Does "democracy" only refer to a state, in its most formal political definitions, or can other types of social structure be a democracy too? For example, can a company or a group of hikers be a democracy? When people use the term "democratic," to refer to a group of campers electing their camp guard, is that the same as saying that "the campers are a democracy" as opposed to "the campers act like a democracy, where democracy refers to a system of governance in some country or state"

Could some ethnic diaspora with their own internal system of election and delegation of power be called a "democracy?"

References to works of political science preferred.

  • 11
    The first question is quite easy to answer, but the second question "what is a state" is far more complex and controversial than it seems at first glance. You should really split this into two separate questions, IMO.
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 9:24
  • Try googling the term "economic democracy".
    – liftarn
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 9:35
  • Or the term "democratic leadership style" (a management technique)
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 10:07
  • 1
    This is a broad question about the definition of words. Not really answerable other than "yes, people use the term democracy to mean all sorts of things above and beyond 'states'"
    – user1530
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 20:43
  • Must "stallion" only apply to a horse? If Rocky Balboa is the "Italian Stallion" what does this mean for the definition of "horse" Are boxers actually horses?? Why don't boxers have hooves???
    – James K
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 22:19

8 Answers 8


can a company or a group of hikers be a democracy?

Clearly. A household can be a democracy if the members participate in decision making. A company is a democracy as the shareholders elect board members who exercise judgment on their behalf. That's a form of representative Democracy.

Public companies are even better: if you don't like how the decisions are made, you can sell your shares or not buy into it.

  • 3
    While this is a clear opinion, can you reference any kind of formal politics literature that supports this position?
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 13:42
  • @Sentinel you want formal citations for something that's a straightforward application of logic to your question? You could write this into a formal proof, still wouldn't have nor need a citation for accuracy. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:18
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    Well, the answer says a "household can be a democracy". Essentially I am asking if a household can be a democracy. So in essence, I get "yes." Ok fine, but so far that's just an opinion. Politics is semantics and I want to know what authoritative literature leads to the above conclusion.
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:33
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    Understanding the answer requires understanding thee essence of "democracy". If you don't, no amount of "authority" can help.
    – dannyf
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 15:07
  • @Sentinel if you are only looking for 'formal political literature' then you likely are only going to find the definition of the term used in the context of governments. It's a broad term that is going to mean different things to different people in different contexts.
    – user1530
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 20:44

The challenge here is that there is no one official definition of democracy. What does Google give us?

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

So by that your answer is that it must be a state. But what the Webster give us?

1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority

b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

2 : a political unit that has a democratic government

3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S.

4 : the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority

5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

So from Webster its not so clear.

I would say from common colloquial usage a democracy does not have to be a state governance form. Stack Exchange often times likes to call itself a democratic system since we vote on posts and moderators.

  • 3
    @Sentinel I don't really think that is a fair characterization. In no language is there a single source of truth for definitions; its all about group consensus. All the definitions relay the same core idea: democracy is about the masses voting on decisions as opposed to a monarchy or something. Whether it must be a state isn't really critical to the definition of a democracy. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 15:33
  • 1
    @Sentinel there is no problem with language and semantics. It's just that one needs to be aware of semantics and language when discussing topics.
    – user1530
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 20:45
  • I think that when it comes to truths, there should be expert authority, meritocracy. I don't believe in group consensus, I think often the majority can be plain wrong.
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:13
  • 1
    @Sentinel Words are arbitrary though. There is nothing intrinsic about the word 'democracy' that makes it mean rule by voting people. How do you have an expert authority/meritocracy/single source of truth of things that derive their value essentially arbitrarily? Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:41
  • 2
    @Sentinel No.... other things can be facts because we can measure and prove things. This is not arbitrary, its called science. Science can have experts (whose are only experts if they can show how they proved their results). Science can not tell you why 'democracy' means 'rule by voting people', that was just what some random Greeks decided thousands of years ago. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:54

Democracy is more of a definition of governance by the demos - the ordinary citizens of a state.

the implicit question of "what is a state."

Our modern idea of nation/state comes as a result of the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War.

can other types of social structure be a democracy too?

Yes. It is common for trade unions and feminist organizations to govern themselves via democratic means. Sometimes the phrase "governing by consensus" is used, particularly with religious groups such as Quakers (1, 2). The term "feminist process" refers to a method for discussing and reaching consensus, sometimes vote based.

  • Perhaps you have something to differentiate this from the other answers.
    – user9389
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 17:06
  • I spent several years working in an organization governed by feminist process.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 20:18

This is a language issue, nothing more. The term 'democracy' can be used in two parts of speech:

  • 'Democracy' used as a noun (a label) refers to a formal system of governance, which only applies to things that have formal systems of governance, like states, nations, tribes, etc.
  • 'Democracy' used as an adjective (a descriptor) refers to a process of egalitarian power-sharing, and applies wherever a group makes an effort towards inclusive decision-making.

