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Book Club Week 4: Difference Democracy

In week 4 of the NCDD Book Club on Democratizing Deliberation, we’re focusing on John Dryzek’s chapter “Difference Democracy: The Consciousness-Raising Group Against the Gentlemen’s Club.” Join in the conversation by adding a comment!

About your host, Kim Crowley: As a training consultant specializing in instructional design and accelerated learning, I’m eager to explore how deliberative democracy might become more accessible to a variety of learners.

My lens in viewing the chapter:

As a volunteer community facilitator, (currently with the Hartford Public Library’s immigrant civic engagement dialogue-to-action project, “Creating a More Vibrant Hartford through Adult Learning”), I think about how to bring more people to the table in ways that won’t leave them feeling unheard (possibly in spite of speaking out) or overwhelmed by too many choices. Dryzek’s central frame of competition among discourses (defined as shared assumptions and capabilities used to organize a coherent shared storyline) captured, for me, an overall cultural phenomenon: We tend to share a perceptual filter of competition that intimidates some and emboldens others. Regardless of designs for mutual understanding, many individuals do seem to initially come to public issues with a sense that discussion is about separate people articulating ideas so that the best ideas can win.

I wonder whether we could add another frame that would shift us away a little from a discourse Darwinism in which ideas compete to get fed. I’d like to nurture a framing metaphor in which ideas (and identities) do not threaten to kill each other off as much as they come together to mate: to combine, build on each other, and produce something new.

The chapter provides an overview of frames that have been explored:

Models of Difference Democracy (pp. 58-62)

Several models frame competition around the needs of identity groups. These models include: continuous identity exploration (which is seen as ideal, but unrealistic); struggle against oppression from the dominant order; and group representation through quotas or through the guarantee that disadvantaged groups are represented, consulted, and have veto power.

From your host:

As a child in a school that participated in busing, I experienced some of the unintended negative consequences that can come from organizing around identity groups. (The classic Robbers Cave experiments later drove home for me the generalizability of my particular experience.) I also understand that identity group membership is fundamentally important to most people. I wonder whether real psychologically-based identity needs might somehow be married into Dryzek’s contest of discourses (which we’ll get to in a bit).

Does Deliberation Repress Differences? (pp. 62-67)

When this chapter was written, research was needed to determine whether the following criticisms of difference democracy are supported by fact:

  • Democracy itself, as a dominant discourse, controls people’s basic assumptions and tames them through mechanisms for teaching self-control.
  • Deliberative democracy favors universally understandable stories of people of power. At a disadvantage are people (particularly women and minorities) outside of a dominant speech culture characterized by general, formal, dispassionate confrontation.
  • Deliberative democracy pushes individuals toward too much unity.

Deliberating Across Difference (pp. 67-73)

Adding forms of communication may lighten suppression of differences, but any form needs to pass two tests.

  1. Test of non-coercion: Exclude any form of communication that involves coercion or the threat of coercion.
  2. Test of generalizability: Exclude any form of communication that cannot connect the particular to the general.

Conditions under which forms can fail these tests:

Storytelling and testimony are coercive when group norms constrain the range of acceptable stories. When stories don’t generalize beyond the oppressed group, they can fuel cycles of revenge. Greetings are coercive when they indicate outsider status or intimidate. Rhetoric is coercive when used manipulatively. Examples: Framing issues in terms of threats to the core identity of the group or silencing criticism by emphasizing expert credentials. Argument (the only form that must be present in deliberation) lacks coercion only when all parties have equal ability to challenge validity claims. Coercion results from suppression of challenges to the particular. Argument can also expose the failures of any communication form including itself.

Dryzek concludes: Practitioners of deliberative democracy can address issues of difference by using a variety of communication forms that meet the two criteria. Theorists who hold that consensus is the goal of democratic deliberation or that deliberation is about strategic competition rather than mutual understanding are wrong. People can have different public reasons for supporting a mutual agreement.

