In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democracy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conceptualizing and Studying States and Regimes
  • Social and Political Conditions for Democracy
  • Regime Transitions to and from Democracy
  • Social Mobilization and Democratization
  • Social Underpinnings of a Democratic Public Sphere
  • Civil Society, Associations, and Democracy
  • In Search of Political Equality
  • Participation and Deliberation
  • Markets and Democracy
  • Socioeconomic Inequality and Democracy
  • Methodologies in the Study of Democracy

Sociology Democracy
Robert M. Fishman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0194


Democracy has become the overwhelmingly predominant form of government in the world’s most-advanced societies and is increasingly common in less developed ones as well. Yet, despite the global convergence of political rule toward this system, the study of democracy remains a thematic arena of much debate, uncertainty, and ongoing research. Under the influence of the mid-20th-century scholarship of Joseph Schumpeter, and in keeping with modern practice in representative systems, democracy is today most conventionally understood as a political regime in which power holders are freely chosen by the citizenry in fair and competitive elections. With this operationalization of democracy, sometimes referred to as the “minimalist” conception, many major questions for scholarly research have emerged—above all, what makes representative democracy possible in some historical settings but not in others; however, the Schumpeterian understanding of democracy has proved more or less unsatisfying to some scholars and political actors. In fact, the very definition of democracy remains historically contested and a matter of debate. Both in their thinking and writing, many students of democracy return to the simple yet classic assumption that democracy connotes rule by the people, and on that basis raise questions as to whether the modern Schumpeterian conceptualization fully captures the principles underpinning the classic notion. More concretely, for many political actors and thinkers, democracy entails both assumptions and objectives that push well beyond the existing realities of modern political life in societies such as the early-21st-century United States; indeed, aspirations linked to transformational or expansive understandings of democracy serve as guideposts for sociopolitical movements in many societies with representative systems. The aspirations that motivate such efforts are numerous and varied in nature. They involve, among other goals, the search for heightened citizen participation, increased opportunities for deliberation, improvements in the discourse and overall quality of the public sphere, and the search for greater equality among citizens in decision-making processes, as well as ultimate outcomes and the effort to improve guarantees against abuse of power by officeholders. Some scholars of democracy understand the term to encompass many such objectives. Thus the literature on democracy is marked not only by debates over research findings and interpretations but also by disputes over the meaning of terms—including democracy itself. The social science literature on democracy is broad, deep, and thoroughly interdisciplinary, including scholarship in sociology, political science, and closely related disciplines.

General Overviews

General overviews of democracy approach the subject from the standpoint both of normative analyses concerned with specifying the best form of political life and empirically oriented research on the history and practice of democracy. With a primarily normative focus, Held 1987 provides a useful and stimulating review of classic and more-recent discussions from Antiquity through late-20th-century theories. Political scientist Giovanni Sartori (Sartori 1987) has a quite different view, intertwining normative and empirical democratic theory and arguing that democracy must always be seen as a project, yet he is more critical than David Held of expansive “Schumpeter-plus” democratic projects. Robert Dahl, the single most important 20th-century theorist of democracy, in Dahl 1998 offers a comprehensive examination of the history of the concept and of actual efforts to construct democratic polities. Dahl combines this historical review with succinct normative arguments on the advantages of democracy and empirically grounded theoretical claims on the determinants facilitating the creation and survival of democratic regimes. Shapiro 2003 is an authoritative review of the most-important scholarship and arguments on democracy, addressing alternative understandings and objectives that are linked—in one way or another—to the democratic ideal. His work, like that of Dahl, is rooted in a simultaneous concern for normative and empirically oriented scholarship. More recently, Przeworski 2010 consists of an analytically crisp and authoritative examination of democratic ideals and realities, in a work that serves as a very useful general treatment. Dahl, et al. 2003 provides a highly useful anthology of major contributions spanning political philosophy and normative approaches as well as empirically oriented treatments and theorizations. Charles Tilly, in one of his last important works (Tilly 2007), builds on his masterful historical sociology of collective protest and state formation as well as prior literature on democracy to offer a distinctive perspective on this regime form.

  • Dahl, Robert A. 1998. On democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A valuable and highly accessible discussion of the history of democracy both as a form of government and an idea.

  • Dahl, Robert A., Ian Shapiro, and José Antonio Cheibub, eds. 2003. The democracy sourcebook. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    A highly useful text for teaching and for scholars as a quick entryway into texts and authors requiring much additional reading. This book includes major exemplars of democratic political thought, normative theory, and empirically oriented social science.

  • Held, David. 1987. Models of democracy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An influential and broad-ranging discussion of diverse conceptions of democracy both in classical and modern political and social theory. Also analyzes late-20th-century issues and challenges in democracy, juxtaposing this practical concern with the consideration of normative democratic theory.

  • Przeworski, Adam. 2010. Democracy and the limits of self-government. Cambridge Studies in the Theory of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511778490

    A major synthetic treatment of fundamental issues both in the normative theory of democracy and in empirical social science. Draws on a wealth of scholarly findings and arguments as well as the analytical force of Przeworski himself.

  • Przeworski, Adam, Michael E. Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. 2000. Democracy and development: Political institutions and well-being in the world, 1950–1990. Cambridge Studies in the Theory of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511804946

    A rigorous empirical analysis of the complex interrelationship between democracy and development.

  • Sartori, Giovanni. 1987. The theory of democracy revisited. 2 vols. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.

    Sartori’s conceptually oriented review of classical and modern issues in democratic theory, offering a carefully constructed synthesis of normatively oriented and empirical theory. In one of the work’s central arguments, Sartori builds the case for seeing democracy as an inherently ideal-oriented project that is nonetheless also practical in its behaviors.

  • Shapiro, Ian. 2003. The state of democratic theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A highly useful and authoritative guide to the state of debates, research findings, and normative arguments in the field of democratic theory. Readily accessible.

  • Tilly, Charles. 2007. Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511804922

    Tilly’s broad overview of democracy is process oriented and intended to provide analytical tools for studying historical and cross-national variation. Tilly rejects many definitions as being too narrowly focused on the operation of certain political institutions.

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