Notes on Sortition Terminology

I have three concerns about terminology used by those working on sortition.

1. Stop using pejorative terms to refer to people selected by lot. This undermines the very idea of equality that is the foundation of sortition and reproduces the dominant supremacist logic of elite/ordinary people

The people selected by lot are frequently referred to as “ordinary people,” “common people,” “everyday people,” etc. All these adjectives have pejorative meanings. Even if the pejorative meaning isn’t the author’s intent, the pejorative meaning and logic remains. Sortition recognizes inherent human equality and seeks to overcome a deeply ingrained system of social differentiation of people into superiors and inferiors. It’s important to break out of this supremacist logic of elite/ordinary people, superiors/inferiors, etc., and not reproduce this vocabulary.

You wouldn’t like it if someone described you as “ordinary, common, everyday, average.” Don’t describe others that way.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions of “ordinary” include: “4. Chiefly of a person: not distinguished by rank or position; of low social position; relating to, or characteristic of, the common people; common, vulgar; unrefined, low, coarse. In later use derogatory.” And: “5. a. Of the usual kind; such as is usually experienced; not singular or exceptional. Often in depreciatory use: not above, or somewhat below, the usual level of quality; commonplace, mundane; (of a person) undistinguished in appearance, plain.”

OED definitions of “common” include: “12. a. Of persons: Undistinguished by rank or position; belonging to the commonalty; of low degree; esp. in the common people, the masses, populace. (Sometimes contemptuous.).” And: “14. In depreciatory use: b. Of persons and their qualities: Low-class, vulgar, unrefined.”

“Everyday”: 2. “That can be encountered every day; common, ordinary. Also: (of a person or his or her attributes) commonplace, mediocre, inferior.

“Average”: “2. a. medium, ordinary.”

“Regular people” can be somewhat pejorative to positive, but it still exists in contrast to supposed “elite people.” “Regular” can mean: “6. f. Chiefly U.S. (colloquial). Of a person: ordinary, normal, unremarkable.”

“Normal people” might be better, but it can still mean “ordinary” or “average, the norm” in contrast to supposed “elite people.” “Normal:” “1.  a. Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. (The usual sense.)”

I propose using a neutral to positive term, such as people at large, and avoiding contrasting supposed “ordinary/regular/normal/everyday people” with some supposed exceptional/elite people. “At large” is defined as: P1. “d. In a general way; in a general sense; without particularizing.” “At large” also has positive meanings of “at liberty, free, without restrictions.” Other neutral to positive terms are possible.

Another option is not to use any adjective; just say “people” or “citizens” full stop. It’s also possible to be purely descriptive: “99 ordinary citizens were randomly selected from the entire adult population.” A term that is always positive like “fellow citizens” could be used; instead of saying “ordinary citizens were given decision-making power,” one could say [our/their/Irish/etc.] “fellow citizens were given decision-making power.” “Fellow” has the meaning of: “4. A person who or thing which shares an attribute with another specified person or thing; a person or thing belonging to the same class or category as another. a. A person’s equal in position, rank, or status; someone’s peer.”

2. Stop using “elites”

Not only are people at large and our fellow citizens being referred to with pejorative phrases such as “ordinary people,” but they are being contrasted with people called “elites,” a term which has a highly positive sense. OED defines “elite” as: “1. a. The pick or choice part (of society, a group of people, etc.), the flower; spec. (a) a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.”

Instead of “elites,” I would propose using terms such as “people in positions of domination,” oligarchs, masters, supremacists, hierarchs (high priests), etc. Or use longer descriptive phrases: “people with concentrated power over others’ lives,” “people with undemocratic power.”

3. The Problem with “Citizens’ Assembly”

“Citizen” can mean: “2. a. A legally recognized subject or national of a state.” It can also have a broader sense: 2. “d. A person who regards himself or herself [or themselves] as an inhabitant of the world as a whole or as a member of the worldwide community.”

