Group Democracy

Collective Formation, Deliberation, and Decision Making

2016-2017 Winter Quarter, Stanford University

SYMSYS 271: 2-4 units, Ltr-CR/NC

Instructor: Todd Davies

Tuesdays, 7-9:30pm
Room 460-126 (Margaret Jacks Hall, first floor)

Public website:

Interactive website: Symsys 271 folder
Activists associated with the
              Occupy Wall Street movement participate in a general
              assembly during a gathering of the movement in Washington
              Square park, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 in New York.. (AP
              Photo/Mary Altaffer). From

This version: February 14, 2017

Course Description

This seminar will explore theoretical, empirical, and practical approaches to groups that come together around a common purpose or interest. Emphasis is on democratically structured, non-hierarchical and non-institutional decision making, e.g. by grassroots activists, student, or neighborhood organizations. Parliamentary, consensus, and informal procedures. How do groups form? How do they deliberate and make decisions? What are the principles underlying different models for group process, and how well do different procedures work in practice? How do culture and identity affect the working of a group? And how are social technologies used? Readings from different disciplines and perspectives.

This is a research seminar that will involve the entire class in an empirical study and analysis project involving group democracy.

Intended Population

The course requires some prior background in social psychology, decision making or group sociology. Apart from that, it is intended for any student interested in democratically constituted groups, especially as a participant in such groups.

This course fulfills the Advanced Small Seminar Requirement in the undergraduate core of the Symbolic Systems Program.

Learning Goals

The following are the main learning goals for students taking this course:

  1. To understand and think critically about a range of factors affecting the quality of democratic deliberation and decision making in groups of people who share a common interest or purpose.
  2. To become more acquainted with, and think critically about, methods for studying group deliberation and decision making.
  3. To develop some practical understanding of how to study democratic processes in groups, by conducting original research.
  4. To understand better the process of social scientific inquiry and research generally through both study and practical experience.
  5. To enhance students' ability to write scientifically about group behavior.


The course is being offered this year as a small discussion and research seminar, based partly on assigned readings in Weeks 2-8, and on a group research project starting in week 4. The group project will involve individual and collaborative drafting of a final paper intended for submission as a journal article.


There are two required books, for the course, which will be available at the Stanford Bookstore prior to the first day of class:

An additional book is available as a recommended reference, although it is not required reading:

Other readings, both required and supplementary, will be made available in digital form.

Grading and Required Work

Students enrolled in SYMSYS 271 will be expected to do the following:

Grades will be assessed based on individual contributions to the class, as follows:


Week 1
Jan. 10

Introductions and Overview

Week 2
Jan. 17

Grassroots Models of Group Decision Making

Week 3
Jan. 24

Syllabus Revision Proposal

Historical and Psychological Studies
Alternative Syllabus Proposal (Instructor)
Week 4
Jan. 31

Power and Participation I

Initial study proposal and human subjects protocol

Initial Study Proposal and Human Subject Protocol (Instructor)
Meeting Democracy, Preface and Chapters 1-4

Week 5
Feb. 7

Power and Participation II

Discussion about basic study design

Refined Study Proposal (Instructor)
Meeting Democracy, Chapters 5-7

Week 6
Feb. 14
Power and Participation III

Discussion about methods and data

Meeting Democracy, Chapters 8, 9, & Appendices

Week 7
Feb. 21

Activist Group Formation I

Presentation and review of study procedure

Pre-draft discussion of Introduction

Proposed Study Procedure Outline (3 units)
Democracy in the Making, Chapters 1-3
Week 8
Feb. 28

Activist Group Formation II

Presentation and discussion of Intro section

Update on data and analysis

Draft Introduction Section (2 units)

Initial Data Gathering & Analysis (4 units)
Democracy in the Making, Chapters 4-6 & Appendix
Week 9
Mar. 7

Presentation of study results

Presentation and discussion of Methods section
Non-Narrative Results & Analysis  Document (4 units)

Draft Methods Section (3 units)

Week 10
Mar. 14

Presentation and discussion of Results & Analysis section

Pre-draft discussion of Conclusions
Draft Results & Analysis Section (4 units)

Finals Week
Mar. 21
10 pm
Deadline for Draft Conclusions section
Draft Conclusions Section (2 units)

Finals Week
Mar. 23
10 pm
Deadline for final edits

Collaboratively Edited Full Draft (everyone)