Essay Politics Philosophy Portraits

Jane Mansbridge, Political Science between Facts and Norms

by Samuel Hayat & Julien Talpin & Audric Vitiello , 28 November 2023
translated by Susannah Dale
with the support of CASBS

Jane Mansbridge has made a major contribution to political theory. She has spent her life combining empirical research with a theoretical approach, and has played a vital role in developing the critique of rational choice and the study of democracy as a permanent process continually in flux.

Someone trying to describe my professional persona might say I was a “normative democratic theorist whose work was guided by empirical analysis.” But in my own mind, I am still a feminist, still committed to equality, and still trying to figure out how to do democracy better [1].

Jane Mansbridge is one of the most influential political scientists of the last 40 years [2]. She has made significant contributions to democratic theory, feminist scholarship, and the understanding of power relations in participatory processes and social movements. She began teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago in 1973 before becoming professor of political science at Harvard University’s renowned John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1996. She has been awarded some of the most prestigious honors in the discipline [3], and a number of awards are named after her [4]. Her glittering academic career culminated in her appointment as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 2012-2013. Her publications are now considered to be part of the political science canon [5]. She has played a key role in establishing the theory of deliberative democracy, and her work embodies an original approach to political science, thanks to the precise interplay she has developed between empirical material and theoretical reflection. Nevertheless, her work remains under-discussed and under-translated in France [6].

From 1960s activism to political theory

Jane Mansbridge is not just one of the most talented and influential academics of her generation: her personal background has also strongly influenced her research and political thought. As Mansbridge herself points out in the quotation that features at the beginning of this article, her intellectual journey has been and continues to be nourished by her political experiences and activist involvement, which have often been the starting point for her scientific analyses and normative theoretical reflections [7]. In many respects, Mansbridge’s work is permeated by the feminist slogan “the personal is political”. Born in 1939 in Connecticut (New England), Mansbridge says she attended town meetings with her family from a very young age [8], and these would later serve as a case study for her first book, Beyond Adversary Democracy. Although she showed an early interest in politics—she took part in the meetings of a pacifist organization during her undergraduate years at Wellesley College—she did not adopt an activist stance from the outset. She joined Harvard as a graduate student in the mid-1960s but did not immediately become involved in protests against the Vietnam War, which had mobilized a large part of the campus and student population at the time. Her doctoral thesis, which was never published, did not focus on the social movements of the time, but on the U.S. Supreme Court [9]. However, in the second half of the 1960s, a number of distressing personal experiences (divorce, sexual assault) led her to take a more decisive step towards political involvement; it was then that she became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement (she was even arrested and prosecuted) and immersed herself in the participatory fervor of the time, particularly through the feminist movement. It was this experience of feminist activism in particular that would steer her career and reflections in the direction of democratic issues. She first joined a consciousness-raising group, where women shared their experiences of male domination and ways of enjoying a more fulfilling sexuality. In 1971, this group became established as the Boston College Women’s Center, an early incubator of the burgeoning feminist movement, not least because it produced the collective work Our Bodies, Ourselves, in which Jane Mansbridge issued her very first publication, co-authored (under her married name) with Ginger Goldner and Nancy London [10]. Uniting different currents within the movement, the Women’s Center, which Mansbridge described as “an anarchist, or quasi-anarchist experiment” [11], soon ran into internal leadership problems. This was not an isolated case: during the same period, many participatory and/or self-run collectives were facing internal conflicts and were in decline as a result of sometimes irreconcilable differences.

Democratic participation and social movements

These difficulties left their mark on Mansbridge, who began to reflect on the conditions required for a truly participatory democracy to flourish. She delved into anarchist literature, but nothing seemed to fully capture what she observed. She then embarked on a research project that would occupy her for almost ten years, culminating in the publication of her first book, Beyond Adversary Democracy, in 1980. The book is a study of an urban crisis center and a town meeting in a small Vermont town, where she attended meetings for almost two years and conducted numerous interviews with residents. Originally entitled Participatory Democracy, the final title reflects the evolution of her thinking in the field. The book’s central theme is the distinction between two forms of democracy, whose legitimacy and effectiveness depend on the relative convergence of the interests of the actors they bring together. On the one hand, unitary democracy, which she directly observed within these small groups, is possible and desirable for collectives sharing common interests. Conversely, the second form of democracy, which she identifies as “adversary”—relying in particular on voting as a means of conflict resolution—seems better suited to groups who have divergent interests and may struggle to reach a consensus. Her study of unitary democracy led her to challenge the assumption that democratic legitimacy requires equal sharing of power, as the activists she met tended to believe. She maintained that insofar as participants’ interests converge, it is perfectly possible to delegate power to representatives. Legitimate and relatively efficient inequalities of power therefore exist, but these must be offset by equal respect and friendly relations between participants.