Difference as the Contest of Discourses (pp. 73-79)

Dryzek asserts that the most justifiable frame for thinking about about society-wide democratic dialogue and deliberation is as public contests among discourses (shared assumptions and capabilities) rather than as contests among people’s identities.

The network form of organization can promote dispersed control over the terms of discourse. The U.S. environmental justice network, for example, grew bottom up with no central leadership. Groups within the network have successfully reframed risk and social justice, and that has extended deliberative democratic control. The network form, while bringing out a greater number of positions, has created coherence around a common storyline. The movement has also successfully affected public policy. Discourse outside of officially sanctioned state forms is especially important because it is less constrained and allows alternative discourses to begin to gain footing.

From your host:

Let’s start building! I’ve created separate discussion areas for each of the four topics below. Feel free to comment and question wherever you’d like:

  1. Validity of criticisms?
  2. Privileged voices?
  3. Alternatives to competition?
  4. Anything else.
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  1. Kim Crowley says:



Dryzek responded to criticisms of deliberative democracy with the following questions that address the factual validity of the criticisms. What are your thoughts on any or all of these?

    Are particular kinds of people in reality better at arguing in rational terms?

    Is it really the case that prejudice and privilege are never uncovered and opposed by good argument?

    Is learning to participate in deliberation really the same as indoctrination in hierarchy?

    Is an individual’s capacity to deliberate really directly proportional to social standing?

    Is Young’s “speech culture of women and minorities” really disadvantaged in deliberation?

    • Derek W. Barker says:

      Apologies to Kim and book club colleagues once again for getting into the discussion late.

      I wanted to pick up the line of questions that Kim suggests here and ask how folks with practical experience in the D&D community might respond. Dryzek is responding to Iris Young’s work, which levelled one of the first important critiques of deliberation for being overly rational and repressing difference. In defending emotion and narrative from a deliberative perspective, this article was important for me in clarifying that deliberative democracy is more about non-coercion than rationality. (Reason is a form of non-coercive discourse, but not the only one). This may be old hat for practitioners (as suggested by one of the comments on one of the early threads): it would probably never have occurred to anyone in the D&D community that people shouldn’t be allowed to express emotion or share stories. So it seems to me that this is an area where philosophers can learn from practitioners.

      Still, even if we accept emotion and storytelling, Young raised some incredibly important concerns about the power dynamics of deliberation. Do the “rules” of deliberation privilege moderate outcomes? For those of you who moderate forums, how do you accomodate “radical” points of view? I am curious how people with practical experience might respond to her concerns.

    • Lori Britt says:

      One thing that stood out to me about criticisms of deliberation is Young’s claim that deliberative frameworks operate in one particular idiom. Idioms tends to mask particular assumptions and worldviews. One point to this – I think the NIF model offers a response to that critique in its pre-deliberative work at framing choices that emerge from very different assumptions that are reflected in the idiomatic nature of the discourse.

      This notion of deliberative framing also ties to Anne Phillips critique about group interests being present and the need for deliberators to be swayed only by what they hear in the forum (p. 62). Forums need this pre-work so that many perspectives can be brought to the discussion. However, that being said, we as facilitators also need to guard against the potential constraining effects of this type of choice-work model; just offering multiple frames does not guarantee freedom from structural constraints.

      These potential discursive and structural limitations to more truly accessible and just deliberation can be guarded against by having facilitators meta-communicate and prompt participants to identify what other perspectives might exist and what other ways the issue is talked about.

  2. Kim Crowley says:


    Lynn Sanders criticizes deliberative democracy (p. 64) on the grounds that people who are good at making arguments are more likely to be heard. In your experience, what qualities, if any, tend to be more successful at commanding air time? Logical strength of the argument? Social signals of confidence? Physical characteristics of the speaker such as size and volume? Structure of information? Status of the speaker? Other?