The noun form is used when the adjective is applied to a sovereign entity.


Democracy Could Exist in Both Private and Public Organizations

Certainly, both states and non-state organizations could be described as being "democracies". This view is laid out by the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy, which describes democracy as:

[Democracy] refers very generally to a method of group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making

In a general sense, this could be applied to any organization. That isn't very interesting, because we aren't here to talk about the general English-language usage of the word "democracy". In political science and political theory we are interested in politics.

Politics is About Public Concerns

Really, the first question about politics is "what is it?". The root word is polis - the ancient Greek word for "city" (See this page, published by Syracuse University). The city was the political unit in the ancient world. With some extension, the polis is the citizens who can make political decisions - the political community. In the latter sense of the word, we can meaningfully talk about the politics of a state of any size.

The affairs of the political community are politics. The affairs of private persons, businesses, and voluntary organizations are not a part of politics (this is the public-private dichotomy). In this sense, within the scope of political science (or theory) all democracies are states.

Example: A corporation governs itself by voting, including elections of officers. In the generic usage of the word this could be called a democracy because they are resolving mutual concerns using equal voting (in this case, one vote per share). Within the world of political science and political theory it is not a democracy, because the voters and corporation are not addressing the larger political community's concerns.

If you are interested in terminology, this preoccupation with states is referred to as statism or sometimes the statist assumption.

Democracy is about States

This notion of democracy being all about states is common across pretty much all of political theory. Pick your favorite theorist. If they talk about democracy (and aren't anarchist), they are talking about states.

A few common ones are below, just to get this started:

  • Social contract theorists (Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, et al.) describe democracy as one potential form of a social contract. The social contract fundamentally outlines the public world and government, not private organizations. Locke makes this most clear, because he takes great pains to distinguish the governance of families from states.
  • In the socratic tradition (See Aristotle or Plato) democracy is one of the possible regimes. Aristotle came to this conclusion by studying constitution; Plato based on his experiences living under different governments in Athens. Both authors use democracy as a kind of state.
  • Bridging the gap are republican authors, such as Machiavelli. Both in The Prince and Discourses on Livy he distinguishes democracy from other regimes (such as tyranny). He draws case studies from various states of his day and the ancient world, which also focuses his work on states.

Additionally, there is a political science journal called the Journal of Democracy. If you browse their articles, you will see that they are dealing with issues related to states - not the governance of non-state organizations.

  • 1
    This answer basically says that politics cannot be applied to private concerns, so democracy in politics.stackexchange must always refer to states. Politics is a general term and office politics for example has nothing to do with states
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:09
  • If you can find expert sources or other evidence to back that up, it would make a great answer. But within political science and political theory "politics" is overtly constructed to be about states. Please let me know if there is anything i can do to strengthen the answer to you. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:45
  • 1
    Typically, though not always, politics addresses societies, not necessarily states: ulfanurwilda.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/…
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:57
  • A random word press blog is not very convincing. Additionally, nearly all of those defintions explicitly focus on states. The ones that don't use other words that indicate politics is about public concerns (ex.: the whole society), rather than private ones. Again, feel free to post your oen answer if you like. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 23:43

It does not just apply to states. There are plenty of forms of democracy for non-state organizations that are talked about in an academic context. There are non-governmental democracies for trade unions and cooperatives. You also have shareholder democracy in modern corporations with voting rights granted on the one share, one vote principle and earlier corporations following the one person, one vote rule back in the 19th century.


Depends on who is using it and in what context...

Democracy is a word comprised of the 2 Greek words for "the people" (demos) and "rule" (kratos). Now there's a variety of ways on how to implement "the rule of the people" so that democracy could refer to a wide range of political systems. Also the word "people" implies a lasting group with shared interests and resources that implement on of these decision making processes. So states are a natural fit, but it's also possible for smaller groups to claim that label. So ultimately, with almost any words, it comes down to the context in which they are used.

Which yes also ties into the other of "what is a state" and at what size or other requirement would a group be a state. And that's difficult to answer because there isn't one generally accepted definition. The thing is there are versions of self-declaration. Like I am a state because I say so. There are versions trying to reverse-engineer what states have in common idk land mass, population, government and there are definitions where it's a title being granted by other states, from 1 to all of them. So for example an insurrection could be considered a state if it occupies land, has people living their and a form of government, yet if no other state recognizes it as such that "statehood" is either non-existent or insignificant. Or what if one country accepts the statehood because the new government is politically advantages while another rejects it for similar reasons? So that really is a more complicated question than what one might expect.


One is if the word "democracy" must always refer to a state, in its most formal political definitions, or can other types of social structure be a democracy too? For example, can a company or a group of hikers be a democracy?


Could, through advanced communications, for example and illustration, some ethnic diaspora with their own internal system of election and delegation of power be called a "democracy?"

Yes. See, e.g., many Protestant church denominations. But, this doesn't necessarily make these democratic and ethnically organized entities into "states" in the sense of "countries."

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