Her feminist activism continued to inform her thinking, and was the inspiration for her second book, Why We Lost the ERA. Mansbridge helped establish the first feminist organization on the campus of Northwestern University in Chicago in the early 1980s and was deeply influenced by the struggle for gender equality. Her second book addresses the following paradox: why was it that the majority of Americans defended egalitarian principles in abstracto, but feminist movements had failed to win support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—a proposal, dating back to the 1920s, to enshrine the principle of gender equality in the U.S. Constitution thereby guaranteeing significant rights for women in the event of non-compliance (by companies, administrations, etc.)? The battle to enact the ERA continued into the 1970s, when the momentum of the feminist movement led to its ratification by a majority of states. However, due to an unprecedented conservative mobilization, the amendment was eventually abandoned in the early 1980s, failing to muster a sufficient majority nationwide [12]. Mansbridge offers an analysis of the conditions for the success, or in this case failure, of social movements. Drawing on interviews with elected representatives and activists, she brings to light dysfunctions that could explain the repeated failures of feminists in this case, and more broadly of many social movements, to win over public opinion. She shows how the internal workings of these collectives often lead to failure. Despite relentlessly promoting the virtue of mutual listening, feminist groups had developed what she characterizes as “institutional deafness”: bringing together only like-minded actors, they become incapable of hearing the arguments of the adversary, and in so doing, of winning them over. Social movements were confronted with a seemingly impossible dilemma, which she characterized as the “iron law of involution [13]”. Relying on the investment of motivated activists, they require a form of radicalism that encourages commitment but estranges their members from the rest of the population. These collectives also develop informal decision-making procedures, which often forgo discussion, as all the actors involved share the same values. These anti-deliberative internal mechanisms prevent these movements from making the analyses and compromises required to win their cause.

Scientificity and normativity

Although fundamental works of democratic theory, Mansbridge’s first two books can also be read as practical guides for activists and radical democrats: “There was a practical guide embedded in the ERA book, just as there was in the book on participatory democracy [14]”. This is a constant in Mansbridge’s career: she advocates a “problem-centered [15]” analytical approach, i.e., one guided by the desire to understand and overcome the difficulties that actors encounter in the course of their democratic practice, rather than defending and promoting a pre-existing methodology or ideology. This approach centered on the challenges facing democracies at the time, and tied in with a conception of political science that might be described as involved, even committed. As she stated in her presidential address to the APSA, “if political science is ‘for’ anything, I think it is, and should be, for helping us to govern ourselves [16]”. To Mansbridge, scientific reflection should therefore be permeated by concern for public action, which is both its subject and purpose. However, the aim is not to adopt the vertical position of the scholar-director, or even the more ambiguous one of the expert-advisor: rather, the objective is to maintain a dialogical relationship between the academic and political fields, between researchers and actors, by providing the latter with avenues for reflection and action designed to enlighten their practice and help them overcome the difficulties they face. Scientificity should therefore be linked to normativity, and to a positive normativity as a source of proposals likely to contribute to a better functioning of the democratic system, in a continual back-and-forth between theory and practice.

Against rational choice theory

From the 1990s onwards, Mansbridge established herself as a political theorist who was both central to her subject matter (participation, deliberation, representation, etc.) and pioneering in her approach to it. At the time, political science in the United States was largely dominated by so-called minimalist or realist theories of democracy, based on the Schumpeterian idea that democracy is characterized by electoral competition for power. Above all, the prevailing view was that of the economic interpretation of voting put forward by Anthony Downs and its further development in the analysis of public choice, supported by the theory of rational choice: the political behavior of voters, like elected representatives, was said to be motivated solely by the defense of their personal interests. Conventional political science thus proposed a conception of self-interest and a model of behavior that were typical of adversary democracy. This model could not adequately reflect the diversity of group dynamics observed in Beyond Adversary Democracy and Why We Lost the ERA. However, rather than demonstrating the limited nature of this conception of democracy through a new field study, Mansbridge chose to engage in a battle over the very foundations of the dominant theory.

