It is now widely accepted that political actors think and talk about matters of common interest through narratives. But there has been relatively little attention on the consequences of this phenomenon for deliberative conceptions of democracy. On one hand, many of the qualities associated with narrative would tend to suggest it is a pathology of deliberation: in this sense, narrative might be seen as sensationalising and polarising issues, and manipulating and ultimately corrupting rational...[Show more] consideration of the facts. On the other hand, other qualities would suggest that narrative could be a key resource for deliberation: it can also be seen as facilitating communication between diverse actors and mobilising opinion on intractable issues, thereby legitimating political decisions and decision-making processes. This thesis probes these apparently contradictory understandings of narrative by asking: what impact does narrative have on public deliberation? It examines this impact, understood in terms of narrative's influence on deliberative practice, both empirically and normatively. It seeks to determine how narrative influences public deliberation on a complex and contested issue and to interpret what these impacts mean for deliberative democratic ideals. The research explores this question through a comparative case study of public deliberation on the issue of obesity in Australia and the UK. In line with recent developments in deliberative democratic theory, the research adopts a 'deliberative systems' approach to public deliberation on obesity, on the basis that democratic deliberation does and should take place across a range of differentiated but interconnected sites of discussion. As such, it examines the interplay between narratives in various sites of public deliberation on the issue of obesity in Australia and the UK between 2007 and 2011. This study explores how political actors think and talk about obesity as a policy problem through a narrative analysis - a method firmly lodged in the interpretive tradition, in that its focus is on the meanings that political actors ascribe to events. The research, drawing on extensive textual data and over 35 semi-structured interviews with relevant policy actors, identifies the different narratives that actors engaged in policy debate on obesity adhere to and assesses how and to what effect they are performed across sites. The findings challenge prevailing assumptions about the role of narrative in public deliberation. They indicate that the different narratives on obesity do not simply polarize or sensationalise deliberation, nor do they unproblematically facilitate it. Instead, the research produces a rich analysis which shows how the narratives on obesity collectively work to blunt the force of critical or urgent voices, orchestrate and mask conflict on key aspects of the issue, and fudge the detail of specific claims, especially in or near decision-making sites of deliberation. It documents how this discursive process constructs 'wiggle room' around the issue which is more easily exploited by powerful and well-resourced actors, albeit more acutely in Australia than in the UK. The project concludes by exploring this comparative difference to suggest ways in which such deliberative systems might be strengthened. Overall, this research makes crucial methodological, empirical and conceptual advances to scholarship on narrative in politics and policymaking, as well as providing salient lessons for general policy scholars and public health scholars, too. Its ultimate contribution, though, is to the broader effort to understand and improve public deliberation on complex and contested issues in theory and in practice.
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