    • david stein says:

      In my experience participants are influenced by perceived social status of other participants in the room, economic standing, educational level, feelings of self confidence in speaking out in public, experience in speaking in groups, feelings of appearing less intelligent than other members of the group. As with any form of discourse, it is important to try to reduce the differences by acknowledging the worth and prior experience of each individual. How to do this in a large group that will only meet once perhaps is a difficult issue. Privilege does influence the conduct and the course of the discourse and contributes in an unhealthy way to preserving difference.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks, David.

        Can you say more about “acknowledging the worth and prior experience of each individual”? In your experience, have you found ways to get group members to take on more of that function?

        Possible example: What happens when group members appear to listen to everyone but only acknowledge input from those of higher status?

      • From p. 65: “neutral premises… in fact only reproduce the standards of a particular political order”

        That builds the challenge to practitioners. Neutral premises seem like a good thing. Similarly (from the Aristotle chapter and the upcoming Mansbridge), it would seem challenging for a practitioner to say to a client group: “let’s *not” be reasonable…. let the emotions flow”.

        I’m interested, along with Kim, in what people here have done to (1) detect when seemingly “neutral” rules etc. in fact shut people out and bias the deliberation, and (2) do something about it in a professional way.

        David’s notion of “acknowledging the worth and prior experience of each individual” seems like a useful corrective. How does he do it in practice?

        What else do people do, concretely, re #1 and #2 above.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Excellent questions, Chris. You really got me thinking.

        Before we elicit emotion within deliberation, we probably need a clear model of relationships between emotion and reason. I tend to frame emotion and reason in partnership rather than in opposition to each other; the best reasoning integrates rather than excludes relevant emotional variables. When people make reasoning errors, it is often because they don’t value emotion and are therefore dismissively unaware of the distorting effects of their own emotions or simply don’t understand emotion as a very real causal variable in human affairs. (The history of the discovery of neurogenesis provides an interesting case for studying this phenomenon.)

        Given the backlash I’ve experienced against the idea that emotion is relevant in the workplace, I believe that eliciting emotion within deliberation might necessitate a strong, safe, protective framework for many groups. 

Digging into my own experience for a relevant container for emotion, I found this:

        A facilitator once hired me to create a person-to-person simulation of a human system for a professional retreat. The activity required participants to learn new roles and perform them. Participants engaged in perspective-taking practices and later talked about frustrations, one layer removed. Long after the ensuing dialogue was officially over, participants stayed up late into the night and kept going. My sense is that the simulation experience allowed both a deeper experience with emotion AND a safe distance in which to frame emotion for discussion. Of course, this type of simulation would not be practical in many situations, but I wonder: Have others here used any form of experiential activity as a structure/container in the context of deliberation?

        Caveat: Many “role play” training experiences fail because facilitators ask people to play act (awkward!) rather than give them a task to perform.

      • Thanks, Kim – the concreteness I crave.

        Please say more about “a person-to-person simulation of a human system for a professional retreat”. Is this a role play or something more heavily scripted?

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Chris, my description of the simulation is a bit long, so I want to start with a question for you before it gets lost in text:

        Do you think of emotion as an element of design in online engagement systems?

        I know that emotion plays out differently online. Social inhibition can be thrown aside making people more emotive. Introverts often become more expressive, extraverts often become less comfortable than in the face-to-face classroom (though this may be changing or vary by generation). Does that affect what you do?


        The Simulation

        Think of the simulation as a game.

        Focus issue: Adult educators were working in a non-system in which they were largely isolated, unable to share resources, not connected to colleagues and best practices, unaware of other services available to students, and not empowered to address gaps and duplications. The simulation, part of a leadership development program, built on earlier team-building and training on individual differences in motivational values.

        Step #1: Some participants paired up with a colleague who worked in an unfamiliar program. The pairs engaged in a structured interview process to learn about the basic functions in each other’s jobs. In the simulation, each took his or her partner’s usual function.

        Step #2: Other participants went through a structured student-profile-building activity. They built on motivational values training as well as known student concerns (ex. barriers, educational goals).