Published in 1990, Beyond Self-Interest was a collective work conceived as a “manifesto” (p. ix) against rational choice theory. The book marked a turning point in Mansbridge’s career, on several levels. First, it signaled a shift toward political theory, which was predominant among the collected texts, and which Mansbridge’s article presented as a space for resistance against rational choice theory, due to the persistence within this sub-discipline of conflicting philosophical traditions; these included Straussian antimodernism, republicanism, communitarianism and critical theory. Second, the book marked a change of format in her work: from this point onwards, Mansbridge favored short texts and collective works rather than monographs, which enabled her to considerably extend the scope of her contributions. Finally, the book established her as one of the leading figures in a multi-faceted theoretical movement, united in its opposition to rational choice theory, which drew on both empirical material and political philosophy to underpin a more complex notion of the reasons for action. This approach did not imply that self-interest plays no role in politics; rather, it proposed an understanding of self-interest that extended to the defense of ideals and belonging, and above all emphasized its dynamic nature. Whereas rational choice theory was rooted in the idea that individuals and groups pursue their own selfish interests, Mansbridge and her co-authors argued that those interests are transformed rather than simply aggregated when they come into play in political processes of representation, participation and deliberation. As such, they cannot be used as a basis for calculation or modeling, because as soon as they interact, they are liable to change. Mansbridge developed these ideas in particular during two research stays at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS). During the first, in 1997-1998, she worked alongside Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, Ronald Aminzade and Sidney Tarrow, helping to structure the field of contentious politics, as well as the economists and psychologists who founded behavioral economics under the leadership of Richard Thaler, with whom Mansbridge had frequent exchanges. At the same time, she continued her work on the limits of self-interest as a motivation for action, on public goods, on representation and on feminism, among others, publishing her most cited article entitled “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes’” [17]. During her second stay, in 2001-2002, she joined several discussion groups on subjects central to her thinking, notably deliberation, feminism, civil society and the emotions, and finished writing her second most-cited article, “Rethinking Representation” [18]. Her passion for collective discussion thus found an ideal outlet at CASBS.

Political theory based on empirical research

The methodological implications of the critique of rational choice theory were numerous, and went to the very heart of the relationship between theory and empirical research. Standard political science was strongly positivist in the arrangement it proposed between these two spheres: political theory made it possible to determine a certain number of modeled hypotheses, and empirical work consisted in deductively feeding this model with data enabling various hypotheses to be tested. There was a clear separation between the two, which went hand in hand with a practice of political theory strongly linked to analytical philosophy, where clarity and univocality of concepts took precedence, and a practice of empirical work that placed strong emphasis on modeling and comparative and quantitative processing. Mansbridge’s approach, applied in her earliest work and developed more clearly from Beyond Self-Interest onwards, was very different. Her research in political theory did not precede her empirical work, but continually drew on the results of social science investigations [19]. Mansbridge thus made continual use of a wide and inclusive range of empirical work, as well as her own research. In particular, in her political theory work, she drew extensively on interviews and observations, in a way that was highly indicative of her conception of the role of ideas in political science. For Mansbridge, the work of constructing theory was not the prerogative of social scientists: individuals are not only motivated by their personal interests, but also by beliefs and ideals that they can mobilize in situations and make explicit in interviews, thus providing the theorist with conceptual material constructed through investigation. This explains the importance Mansbridge attached to everyday conversations and the normative judgments that emerge from them, which are just as valuable to the work of elucidating concepts as scholarly texts and the discourses of political professionals. Political ideas are essential as motivations for action by ordinary people, and can only be clarified in an empirically relevant way if the meaning that ordinary people give them is included in the research.

The political science that Jane Mansbridge has developed thus challenges the separation between theory and empiricism, since theoretical work—which has formed the core of her work since the 1990s—cannot be separated from an empirical requirement repositioned at the very heart of conceptual development. As a result, her theorizations do not aim to simplify concepts in order to make them operational within the framework of a mathematized model; on the contrary, her intention is to give them greater complexity so as to integrate a wider range of experiences and thus give them greater heuristic power. This was how she addressed the question of power, notably in her 1994 paper “Using Power/Fighting Power” in which she rejects the alternative of either defining the conditions for legitimate power—without questioning its subsequent use—or emphasizing the minimization of power—without taking into account the need to exercise it [20]. On the contrary, she makes the seemingly contradictory proposal of examining the ways of making the exercise of power democratically legitimate, as well as the ways of developing enclaves of opposition to that same power, since it is this tension alone that can maintain a society’s democratic momentum.

