Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Institut für Sozialwissenschaften

Fabrics of Democracy

Fabrics of Democracy - Network


Based on many discussions and the longlasting desire for a format like that we, Toralf Stark (University of Duisburg-Essen), Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach (University of Würzburg) and Norma Osterberg-Kaufmann (Humboldt University) would invite all those interested in a scientific network for theoretical and empirical research on the diversity of current meanings and understandings of democracy and on the genesis of a global concept of democracy to a monthly (zoom) event for multidisciplinary exchange.

You will find the idea underlying such an exchange briefly outlined in the post just published in The Loop: and in the following a little more detailed.



Please register for the following dates by mail at the corresponding email address: 

We will then send the access data for the Zoom meeting to all those who have registered.




23.06.2023 (12:00 - 13:00 CET) Paradigms in Research of Democracy.


Norma Osterberg-Kaufmann

Toralf Stark

Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach


16.06.2023 (12:00 - 13:00 CET) Polarisation of Political Identity Conflicts in Democracies. The Example of Liberalism and Republicanism.


Simon Bein


06.10. & 07.10.2022 - Fabrics of Democracy. Workshop around the Application for a scientific Network.


Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach

The ideational turn in democracy research: Some theoretical considerations


Rolf Frankenberger

What people say and what they do. A grounded theory approach to democratic problem solving in everyday life


Saskia Schäfer 

Politics and Religion: researching notions of democracy in Indonesia and Turkey


Simon Bein 

Multiple Political Identities between Liberalism and Republicanism: Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Conclusions


Dannica Fleuß 

Radical Openness: Ramifications for decolonizing understandings of democracy


Alexander Weiss

Comparative Normativity. Approaches to inductive construction of normative concepts


17.06.2022 (13:00-14:30 CET) - Conflicts in and about Democracy.


Alexander Weiß (University of Rostock) 



20.05.2022 (10:30-11:30 CET) - Unfolding Radical Openness as a Democratic Ideal: Ramifications for Theory and Practice.


Dannica Fleuss (Helmut-Schmidt-University Hamburg) 



04.03.2022 (9:30-10:30 CET) - Comparing the Former Poster Children: democratization and autocratization in Indonesia and Turkey.


Saskia Schäfer (Humboldt-University Berlin) 



21.01.2022 (9:30-10:30 CET) - Democracy as an essentially contested concept

Norma Osterberg-Kaufmann (Humboldt-University Berlin), Toralf Stark (University Duisburg-Essen) and Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach (University Würzburg)


Aufzeichnungen der Auftaktveranstaltung


We would be very happy if you forward the invitation to interested colleagues.


Please contact us with your own suggestions for topics that you would like to discuss and/or if you would like to receive information about future dates and activities by mail:


Democracy is an essentially contested concept


To strengthen democracy, we need new, innovative thinking. To identify the core norms underlying a universally valid concept of democracy, we propose opening up dialogue between empirical and theoretical approaches, and linking inductive and deductive methods.


‘The only game in town’ is arbitrary and limited


Our present understanding of democracy, as shaped by the major theorists of democracy in our discipline, is ultimately revealed to be an arbitrary and fragmentary concept based on an understanding of what some of us mean by democracy. Over time, however, the meanings of and controversy about the concept of democracy has changed considerably, and there is no reason to believe that the concept of democracy will not continue to be shaped by such contestations in the future. However, innovation also fosters resistance.


Opening Pandora’s Box

Today, democracy is facing numerous challenges. Many say it is our duty as democratic scholars to defend democracy in its present form, not to question it. They argue that our search for a more comprehensive concept of democracy opens up a Pandora's Box. It thus also puts the core norms of democracy up for discussion, which risks undermining democracy, or hollowing out its value. We would like to respond to this. If we do not learn that there are different meanings and understandings of democracy, in the future we will have to deal more and more with an observable gap between the ideal of democracy and its reality. This includes the increasing lack of a common comprehension of democracy.


Therefore, we would like to challenge the preservers of the instrumental liberal and representative understanding of democracy that currently dominates our discipline, to open a debate, which in the end help to improve and preserve democracy. We therefore  propose an adaptation of the concept of democracy to render it strong enough to withstand the challenges of our time. This, of course, leaves contemporary research on democracy with a range of conceptual and methodological puzzles.


Three battlegrounds

There are many challenges to democracy, but we identify three main battle areas. Firstly, the prevailing understanding of democracy did not develop in a political vacuum. Power imbalances strongly affect what people consider relevant in our understanding of democracy. Knowledge production follows a Eurocentric hegemony; it spills over into the classical canon of democracy theory. Thus, it also influences the conceptualisation and operationalisation of democracy in empirical studies on the understanding of democracy, on support for democracy, and on the quality of democracyAs Fleuß argues, the inclusion of a postcolonial perspective in the question of what constitutes democracy is long overdue.

