Democracy: Metis or Techne?

While doing research for an article on the U.S. and democratization in Iraq, I was recently led to James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State. In the final chapter, Scott explores two types of knowledge: metis, or practical knowledge, and techne, or technical knowledge. In keeping with my current research subject of democratization, I began to question how democracy fits into this dichotomy.

Below are my thoughts on this subject. It is a long read (my apologies) but it is a subject that I feel deserves a close look due to its direct implications with our adventure in Iraq and future policy.


Scott defines metis as a “wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.” Within this definition are two important keywords: practical and environment.

Regarding practical, Scott states that metis “may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice.” Further, it “resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures…are impossible to apply.”

On the environment in which metis thrives, Scott claims that “the practices and experiences of metis are almost always local” and is “applicable to similar but never identical situations.” As Scott remarks, flying a 737 requires a different knowledge set than flying a DC3, although each example refers to flying a plane.

In short, metis refers to the skills and knowledge that can only be learned through practice. Some examples are hunting, riding a bike, driving a car or playing a sport. An understanding of these things can be gained through a book or class but each skill can only be mastered through practice. Further, metis involves local or specific experience.

Opposite of metis lies techne which is expressed “precisely and comprehensively in the form of rules, principles, and propositions.” Unlike the practical metis which is not easily codified and taught, techne is “organized analytically into small, explicit, logical steps” that can be taught “more or less as a formal discipline.”

Moreover, while metis is local and specific, techne is universal knowledge. Scott uses examples such as the boiling point of water, which is zero degrees Celsius everywhere, and the Pythagorean theorem which applies to all right triangles. Because of its universality, techne is best applied to knowledge after it is discovered, not to its method of discovery.

The following statements from Scott help to categorize knowledge between metis and techne and serve as a good conclusion to this part of our discussion.

“[Metis] is the mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our experienced intuition and feel our way.”

“Techne is most suitable to activities that ‘have a singular end or goal, an end that is specifiable apart from the activity itself, and one susceptible to quantitative measurement.'”


Democracy as a knowledge set can be broken into two parts. The largest of the two encompasses the actual doing of democracy. Under this umbrella are all the institutions and processes that make a democracy function. A snapshot of democracy around the world today shows that no two democracies look exactly alike. Further, as history shows, most established democracies have changed in one way or another over time. The variance in the doing of democracy, historically and in the present, shows that this action rests in the realm of metis.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in their 2012 Democracy Index, claimed that almost one half of the world’s states can be considered either ‘full’ or ‘flawed’ democracies. True to the stong local manifestation of metis, none of these democracies are alike. For example, the United States is governed as a constitution based federal republic, the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy, and Israel as a parliamentary democracy.

Building on the practical aspect of metis, democracies often change over time. Amendments to constitutions and the reconfiguration of institutions such as judiciary and electoral bodies show how a state adapts to local variables. Take, for instance, the Constitution of the United States of America. The 26th Amendment, which set the voting age at 18, was ratified in 1971 and had a direct impact on the action of democracy, almost 200 years after the original document was created.

This is not to say that there is no techne present in the field of democracy. The second, and much smaller, knowledge set associated with democracy has more to do with theory than action. Scholars such as Adam Przeworski and Robert Dahl have spent their careers discussing and refining definitions of democracy. Their work is important in furthering the collective understanding of what modern democracy means but has little to do with how democracies function.

This study of democracy theory fits nicely into the category of techne. Because these discussions search for an ideal type that can not exist in reality, they have a clear “singular or end goal.” Further, the ideal types of democracy theory are universal and void of any local circumstances. This leads to a set of theories that can be categorized and taught, fulfilling another aspect of techne.


It is easy to imagine this discussion being limited to the dusty wood-paneled rooms of a prestigious Ivy League university. However, in reality, these concepts have major implications in the world of politics and policy. Over the past decade, nearly every American and Iraqi has been impacted by the confusion of democracy as a universal and easily transferred techne knowledge.

As I have shown above, democracy largely exists in the realm of metis. The definition of metis says that what works in one democracy will not necessarily work in another. According to Scott, Metis skills are best cultivated by those close to the local environment. Those who have a strong vested interest in improving their condition and who also have access to a wealth of localized information in regards to how that skill will best work in their area.

A metis skill is not  easily transferred from one bearer to the next. Scott claims that “metis knowledge is so implicit and automatic that its bearer is at a loss to explain it.” This implies the difficulty of exporting a skill set such as democracy from an established country to one with little practical experience.

Finally, metis knowledge is not learned quickly. It grows from a long interaction between the bearer, the local environment, and the skill set. This long period of time allows for the skill to be adapted to local variables and needs.

The U.S. has learned this lesson over the past decade as the assumed universality of democracy as a techne skill failed in Iraq. The promised quick transition to a strong and sustainable Iraqi democracy never materialized. Instead, the U.S. entered a long and turbulent experiment in democracy building. Democratic ideas that were to be superimposed had to be refashioned and slowly built by Iraqis themselves.

President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy lists promoting democracy and human rights abroad as an official U.S. interest. In order for this strategy to be successful, we will need to begin viewing democracy as a metis skill. If we realize that no two democracies are alike and that democracy is best cultivated over time by local actors, we can create a better strategy to successfully promote democracy around the world.


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