uncritical advocacy of ‘rule by the people’ is antagonistic to pluralist democracy.


Democracy Direct democracy Representative democracy Pluralist democracy Checks and balances Experts 


  1. Dahl, Robert. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  2. Dewey, John. 1954 [1927]. The Public and its Problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press. (Original work published 1927.)Google Scholar
  3. Epstein, Steven. 1996. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  4. Geffen, Nathan. 2010. Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.Google Scholar
  5. Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  6. Held, David. 1995. Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Irwin, Alan. 1995. Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise, and Sustainable Development, Environment and Society. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Lijphart, Arend. 1999. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  9. ———. 2012. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. 2nd updated and expanded ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Lippmann, Walter. 1993. The Phantom Public. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  11. ———. 2007. Public Opinion. La Vergne, TN: BN Publishing.Google Scholar
  12. Marres, Noortje. 2007. The Issues Deserve More Credit: A Pragmatist Contribution to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science 37 (5): 759–780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Mouffe, Chantal. 2000. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  14. Osborne, Roger. 2012. Of the People, by the People: A New History of Democracy. London: Pimlico.Google Scholar
  15. Ottinger, Gwen. 2013. Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. New York: New York University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  17. Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. Expanded ed. Columbia Classics in Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1987 [1762]. On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Rights. In Basic Political Writings, trans. and ed. Donald A. Cres, 139–227. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.Google Scholar
  19. Sartori, Giovanni. 1965. Democratic Theory. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  20. Taylor, Charles. 1998. The Dynamic of Democratic Exclusion. Journal of Democracy 9 (4): 143–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Turner, Stephen P. 2003. Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts, Theory, Culture & Society. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  22. Urbinati, Nadia. 2006a. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. ———. 2006b. Political Representation as a Democratic Process. Edited by K Palonen. Redescriptions—Yearbook of Political Thought and Conceptual History 10 (1): 18–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Waldron, J. 2012. Democracy. In The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, ed. David Estlund, 197–203. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Warren, Mark. 1996. What Should We Expect from More Democracy?: Radically Democratic Responses to Politics. Political Theory 24 (2): 241–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Warren, Mark, and Hilary Pearse, eds. 2008. Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harry Collins
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robert Evans
    • 1
  • Darrin Durant
    • 2
  • Martin Weinel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Social SciencesCardiff UniversityCardiffUK
  2. 2.Historical & Philosophical StudiesUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations