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Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold

This article aims to reinvigorate analytical debates on conspiracy theories. It argues that definitional attempts to set conspiracy theories apart from other theories are flawed. Blinded by the “irrational” reputation of conspiracy theories and deluded by the workings of institutionalized power such approaches fail to recognize that there are no inherent differences between the two categories. We argue that assessments of conspiracy theories should focus not on the epistemological qualities of these theories but on their interactions with the socio-political fields through which they travel. Because “conspiracy theory” is not a neutral term but a powerful label, attention to processes of labeling highlights these larger fields of power, while the theories’ trajectories illuminate the mechanisms by which truth and untruth are created. As such, this article offers a way forward for assessing both the truth and use value of conspiracy theories in the contemporary world.

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Democratic Theory

The South African Crucible

Lawrence Hamilton

South Africa's post-apartheid context and a mix of African and non-mainstream Western political theory is felicitous for a positive critique of the two now predominant Western accounts of democracy. The context highlights how deliberative and aggregative accounts of democracy fall short in their attempts to make universal claims regarding democracy; and it provides the theoretical basis for an account of political democracy that better associates democracy with freedom, power, representation, and domination. The article argues that freedom is power through political representation, and freedom obtains if and only if the existing forms of representation manage power relations in order to minimize domination and enhance political judgement amongst representatives and represented. The article submit that, unless radical institutional change is carried out, South Africa will not rid itself of the legacies of these Western models and will be unable to generate the freedom and democracy its attainment of political freedom has now long promised.

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Rikki Dean, Jean-Paul Gagnon and Hans Asenbaum

What is democratic theory? The question is surprisingly infrequently posed. Indeed, the last time this precise question appears in the academic archive was exactly forty years ago, in James Alfred Pennock’s (1979) book Democratic Political Theory. This is an odd discursive silence not observable in other closely aligned fields of thought such as political theory, political science, social theory, philosophy, economic theory, and public policy/administration – each of which have asked the “what is” question of themselves on regular occasion. The premise of this special issue is, therefore, to pose the question anew and break this forty-year silence.

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John R. Campbell

This article explores the relation between theory and method in three methodologically innovative studies of rural poverty. The issue is pertinent because the nature of research on poverty has shifted from small-scale qualitative studies to large surveys, and to national-scale studies that combine qualitative and quantitative methods in an effort to inform policy makers on appropriate poverty reduction strategies. The interest in combined methods holds considerable promise for poverty research because it links a search for 'objective' economic concerns to the analysis of 'subjective' and context-specific issues. It is instructive to examine recent studies of poverty that have pursued different theoretical and methodological choices with a view to understand how 'theory' influenced methodological choices, and whether and how such choices influenced their understanding of poverty.

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Theory for Praxis

Peacemaking, Cunning Recognition, and the Constitution of Enmity

Joyce Dalsheim

This article argues that scholars and activists concerned with peace and social justice in Israel/Palestine may unintentionally undermine their own goals when they abandon theory for praxis through recognition of parties to conflict. Recognition of ethno-national identity in peacemaking efforts helps reproduce the hegemonic order. Recognizing the subaltern here is a form of Elizabeth Povinelli's 'cunning recognition', which may do little more than produce a moral community of the recognizers. This case illustrates a broader pattern in which controversial ideas only succeed in arriving at the center of politics when they can no longer be implemented. It raises concerns about abandoning theory for praxis more generally, suggesting that theory not be abandoned because it is inconvenient for political purposes.

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Christian Ewert and Marion Repetti

What is democratic theory? In this article we treat it as a semiotic code – that is to say, a shared assumption – and argue that democratic theory enables people to think and talk about the idea(s) of democracy. Furthermore, the application of this specific code is highly political. For one, it is embedded in concrete contexts and discourses and used in arguments and narratives. In addition, the application of democratic theory has also substantial consequences on the lives of people. We illustrate this argument by reflecting briefly on Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and its recodification and consequences in different contexts.

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Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

Democratic Theory through an Agonistic Lens

Marie Paxton

This article seeks to explore democratic theory by focusing on the example of agonistic democracy, in which contest between citizens is valued for its potential to render politics more inclusive, more engaging, and more virtuous. Using Connolly and Tully’s inclusivism, Chantal Mouffe’s adversarialism, and David Owen’s perfectionism, the article discusses democratic theory as a critique, a series of normative proposals, and a potential bridge between political theory and public policy. It is this bridge that enables democratic theory to pull together critical and normative discussions with those surrounding public policy and institutional design.

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Ali Aslam, David McIvor and Joel Alden Schlosser

Urgent alarms now warn of the erosion of democratic norms and the decline of democratic institutions. These antidemocratic trends have prompted some democratic theorists to reject the seeming inevitability of democratic forms of government and instead to consider democracy as a fugitive phenomenon. Fugitive democracy, as we argue below, is a theory composed of two parts. First, it includes a robust, normative ideal of democracy and, second, a clear-eyed vision of the historical defeats and generic difficulties attendant to that ideal. This article considers how democratic theorists might respond to the challenges posed by fugitive democracy and the implications of such an understanding for future research in democratic theory.

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Michaelle Browers

Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 288 pp., ISBN: 9781400846351

Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor, eds., Boundaries of Toleration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 328 pp., ISBN: 9780231165679

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, ed., Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 448 pp., ISBN: 9780815632894

Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 272 pp., ISBN: 9780231162579

Ali Mirsepassi and Tadd Graham Fernée, Islam, Democracy and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 225 pp., ISBN: 9781107053977

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Does Democratic Theory Need Epistemic Standards?

Grounds for a Purely Procedural Defense of Majority Rule

Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti

This article proposes a critical discussion of an increasingly influential strand of contemporary democratic theory that attempts to justify majoritarian institutions on the grounds that they are the most adequate “epistemic” means for discovering and implementing an objective standard of normative truth. The analysis is divided in two parts. In the first I show that the appeal to such epistemic standards is unnecessary because it is possible to justify majority rule on the “purely procedural” grounds that it is the best way of instantiating the values of freedom (as consent) and equality (as impartiality). In the second part I suggest that the appeal to epistemic standards is also undesirable because it conflicts with three key democratic values: autonomy (as self-government), inclusion (as lack of discrimination in terms of political competence), and pluralism (as fair representation of conflicting interests within the political process).