Deliberative Democracy and Illiteracy: Exploring a Theoretical Gap


In this essay, I demonstrate that literacy is not necessary for participation in a deliberative democracy. First, I examine the literature on the subject and demonstrate how the necessity of literacy has either been assumed or left entirely unquestioned. I argue that this is a significant gap with major conceptual and normative significance since several democracies have very high illiteracy rates. I reflect upon the overwhelming focus on ideal theory as a method of conceptual and normative analysis, and its inability to provide guidance in cases that depart radically from the ideal- but which are a normal feature of political life in many societies. Next, I examine hypothetical reasons that might be offered against the possibility of illiterate citizens participating meaningfully in the deliberative democratic process. I discuss what it means to be informed, by examining the informational requirements that central principles of deliberative democracy impose upon citizens. This is not an exhaustive account of what it means to be politically informed, but I hope that demonstrating how citizens can satisfy these necessary conditions is instructive in highlighting biases implicit in the objections to my thesis. I highlight the role of non-literary sources and informal political conversation and argue that, while deliberative democrats are correct in criticizing them for their weak deliberative quality, they ought to recognize the informational role that such sites play in the deliberative system. Finally, I end by examining how scepticism towards the possibility of deliberative democracy in semi-literate societies is rooted in biases against non-western experiences of the public sphere and political communication. Deliberative democracy can operate, imperfectly perhaps, even in such unfavourable conditions.

How to Cite

Bhatia U., (2013) “Deliberative Democracy and Illiteracy: Exploring a Theoretical Gap”, Journal of Public Deliberation 9(2). doi:







Udit Bhatia (University of Cambridge)



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