Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Francis Garon, political science professor at Glendon

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Francis Garon, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, and the School of Public and International Affairs at Glendon.

Garon has focused his research interests on deliberative democracy, public policy, and immigration and integration issues.

Francis Garon (image: Jennifer Cote)
Francis Garon (image: Jennifer Cote)

Q. Please describe your current research

A. I’m interested in how we collectively talk about diversity issues in democratic societies. More precisely, I take an empirical approach to what is called deliberative democracy, which means free, open and informed communication between equal citizens in order to reach collective binding decisions.The basic idea is that voting no longer suffices to legitimize policy decisions and that some other forms of participation need to be put in place.

My particular take is to examine how printed media represent discourses in the public sphere during public deliberation on immigration and integration issues.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. It remains a real challenge to take an ideal such as deliberative democracy and to try to give it an empirical content. In other words, taking a political philosophy and “extracting” from it indicators that well reflect its substance is no easy task. Also, since my dedicated graduate students did all the coding manually, it proved to be very labor intensive. However, it’s been rewarding. I presented this work at different conferences around the world and each time the general sense is that the research was inspiring and innovative.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Empirical research on deliberative democracy is still in its infancy. First developed as a democratic ideal, it is now the subject of empirical research in order to see how real-world interactions approximate the ideal. The research has progressed recently in that regard, but every endeavor remains kind of “unusual”.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I was amazed by how public debates on immigration and integration issues have proliferated over the last decade in most Western societies. Coming from Québec, I followed closely the whole debate on “reasonable accommodation” and more recently the one on the “Charter of values”. So, I wanted to find a way to explore, from a research perspective, how these debates are conducted and what outcomes that they produce.

glendonQ. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I’m teaching courses on diversity issues at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. What is more interesting to me is to explore with the students the multiple layers of signification when we address different models for dealing diversity. My aim is to make students realize that an idea such as “multiculturalism” has many different meanings. It can mean the simple fact that modern societies are culturally diversified; it can represent a political philosophy that states that liberal democracies have the responsibility to protect and promote diversity; it can mean an overarching policy framework such as the one we have in Canada.

These multiple layers are often conflated in public discourses. For example, it is always interesting to hear leaders such as Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy saying that multiculturalism has failed, whereas these two countries did not go really far into it.

In a more provocative way, I want the students to know that multiculturalism is not the only way to deal with diversity. In the Canadian context, this simple idea sometimes feels as a taboo. So, it’s interesting to see how students justify their positions on these issues.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. The first research that one does is always overwhelming. It’s a long process that involves different steps that need to  come together. Of course, you have to be passionate about your research topic. At the same time, the first research needs to be feasible. In other words, I would say that the challenge is to strike a balance between passion and feasibility. Appropriate support is also essential.

Tell us more about you:

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. It might not be very original, but it would be Barack Obama. As a political scientist interested in public deliberation, he seems to be the personification of the “deliberative democrat”! As hard as it is in the U.S. these days, he’s always trying to engage in meaningful debates with opponents on substantive and important issues.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Play tennis!