Conceiving democracy as a system

Since the 1990s, Mansbridge’s work has consisted of a broad reconceptualization of democracy and its mechanisms. While the scope and diversity of the phenomena it covers are ambitious, her work has not attempted to create an overall theoretical system, but rather a multitude of texts, each one shedding light on a different aspect of democratic politics. By acknowledging the wide range of logics and legitimacies at play in contemporary societies, her analysis adopts a systemic, rather than merely institutional, approach to the phenomenon of democracy. In other words, rather than focusing on whether a given institutional arrangement is democratic because it conforms to the ideal principles of democracy, she examines the democratic scope of its functioning, i.e. its capacity to open up and equalize decision-making processes within the social system of which it constitutes only a small part.

This systemic shift in political analysis is closely linked to what has been termed the “deliberative turn” in normative democratic theory [21]. The deliberative conception of democracy emphasizes the legitimization of political decisions, through the organization of deliberative procedures and processes, based on argumentation and conviction by force of the strongest argument. This conception therefore gives paramount importance to the effects (deliberative or anti-deliberative) of the various mechanisms and practices that make up democratic society. In this way, the classic controversy over participation vs. representation is pushed into the background, as priority is given to the type of relationship that the mechanisms make it possible to establish: the challenge is to ensure that they lead to communicative and decision-making processes that are as open and inclusive as possible, as the only vectors of political legitimacy. From this point of view, deliberative democracy itself needs to be understood more systemically than institutionally: the issue at stake is the capacity of the socio-political system as a whole to produce a deliberative process and, in so doing, strengthen the legitimacy of political decisions.

In “Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System [22]”, Mansbridge emphasizes that democratic deliberation cannot be reduced to the institutionalization of mechanisms that formally conform to deliberative principles, as identified by Habermas, Cohen and, more recently, Gutmann and Thompson [23]. It also occurs more informally, through everyday exchanges between citizens, where processes of persuasion take place that are just as potentially valid from a democratic point of view, but which must be assessed against criteria other than those used in formal deliberation. Further, the collective text “A Systemic Approach to Democratic Deliberation” demonstrates that certain norms that are desirable at the level of the global system can sometimes only be achieved by disrupting those same norms at the local level: a deliberative system can take advantage of the existence of non-deliberative nodes, or enclaves—such as social movements, political parties and trade unions, or the criticism and challenging of power by radical activists who refuse to play the game of participation—where arguments are constructed that are then made public and enrich the collective debate [24]. As previously pointed out by Young and Fung, deliberation can even benefit from non-deliberative acts of protest (blockades, demonstrations, etc.), as these acts can signal the existence of dysfunctions within the deliberative process (notably the exclusion of certain groups or issues), and thus, potentially, pave the way for its improvement and ultimately lead to a more efficient production of political legitimacy [25].

This systemic approach to democracy, which Mansbridge is largely credited with establishing, is becoming increasingly widespread in the academic field. However, far from ending the debate on what makes a system democratic, this approach necessarily leaves it open-ended. Indeed, normative evaluation is continually oscillating between two criteria: on the one hand, conformity to democratic principles; and on the other, effectiveness in producing democratic outcomes. But this balance is precarious and uncertain, insofar as the effects can only be assessed in a given situation and are therefore always unique. Given that legitimacy is always in abeyance, democracy seems to require a continuous process of discussion and confrontation in order to establish, almost on a case-by-case basis, the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a practice or mechanism. Resolving the challenge of democratic legitimacy thus appears always to be an unfinished process, and political theory is assigned the task of stimulating, clarifying and enlivening democratic debate. Through her work and the positions she has adopted, Jane Mansbridge helps us to tackle this fundamental task collectively.

by Samuel Hayat & Julien Talpin & Audric Vitiello, 28 November 2023

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Samuel Hayat & Julien Talpin & Audric Vitiello, « Jane Mansbridge, Political Science between Facts and Norms », Books and Ideas , 28 November 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Jane Mansbridge, « Writing as a Democrat and a Feminist », in Barry Glassner et Rosanna Hertz (éd.), Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists’ Lives and Works, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 136.

[2This portrait is a revised version of the authors’ introduction to Jane Mansbridge’s book of essays, Dispositifs de la démocratie. Entre participation, délibération et représentation, S. Hayat, J. Talpin and Audric Vitiello (eds), Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2022.

[3Gladys M. Kammerer Award (1987), Victoria Schuck Award (1988), James Madison Award and Lecture (2011), Johan Skytte Prize (2018), Benjamin E. Lippincott Award (2022), Karl Deutsch Award (2022).

[4The Jane Mansbridge Scholar-Activist Award presented by Northwestern University in Chicago, where she taught from 1973 to 1996; the Jane Mansbridge Research Award by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program; and the Jane Mansbridge Award of the Women’s Caucus for Political Science.

