Mini-Publics and the Maxi-Public: Investigating the Perceived Legitimacy of Citizens’ Assemblies in a Deeply Divided Place

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Across the world, democratic deficits arise from a growing gap between citizens’ expectations and the way they perceive political systems to operate in practice. Deliberative theory offers a potential solution by advocating the direct involvement of ordinary citizens in structured decision-making. This approach has been increasingly applied to real-world decision-making through mini-public initiatives. This thesis investigates the largely neglected relationship between citizens’ assemblies, as one established form of mini-public, and their perceived legitimacy from the perspective of the maxi-public. Compared to other modes of decision-making, to what extent do people regard citizens’ assemblies as legitimate? And are there design features of citizens’ assemblies that strengthen or weaken perceptions of their legitimacy?

These questions are applied to the deeply divided case of Northern Ireland, where it can be particularly challenging to design democratic institutions that command popular legitimacy. Cross-sectional survey data reveal largely favourable attitudes towards citizens’ assemblies, especially compared to some more familiar modes of decision-making. The results of a series of complementary online experiments find that specific design features of citizens’ assemblies have no direct effect on perceived legitimacy. However, there is some variation at the individual level, suggesting that the design features of a citizens’ assembly should reflect its purpose and the broader context. Overall, the findings suggest that the establishment of citizens’ assemblies alongside existing institutions can make a positive contribution to the democratic performance of a political system, even in a deeply divided place.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorJohn Garry (Supervisor) & Rhiannon Turner (Supervisor)


  • Deliberative democracy
  • Citizens' assemblies
  • Democratic deficits
  • Mini-publics
  • Legitimacy
  • Consociationalism

Cite this