This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, a conversation between Lisa Herzog and Albert Dzur

Albert Dzur is Distinguished Research Professor at Bowling Green State University, where his work focuses on citizen participation and power-sharing in criminal justice, healthcare, public administration and education. 

Lisa Herzog (LH): Hi Albert, thanks for joining me for this interview. You’re Distinguished Research Professor at Bowling Green State University. Can you tell us a bit about how you got there and what you do in your work?

Albert Dzur (AD): Hi Lisa, it is nice of you to invite me into your blog space! It is a delight to be here.

My particular research interest in participatory democracy stems from a paradox I noticed a number of years ago. And I should confess that I have been studying the topic of citizen participation since I was an undergraduate! For over a generation social scientists, officials, and public intellectuals have lamented decreasing rates of participation and trust in government. Pew research institute, for example, has publicized their study reporting “historically low” rates of trust in government. From the left to the right, we hear calls to “engage,” “do public service,” “get more involved,” particularly addressed to young people. It has become almost conventional wisdom that we need a more participatory democracy!

But the problem actually is not that young people are too busy to be bothered with public service, or because they lack interest in government. When you speak with young people you are struck by how much they care about political issues. They see the future, do not like it, desperately want change, and will work long and creative hours to achieve it. Yet you will also find deep cynicism and distrust of formal politics: political parties, conventional media, elections, and all too artificial “public forums” used by well-meaning officials.

So, this is the paradox: people who are inside conventional public institutions are saying “engage,” “participate,” “get more involved,” but those institutions are actually routinely repelling participation that could make a difference and shares power. This explains why many young people choose to engage in NGOs and community service rather than formal political work. These alternatives give them power and permit them to identify and solve problems.

In my book Punishment, Participatory Democracy, and the Jury, I talk about how the American jury system once heard the majority of criminal cases. It was the popular wing of the least popular branch of government. In contemporary courts, however, juries hear a small fraction of cases: 1-4 percent. The lights are on but no one’s inside, as we say. Indeed, all branches and levels of government favor specialists and professionals. How, if I am untrained, could I possibly have anything to add? But the less we are able to engage, the less we know, the less we trust, hence the paradoxical situation we are in: well-meaning officials inside public institutions with few pathways in to participation are begging us outsiders to become more engaged and follow their scripts for wholesome dialogue.

LH: One of the most important concepts of your work is “democratic professionalism.” Can you briefly explain what it is and why it matters?

AD: My research over the last decade or so has been on insiders who build access points for substantive participation by outsiders in criminal justice, public administration, education, and elsewhere. This is the idea of “democratic professionalism:” innovators who have training and expertise, but also a commitment to sharing tasks and power.

Other scholars all over the world have taken up the concept of democratic professionalism for research in many other fields such as mental health, urban planning, sustainable agriculture, economic development, and social work. They think this concept matters for three reasons: it helps identify certain motivations and practices that would otherwise go unseen or remain mislabelled; it connects up tendencies that have arisen across a range of professional fields; and it offers a reconstructive model of professionalism well-suited for innovative people who do not want to reproduce destructive conventional patterns of institutions.

LH: In your research, you also go “beyond the ivory tower.” Can you tell us in what ways you do so, and with whom you collaborate?

AD: In a recent project, on Ohio’s opioid crisis, I noticed a missing voice in the scholarly and official narratives. I heard public health professionals talking, criminal justice professionals talking, public administration professionals talking, but not much from substance users, former substance users, and those who love and worry about them. I researched public forums held in the state about the opioid crisis and interviewed facilitators and participants. This led me to realize that there was a gap between the ways that professionals and citizens tended to see the crisis. Professionals saw it as something they could fix with the right mix of “services:” policing, health care, therapeutic interventions. Families impacted by substance use had plenty of services available; they just needed to contact the right office or agency.

