Some Interpretivist Considerations about Referendums

By Ema Rivas Leal

Referendums are a form of direct democracy, involving the people directly in the political process, usually proposing to them an outcome which they may accept or reject in the form of a single question. The outcomes usually involve core issues, including peace accords, territorial dispute settlements and independence declarations.

The practice of referendums assumes that there exists an answer to a question about an outcome among a population that can be extracted by posing a question to them. In this sense, we could say that carrying out a referendum shows a fundamentally positivist view of the world, making the assumption that an objective world exists and therefore an answer to a question about it can be observed and measured, then the world can be understood and controlled (KB).

However, if we consider some of the problems associated with referendum design, we can see how an interpretivist view of the world would discard referendums as a valid way of approximating knowledge about the world. Some of these include problems of clarity, where more than one issue is being discussed in terms of a single issue; the clear challenge that participation poses for the legitimacy of the referendum outcome; and the biased information that voters may use in forming an answer, especially when the existence of the referendum itself is political (LeDuc). If interpretivism proposes that “reality is multiple and variable” (Eridisingha), an interpretivist would argue that the outcome of a referendum is circumstantial and socially constructed, resulting from the framing of the question, its interpretation by the people that actually voted, and the relative salience of the perhaps infinite sources of information that each voter used to arrive to their answer.

In this way, to the extent that solutions for these issues of referendum design can make use of more qualitative approaches to data collection, we could say that a more interpretivist world view could be beneficial the development of referendums as a tool of direct democracy.