[5Melissa S. Williams, “Beyond the Empirical-Normative Divide: The Democratic Theory of Jane Mansbridge”, PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 45, nº3, 2012, p. 797.

[6Exceptions include her interview with Muriel Rouyer in Raisons politiques, no40, 2010, p. 135-155; and a group discussion led by Paula Cossart and Andrea Felicetti, “Qu’apporte l’étude des town meetings à la quête d’une démocratie plus participative et délibérative ? Entretien avec Frank M. Bryan, William W. Keith, James T. Kloppenberg, Jane Jebb Mansbridge, Michael E. Morrell, Graham Smith”, Participations, translated into French by Xavier Blandin, no 15, 2016, pp. 203-220. Other French translations of her work include Jane Mansbridge et al., “La place de l’intérêt particulier et le rôle du pouvoir dans la démocratie deliberative”, Raisons politiques, translated by Romain Lecler, no42, 2011, pp. 47-82; Jane Mansbridge, “Les Noirs doivent-ils être représentés par des Noirs et les femmes par des femmes ? Un oui mesuré”, Raisons politiques, translated by Marc Saint-Upéry, nº50, 2013, p. 53-77; Jane Mansbridge et al., “Une approche systémique de la démocratie deliberative”, in Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (ed.), Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, translated by Juliette Roussin, 2021, pp. 27-66.

[7See in particular Jane Mansbridge, “Writing as a Democrat and a Feminist”, article cited.

[8Town meetings are communal assemblies that have existed in Northern America since the 17th century. They enable communal affairs to be managed collectively, although Mansbridge has highlighted the power relations that run through them. Mainly found in rural areas and small towns, most have disappeared but some town meetings have survived to the present day, particularly in New England. See Cossart, Paula, Andrea Felicetti, and James Kloppenberg. “"Introduction: The New England Town Meeting: A Founding Myth of American Democracy”, Journal of Public Deliberation, 2019, Vol. 15: Iss. 2, Article 1.

[9Jane Mansbridge, Justices Brandeis and Sutherland: Apostles of Individualism, Harvard University PhD dissertation, 1970.

[10Jane de Long, Ginger Goldner, Nancy London, “Sexuality”, in Boston Women’s Health Course Collective, Women and their Bodies. A Course, Boston, New England Free Press, 1970, pp. 16-37. It was renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1971.

[11Muriel Rouyer, “Entretien avec Jane Mansbridge”, article cited, p. 142.

[12On this subject, see the recent television mini-series Mrs. America.

[13Based on the concept of the “iron law of oligarchy” developed by Roberto Michels (Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, New York, Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915), which describes the forms of internal domination that emerge within militant collectives as a result of the division between representatives and those they represent, based on the case of the German Social Democratic Party. Mansbridge’s “iron law of involution” characterizes the forms of insularity, narrow-mindedness and even sectarianism that can occur within activist groups that are not open to the outside world.

[14Jane Mansbridge, “Writing as a Democrat and a Feminist”, article cited, p. 136.


[16Jane Mansbridge, “What is Political Science For?”, Perspective on Politics, vol. 12, no1, 2014, p. 8.

[17Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes’”, The Journal of Politics, vol. 61, no 3, 1999, p. 628-657.

[18Jane Mansbridge, « Rethinking Representation », American Political Science Review, vol. 97, no 4, 2003, p. 515-528

[19See for example Jane Mansbridge, “Practice-Thought-Practice”, in Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright (eds), Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance, London, Verso, 2003, pp. 175-199.

[20Jane Mansbridge, « Using Power/Fighting Power: The Polity », in Seyla Benhabib (éd.), Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 46-66

[21John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000; Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (ed.), Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2021.

[22Jane Mansbridge, « Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System », in Stephen Macedo (ed), Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 211-239.

[23Joshua Cohen, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy”, in Alan Hamlin and Philip Petit (eds), The Good Polity, New York, Basil Blackwell, 1989, pp. 17-34; Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (1992), Cambridge, Polity Press, 1997; Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

[24Jane Mansbridge, James Bohman, Simone Chambers, Thomas Christiano, Archon Fung, John Parkinson, Dennis F. Thompson and Mark E. Warren, “A Systemic Approach to Deliberative Democracy”, in Jane Mansbridge and John Parkinson (eds), Deliberative Systems, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[25Iris Marion Young, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy”, Political Theory, vol. 29, no. 5, 2001, pp. 670-690. Archon Fung, “Deliberation before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World, Political Theory, vol. 33, no3, 2005, pp. 397-419.

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