When confronted with this professional narrative in public forums, many citizens recoiled: those with substance using family members rejected the idea that services were easily available and they had much less confidence in professional problem-solving than the professionals themselves had! Additionally, many citizens wanted to take on greater responsibility. They wanted to be trained and empowered to administer anti-overdose medication. They wanted to figure out how to bring former substance users back into the routines of daily work life. They wanted to be part of community solutions to the problem. They wanted to foster respect for their loved ones to ward off the stigma that often surrounded the professionals’ “services.” *

In another recent project*, my collaborator John McKnight and I examined the day-to-day practices of community empowerment employed by an innovative police chief. This chief had over the course of his career shifted a police department away from a fortress mentality that kept citizens at arm’s length, to one that was actively sharing tasks of social control with community members. He did this by setting an example and walking the neighborhoods every weekend, by hiring different kinds of officers, by promoting people on the basis of citizen-centric skills; this is the bland and easy-to-miss work that fosters democracy.

LH: Can you give us an example of an insight that you got from engaging with practitioners that you feel you could not have had from reading and thinking – the research strategies political thinkers standardly use – alone?

AD: Political scientists think a lot about power and the textbook definition is as follows: A has power over B if A can get B to do something B does not want to do. That’s a pretty negative definition, isn’t it?! But we can also think of power more constructively: not as power over but as power with. This is not the standard account of power, but there are thinkers who provided ways of understanding it. Mary Parker Follette, a brilliant early theorist of public administration, conceived of a kind of relational power. This is not a compromise between A and B, but a discovery of interests they share or common ground they both occupy. Follette’s “power with” is about encouraging the growth in capacities in others.

Follette’s conception of relational power can appear utopian and idealistic if you do not go out into the world and see it in action or talk with people for whom it is a reality. Over the course of my research, practitioners have taught me to see how power and knowledge can be joined in constructive, developmental ways; to see institutions, even those with a punitive bent, as learning environments for all involved.

Democratic practitioners say this learning goes both ways: from people running institutions to those outside and from those outside to those inside. We on the outside are not merely clients, service users, patients, victims, offenders, etc. We are citizens and what we know and what we experience and what we have to say needs to be learned by our institutions. If this kind of learning doesn’t happen, institutions become weaker, less effective, and less able to adapt over time.

Another thing democratic practitioners have taught me is how constant the work of everyday democracy is: the pressures – and incentives! – to revert back to the defaults of more technocratic and managerial modes are very high, reinforced by institutional history, and supported by conventional attitudes of many citizens and professionals alike. Innovators often have to go back to square one, over and over again.

LH: How do you see your own role in this? Is “democratic professionalism” the ideal that also guides your own work?

AD: Democratic professionalism is a critique of chronic tendencies we see in many fields: to label people, to exert prescriptive power, to harm even as we are trying to heal or educate or do justice. I am guided in my work by the belief that the academic underpinnings of conventional professionalism are much weaker than they appear and need significant reconstruction. Our positions as faculty members in universities that serve as gatekeepers of the professions give us significant responsibility as critics.

There is a more positive role, too: to understand and make more widely known how innovative people in a range of fields create new norms, new practices, new institutions that share power. In work like my recent book, Democracy Inside, I hope to do more than advertise “best practices,” but rather breathe life into ideas that might otherwise seem impossible. Yes, there are difficulties and the days are long, but being a democratic police chief, democratic public administrator, democratic school principal, can make a lasting difference in reshaping institutions that are in such difficulty today.

LH: What advice would you give to younger scholars who are interested in doing the kind of work you do, or in using similar methodological strategies, but who feel constrained by the pressures and social norms within academia?

AD: The famous Emerson motto “trust thyself” is important. Stay close to the passion, issue, problem that made you the weird kid who stayed after class to ask more questions. These things mark the ways you clash with the world, not flow along with it. Use that sensibility to connect with research questions and literature and fellow scholars.

Academia can be rigid and disciplinary norms may make it so that the work you are passionate about does not count for much. Forget the counters and the metrics and the assessments. It is a big world and if you keep following that driving interest you will find others with whom you can collaborate and commiserate! And don’t forget there are many ways of being an excellent academic. Disciplines seem to me to be increasingly outdated, as most of the important questions need insights from a range of fields working together and reaching outside themselves to non-academics. How best to do criminal justice, for example, can hardly be answered from within criminology and academia! Keep pushing on until your field opens up to your questions!

* This link takes you to a paywall. The editors of the National Civic Review have kindly allowed to pass on the information that with code KF22, you can access these articles.


Aveek Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Social Policy at the London School of Economics. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from the University of Oxford. His research interests include cosmopolitanism, migration and political economy. He blogs at