“Citizens’ Assembly” can sound like a nationalist, anti-immigrant assembly to a non-citizen. It’s important in discussing citizens’ assembly not to foreclose in advance the possibility of non-citizen participation. The boundary problem shouldn’t be resolved in advance by experts or others using a narrow meaning of “citizen” in “citizens’ assembly”; this should be made clear when this term is used.

11 Responses

  1. “All these adjectives have pejorative meanings.”

    It would be useful for you to make a distinction between connotation and denotation. They may have pejorative connotations, but their meaning or denotation is by no means pejorative.

    These terms, “ordinary people,” “common people,” “everyday people,” and even mediocrity, middling, and other terms are pejorative only for those who see the middle as a bad thing.

    In reality, that is not the case at all, even for the “elite.” For example, philosophers hold the opinion of the average person as their ultimate standard of proof, doctors hold the healthy condition of an ordinary body as the object towards which all medications and treatments are designed to turn the body towards, lawyers and legislators draw back from interfering with the ordinary, law abiding citizen, who is untouchable by their worst sanctions.


  2. Terms like “ordinary,” “common,” and “everyday” have denotations that are pejorative, as listed above.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jonathan, very interesting post. Taking your points in turn:

    1. In Aristotelian terminology we should opt for demos rather than plethos. Given that the former is well known, let’s just reclaim it in its original sense (sounds better than “people”).

    2. All you are doing is trading a neutral term (elite) for a pejorative (oligarchy). Given that our only example of a functioning ortho-democracy (4th century Athens) contained an important role for elites, this is a regressive move.

    3. You have to be a citizen of somewhere (polis, nation state, cosmopolis), otherwise the word doesn’t make sense. Refusing to make a distinction between citizens and others makes you a cosmopolitan.


  4. Keith,

    1. I agree about reclaiming and popularizing “demos.” But until the term becomes more widely known, I’m concerned about it sounding esoteric.

    2. I’m making a different point. I object to using the term “elite” to refer to any human being. A person might have elite skills in a very narrow sliver of the human experience. It’s fine to say Ben Carson is an elite neurosurgeon (, but he’s not an elite human being. “Elites” in this latter sense should be called out for what they are: supremacists, oligarchs, high priests, etc. In this context, I’m saying sortition should not refer to people as “elites” and reproduce the logic of human beings as a whole being superior and inferior. I object to sentences like: “Sortition can shift power from elites to ordinary people.” I would rephrase this as: “Sortition can shift power from people in positions of domination over others to people at large, to fellow citizens, to the demos.

    3. I’m just saying that citizens’ assemblies should not necessarily be limited only to citizens. For example, a certain city is having a citizens’ assembly and a stateless person without any national citizenship is a permanent resident of that city. We should keep in mind that the term “citizens’ assembly” should not necessary preclude this stateless person from being included in the lottery selection process.


  5. Jonathan,

    1. Demos is pretty familiar for etymological reasons.

    2. Fair point

    3. The extension of the demos and whether or not it should include non-citizens and all affected interests is a hot topic within normative democratic theory, and people have a range of views. But it has no intrinsic connection with sortition (the debate is mostly over voting rights), so the sortition movement should not favour one side or the other as it’s better to deal with one controversy at a time. I’m worried about sortition becoming associated with all sorts of other causes — cosmopolitanism, epistemic and deliberative/discursive democracy, neo-Marxism etc. etc.The only working example we have of ortho-democracy is from classical Athens, and they had a pretty clear idea of who was and who wasn’t a citizen.


  6. Jonathan,
    Adjusting and standardizing terminology is a tricky thing here since there is no global organization of academics and advocates working on the topic. While I think “a random assembly of ordinary people” does not sound pejorative to most people, I can agree to instead use a phrase like “a randomly selected assembly as a cross section of the community.” or the like.

    To many people the term “the elites” also sounds pejorative (as opposed to “elite people” which sounds fawning).