Democracy, however, is not only contested conceptually in the academic debate, but is also coming under pressure in its liberal, institutionalized form within political systems, thus naming the second battleground. We observe this in terms of declining satisfaction with the functioning of democracy and in terms of declining trust in its core institutions and actors. This turn is illustrated, for instance, by the rise of anti-democratic (populist, nativist, right-wing) and anti-system parties as well as the rise of non-democratic alternatives, e.g. technocratic regimes or authoritarian leadership.


This leads to the third battleground, the international perspective. The days of democratization in the sense of promoting liberal democracy and adapting to liberal democracy are over. We are in an era of post-democratization. The term "post-democratization" describes political processes after the end of the transition paradigm by examining two overlapping processes: the attempt of elites to autocratize themselves and a population that is increasingly disillusioned with the usual offerings of democracy.

In the era of post-democratization, it can be observed that in many regions of the world illiberal alternatives to the liberal tradition and/or populism are increasingly emerging, up to the point of regression or persistence in authoritarian structures.


Miners and discoverers

We should embark on the adventure Gagnon proposes and join him in the global search for a new core of democracy. To gain a globally applicable core concept of democracy (the fabric of democracy), we need two kinds of scholars: miners and discoverers, who collect the total texture of democracy and bring it into relation with each other.

First, we need knowledge of the total texture. This constitutes plural conceptions or even, on a less systematic level, diverse meanings of democracy. This will allow us, in a second step, to work out a singular concept to which all plural conceptions can connect.

The miners are those, like Gagnon, who produce the 'mountains of data'. Gagnon focuses on specific texts to discover the total texture of democracy. At the same time, we need to consider the subjectively perceived meaning of democracy. This is because it fills in the gaps by also taking into account oral traditions, publication asymmetries, and people's perspectives on democracy.

To reach the fabric of democracy, it is not enough to collect vast amounts of data about democracy. The discoverers must taxonomise, synthesise and theorise that data. The fabric of democracy is perhaps what Laurence Whitehead called the timeless essence of democracy. This comes closest to the singular theory we need to understand and explain democracy's total texture, its plural conception. In the sense of Sartori's ladder of abstraction, we must break down the core principles behind the various conceptions of democracy until the one main core principle becomes visible.


Methodological pluralism, intra- and interdisciplinarity

How can we reach this? Certainly not as a one-man- or one-woman-show. And certainly, also not with short-term publication outcomes. We need to collect sufficient data to gain knowledge about the total texture of democracy and generate fabrics of democracy from this data. And this requires the cooperation of a wide range of disciplines and sub-disciplines with different methodological competencies. We need 'a new, interdisciplinary way of thinking about democracy'. This also means tearing down constructed oppositions between qualitative and quantitative, as well as between theory and empiricism.

Our classifications leading to a global, valid core concept of democracy must therefore allow for a top-down and bottom-up production of knowledge. This implies a permanent interplay of deductive and inductive methods, and a constant dialogue between theory and empiricism.


About us


Norma Osterberg-Kaufmann

Researcher and Lecturer, Humboldt University Berlin.




Norma holds a PhD in political science from Humboldt University Berlin.


Her research focuses on concepts of democracy, measuring of meaning and understanding of democracy, legitimacy and mixed-methods.


Follow her on Twitter



Toralf Stark

Researcher and Lecturer, University of Duisburg-Essen.


Toralf holds a PhD in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen.



His research focuses on concepts of democracy, measuring of meaning and understanding of democracy, political attitudes, political participation and survey-research.


Follow him on Twitter



Christoph Mohamad-Klotzbach

Researcher, University of Würzburg




His research focuses on scientific concepts, the concept of democracy, political culture, statehood, political parties and survey research.


Follow him on Twitter





Osterberg-Kaufmann, N., Stark, T. & Mohamad-Klotzbach, C. (Eds.) 2020: Special section: Conceptualizing and Measuring Meanings and Understandings of Democracy. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 14, 299–460 (2020).


Osterberg-Kaufmann, N., Stark, T. & Mohamad-Klotzbach, C. Challenges in conceptualizing and measuring meanings and understandings of democracy. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 14, 299–320 (2020).


Wegscheider, C., Stark, T. What drives citizens’ evaluation of democratic performance? The interaction of citizens’ democratic knowledge and institutional level of democracy. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 14, 345–374 (2020).


Osterberg-Kaufmann, N., Stadelmaier, U. Measuring meanings of democracy—methods of differentiation. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 14, 401–423 (2020).




Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Institut für Sozialwissenschaften

Fabrics of Democracy

Norma Osterberg-Kaufmann

Unter den Linden 6

10099 Berlin


Mitteilungen des Instituts




Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät
Institut für Sozialwissenschaften
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin



Institut für Sozialwissenschaften
Universitätsstraße 3b
10117 Berlin