Creating Participatory Democratic Decision-Making in Local Organizations

  • Joyce RothschildEmail author
Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)


Organizations at the local level that seek to resist hierarchy and conduct themselves along participatory democratic lines appeared so radical in the 1970s that they were called “alternative institutions”. They were born in social movements that wanted to create a more egalitarian, just and democratic society. In the last couple of decades, their model of inclusive decision-making has spread by the thousands into the non-profit sector, the public sector and even the for-profit sector. Indeed, it has become almost ubiquitous and a whole industry of consultants has developed to facilitate organizations’ efforts to develop more inclusive, participatory and empowering decisional processes. This paper seeks to explain how participatory democratic decision-making norms and practices have evolved over these decades, and in so doing, it identifies nine foundational elements of participatory democratic decisional processes and contrasts these characteristics with the processes used in representative democratic systems of decision-making, along these nine dimensions. Next, this paper examines four examples of participatory democratic organizations in action, each drawn from the recent research literature—a food cooperative, certain self-help groups, a Quaker meeting and some public organizations led by professional consultants seeking to advance voice and democratic participation in decision-making. From this investigation, it is evident that participatory and deliberative practices of decision-making can vary enormously between groups that share these goals. Nevertheless, these examples show that these efforts to guarantee voice to all members of the group can succeed in reconciling individual differences of views that may have existed, are generally very satisfying to the people involved, and, most importantly, may be essential for personal transformation to take place. Further, the author shows that these emergent “Democracy 2.0 standards” for decision-making, as she calls them, are not just about the right of members to share thoughts and experiences on an equal footing; they also pre-suppose an obligation on the part of the group to consider, deliberate and seek consensus. Thereby, these newer participatory decisional processes are catalyzing in participants not only greater capacity to speak, but also greater capacity to listen. When we turn our attention to group process characteristics that can give rise to personal growth, a feeling of connection with others and a sense of belonging to an enduring community, then we come to understand why so many people in recent decades have chosen to build or get involved in local organizations that offer equal and ample voice to all who would be affected by the decision at hand and where listening, consideration and consensus-seeking are the organizational practice.


Participatory democracy Decision making Collectivist-democratic organizations 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public & International AffairsVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA

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