"The Promise and Perils of Participatory Democracy: Lessons from Non-profit Housing Cooperatives"


Friday November 10, 2023
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

The Corry Colloquium Speaker Series of the Department of Political Studies presents:

Margaret Kohn - University of Toronto

"The Promise and Perils of Participatory Democracy: Lessons from Non-profit Housing Cooperatives"

Photograph of Margaret Kohn

Friday, November 10, 2023 

12:00-1:30 PM

Robert Sutherland Hall | Room 334

Light lunch served


Participatory democracy flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and inspired a generation of scholars who placed inclusive ideals at the core of normative theories of democracy. The defining feature of participatory democracy is the direct engagement of citizens rather than mediated forms of political activity such as electing representatives.  Non-profit housing cooperatives are governed by a mix of direct and representative democracy, and they provide a natural laboratory for studying small group democracy. This paper relies on the method of grounded normative theory, which involves original empirical research to expand the archive of relevant texts to include more diverse perspectives.

The paper shows that the real world of participatory democracy is filled with more conflict than the original proponents predicted, and participation does not always create a sense of efficacy and an orientation to the common good, but it produces beneficial outcomes such as social solidarity and spaces of decommodification. Understanding the challenges entailed in participation is part of the process of developing a capacious normative democratic theory. By de-moralizing democracy, which involves orienting deliberation away from the language of judgement and principle, and focusing on practical activity, compromise, and pluralism, a revitalized approach to participatory democracy is possible.


Dr. Margaret Kohn is a professor of political theory at the University of Toronto whose primary research interests are in the areas of the history of political thought, critical theory, social justice, and urbanism. Prof. Kohn will tentatively speak about the results of a study on solidarity and democracy in non-profit housing cooperatives in Canada. The project, entitled “Demoralizing Democracy," sits at the intersection of political theory and urban studies.