Introduction This book has examined the role of political discussion in democratic politics, and has done so by putting together a number of original pieces of research that analyse in detail how political discussion and deliberation takes place, and what consequences it has, in different cross-national settings. One of the main objectives of this volume was to highlight how different theoretical and analytical approaches to the study of political discussion and deliberation can fruitfully be put to work together. And to this aim several of the chapters combine the elements of the empirical analysis of political behaviour with the theoretical insights of deliberative democracy scholarship. We believe that research in this area is at its peak, benefitting from a number of developments in various subfields of political science. First, the core claims of deliberative democracy theories have been gradually put to empirical scrutiny by several scholars, which has facilitated the development of a number of testable propositions that can be appraised with various observational methods. This, in turn, enables assessing how much the deliberative ways of reasoning and arguing prevail in the settings where ordinary citizens discuss politics, and thus link central tenets of political theory to empirical analyses of political behaviour. Parallel to these developments in political theory, after a long period in which academic interest in the study of the effect of interpersonal communication on political behaviour had waned in favour of the study of the influence of mass media, sociologists and political scientists alike have since the 1990s paid attention once again to the impact of personal influence and political discussion on citizens’ political choices. This ‘revival’ of the study of social interactions in political behaviour was enhanced by the advances in the design of new measurement tools of political discussion in social network studies – such as the ‘social network battery’ that enables quantitative scaling in random-sample surveys – thus effectively facilitating comparative studies. Overall, this has meant a reinstatement of the Lazarsfeldian tradition and of the ‘politics in context’ approach that has given new life to the study of political discussion patterns and networks from a micro-level perspective. And, its most recent focus on
homogeneous/heterogeneous discussion networks links particularly well with the concerns of deliberative democratic theorists about the importance of addressing and weighing counterarguments in the process of deliberation. On the other hand, the literature on social capital has also emphasised the complex social mechanisms that underlie good governance and the quality of democratic practices. In this sense, the crucial role of social networks and of the patterns of social interaction among citizens has been highlighted by a body of scholarship that is distinct from, but thematically related to, the core research field on political behaviour. Daily social interactions, as well as the networks derived from involvement in voluntary associations, play an important intermediary role in the generation of the necessary social capital that constitutes the fabric that enables the sustainment of well-functioning liberal democracies. In particular, the emphasis of the social capital scholars on the beneficial functions of ‘bridging’ links for the production of more tolerant and broadly cooperative societies connects especially well with the aforementioned interest by both deliberative democracy theorists and scholars of political behaviour on the role of heterogeneous discussion networks. Thus, the study of political discussion in contemporary democracies is at the cross-roads of three influential bodies of scholarship in political science and, as we shall detail in the next sections of these conclusions, the chapters in this book have contributed to the advancement of our knowledge in all three bodies of scholarship by providing methodologically sophisticated and comparative views of the core issues at stake.