Two alternative views exist in the field of organizational behavior. While one focuses on understanding the concept of "Organization" itself, the other is concerned with understanding the process of "Organizing". I believe the same type of distinction (focusing on structure versus focusing on process) is useful in looking at the concept of democracy. Specifically, one can talk about having a democratic system, which entails having certain institutions and social structures, versus practicing democracy, which can be embedded in small actions of individuals. In this article, I want to argue that the "process view" of democracy is more enabling for individuals, better conforms to the spirit of democracy, and helps us explain a diverse set of phenomena, however, it is very much under-appreciated in public discourses.
The structure-focused view understands democracy in terms of the existence of specific institutions, such as the parliament, the free press, elections, etc. In this view societies "have" or "have not" democracy, depending on whether they own the required institutions. Consequently, the path to democracy is through creating these institutions. Therefore achieving democracy is a very challenging task that requires collective action of large groups of people in society who pool their resources together in order to change the traditional institutions and power structures.
On the other hand, the process view of democracy defines democracy in action: in making decisions and acting democratically. In this view democracy does not come with specific institutions, rather, it is an attribute of decisions and actions that are continually made and taken by different social actors. In this view we do not talk about "having" a democratic system, but rather, we understand practicing it through acting and deciding democratically in the individual, group, or society level.
Taking a process view of democracy has deep consequences in theory and practice. First, this view brings democracy to flow in every-day actions of the individuals. This is a very empowering change: to achieve democracy your role is not to change the gigantic, non-democratic institutions single-handedly, but instead, you can decide and act democratically in your simple affairs and that is what counts. Second, by empowering individuals and distributing the responsibility of being democratic between all instances of social action, this view embeds the spirit of democracy in the definition of democracy. Finally, this view can recognize instances where democracy does not coexist with democratic institutions. For example, we have parliament and elections in Iran, but it is easy to question the liveliness of democracy there.
It is fair to say that the static, structure-focused view of democracy dominates most of the public conversation on the subject. We all know friends and family members who complain about the lack of democracy while they play the role of little dictators in their personal sphere of life. This tendency is not limited to our beloved countrymen: think of the officials who believe they have the greatest democracy on the planet while they are signing the bill to restrict the rights of some minority group; or scores of people who boast of the democracy in their country, while they never participate in elections, or even in their community decision-makings.
An interesting question is that why the process view, despite its empowering role, consistent spirit, and explanatory power, has been widely ignored? I can speculate about two possible reasons. First, cognitive wise, individuals allocate their attention based on the salience of different aspects of life. The static view of democracy, by signifying salient social institutions, is an easier target of attention, understanding, and theorizing, than elusive notion of democracy in practice. Second, the process view raises the responsibility of the individuals and challenges them to act democratically, which usually stretches them out of their comfort zone. In fact most people are more comfortable to whine about lack of democracy or boast on its existence, rather than constantly worry whether they are acting democratically.
In sum, eventhough a process view of democracy is enabling, consistent, and more informative, it is widely ignored. However, by recognizing this view, we open door to new opportunities and challenges: the opportunity of embedding democracy in our actions as individuals, parents, group members, and communities; and the challenge of being responsible if we fail to use these opportunities.