Summary: This 2000 word entry discusses democracy's Greek origin, explores changing ideas about what constitutes democracy, and concludes by considering opportunities for participatory democracy in associations other than the state.
The word 'democracy' was first used by the Greeks as early as the fifth century BC, and it came to signify rule by the people and popular sovereignty. Since this time, however, there has been much scholarly disagreement about who actually constitutes 'the people,' as well as about what 'rule by the people' means and requires.
One of the most significant changes in democratic theory is a consequence of changes in the political environment. When the city-state was eclipsed by the nation-state, democratic theory was forced to embrace the concept of representation because 'the people' became far too numerous to rule themselves directly. This shift also had some other important consequences which the entry discusses concisely and elegantly.
As a concept, democracy is usually meant to be applied to the government of the state. However, there are many other kinds of human associations--such as trade unions, the family, consumer groups, economic organizations, etc.--that have adopted democratic principles to their internal governments. This form of democracy is known as 'participatory democracy.'
The entry concludes by considering whether democratic authority ought to be the only legitimate form of authority under all circumstances, or whether other forms of authority might be appropriate for certain associations or under particular conditions. This discussion uses economic democracy as an illustrative example.