    I feel another set of crucial terminology issues is a better word than “sortition” or “ortho-democracy” but I have pretty much given up trying to think of one. But there is also a need to standardize terms for different SORTS of randomly selected bodies. Large mini-publics have often been called Citizens Assemblies, and this might be replaced with Popular Assemblies or People’s Assemblies. These are large enough to achieve some level of statistical representativeness. But there are also much smaller random bodies (perhaps less than 40) that are more valued for their impartiality (not self-selected special interests), which are often called Citizen Juries, and the term mini-public probably doesn’t fit as they are not a miniature of the entire public, because they lack sufficient statistical accuracy. In Canada, Mass LBP has adopted the term Reference Panels (which I don’t think is very descriptive).

    Rather than discussing what terms should be standardized to mean what, I am curious if anyone has suggestions for how a diffuse community like those of us in this Blog (and countless academics who have never visited this Blog, but work on sortition) might be organized to standardize terminology.


  7. Terry:> countless academics who have never visited this Blog, but work on sortition

    Unfortunately you can still count them on two hands, but at least most political scientists have now heard of sortition! (and I think our little forum has had an important role to play). As to standardising terminology, I wish we could focus more on the things we agree about (irrespective of what we want to call them), as there’s a real danger of the procedure being abused on account of poor understanding leading to poor system design.


  8. Keith,
    It is my sense that the number of people (including graduate students) writing about sortition is mushrooming. A Google Scholar search now gets over 2,500 hits for the word sortition. Also the new organization, Democracy R & D includes organizations and people working on sortition in about a dozen countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Jonathan,

    Personally, I use those three expressions (“ordinary people”, “elites”, “citizens”), however, I certainly don’t see “ordinary” as a pejorative term, “elites” as a laudatory term, or “citizen” as a term of exclusion.

    It is true that for some people these meanings exist. The question is whether useful, non-artificial terms exist that would have the meanings sought and which would not have the possible negative meanings. I doubt such terms exist.

    It is also important to see the meaning of words as ever-changing and in fact part of the political struggle. It is part of the democratic ideology that ordinary citizens are the legitimate repository of political power and that elites are problematic, potentially dangerous groups. The fact that elitist ideology sees those terms differently (and that it views are amplified through the power of the elites) is something that should be explicitly challenged, not accepted.

    Similarly regarding citizenship: if we see it as a term that should describe all those who are part of a community and that expresses the right of all of those people to equal political representation, rather than a legal term that discriminates between those who are fully enfranchised and those who are excluded in various ways, then we should use this term in the appropriate way, explicitly noting its inclusionary meaning when necessary, rather than cede its meaning to our ideological adversaries.


  10. Yoram,

    I am agnostic about “ordinary” and “elites,” but I agree that the term “citizens assembly” is problematic. The term “citizen” has a clear legal definition that excludes millions of residents in the U.S., for example. Thoughtful universal healthcare advocates in the U.S. no longer say “health care should be a right of every citizen,” for this reason. Also, since the inspiration for many of us is Athenian democracy, and they expressly used the concept of citizenship to EXCLUDE most adult residents from participation in democracy, using that word is certainly not ideal. There may well be certain applications where the sponsors INTEND to limit a mini-public to citizens, or even to registered voters, but our default term of art should not assume that is fundamental to sortition design.

    While we are at it… the word “assembly” is not perfect either, because it often means a gathering of whomever shows up, while words like “panel,” “council,” etc. always mean a specific subset of the community. So options liket “People’s Council” for an ongoing body, or “Popular Panel” for a short duration body (as examples) have some appeal for me.


  11. Terry,

    Let’s hope you’re right. I’m at the European Political Science Conference this week — there are three sortition papers (Peter Stone, a guy from Arizona U, and myself). I’ll let you know how big the audience is (in the past there have been more on the panel for sortition events than in the audience).

    Yoram:> Similarly regarding citizenship: if we see it as a term that should describe all those who are part of a community and that expresses the right of all of those people to equal political representation, rather than a legal term that discriminates between those who are fully enfranchised.

    Whilst some might make that normative argument, it’s a contentious position, and does not reflect the etymology of the word. As for “our ideological adversaries”, the issue of the balloting method (election or sortition) has nothing to do with the extent of the franchise. By all means argue the extension of the franchise to include all residents or all affected interests but that’s a moral argument that has nothing to do with the topic of this forum.


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