        Step #3 Simulation. Participants carried baskets and colored tokens. “Students” went into the “system” with a goal. Language and transportation barriers were simulated through rules limiting what providers could do and how “students” could be directed to each resource. At each interaction, “students” and “providers” got to take chips from each other depending on whether they met their goals.

        Step #4: Facilitated discussion. One of the things that still stood out in conversations a few weeks later was how awful it felt to be a student who went to a provider that took a token but didn’t give one. It seemed like the simulation brought out and made good use of emotion while also containing it within a relatively safe structure.

        Presentation note: No one was asked to act a part as so often happens in “role plays” that distract from learning. Participants simply had to gather and build knowledge together and follow rules of interaction in attempts to meet individual goals.

      • Useful. So I’d contrast a simulation with a role play like so. A role play requires improvised dialogue and seeks real (or sometimes fake) emotion. People are supposed to “act”.

        A simulation is more like a game (Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly). Participants follow rules. Emotions may well come up, but no “acting” is required, just following instructions or protocols.

        If I have this right, I like simulations. I’ve found that role plays often feel coercive and constraining.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I meant to convey that better outcomes are likely to prevail when “role plays” are conceived as simulations. Asking someone to perform tasks under given rules has less potential for violating Dryzek’s tests of 1) coercion (as Chris points out) and 2) disconnection between the particular and the general than does asking someone to *be* someone else for the sake of perspective taking. In other words, focus on function, not identity.

        Specific definitions are not as important to me since definitions are often divorced from the reality of practice, however for clarity, based on my understanding of how the terms are commonly used:

        role play — activity that involves stepping into a role for the purpose of learning, experiencing, and/or demonstrating. Role play exercises usually focus on an interaction between two types of people (ex. provider and client) rather than experience of a simulated rule-based system. My observations of reactions to role play exercises tell me that framing instructions to participants in terms of task and “game” rules rather than identity “roles” seems more productive.

        simulation exercise — activity that provides experience in performing a task within a system. Can involve some form of enactment of roles (preferably as actions rather than as identities) or can focus entirely on the interaction between the individual and mechanics (ex. flight simulators).

        My recommendation: Facilitators should probably avoid the phrase “role play” and instead present experiences in terms of performing tasks under a given set of rules. Just ask people (as themselves) to accomplish a task under conditions they haven’t experienced.

        ***Toward generalization***: In what situations, if any, might D & D practitioners more productively frame discussion questions (and/or experiences) around task, function, and game rules rather than around identity? (The goal is not to avoid identity issues but to provide easier access to them.)

      • Kim asked, earlier: “Do you think of emotion as an element of design in online engagement systems?
        I know that emotion plays out differently online. Social inhibition can be thrown aside making people more emotive. Introverts often become more expressive, extraverts often become less comfortable than in the face-to-face classroom (though this may be changing or vary by generation). Does that affect what you do?”

        Certainly, emotions are a factor in online interaction. When I write an email message while I’m angry, I almost always give myself time to sleep on it and then revise the draft before sending it, if I send it at all. I try to shift from email to phone or face to face if I sense that I’m not connecting with my correspondent. So emotion is clearly a signal for me as I use online tools.

        I’m guessing that you had something more substantial in my when you wrote of emotion as an “element of design” – say more.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks for asking, Chris.

        I asked about “emotion as an element of design in online engagement systems” after I’d clicked on your name and linked to Citizen Tools. It made me wonder how much emotion is considered as a variable in that sort of development. I didn’t know enough about you specifically to ask a more specific question, so consider it a very open-ended invitation to connect your earlier question about emotion to your specific work in any way that makes sense to you.

    • Lori Britt says:

      This is a great chapter by John that I was able to really sink my teeth in to. The issues of access and voice and the critiques we need to be always ready to grapple with. I appreciate Kim’s thoughtful summary and points for discussion as well. The comments this week also have some very nice specific ideas that get facilitators thinking.

      I am both an academic who studies deliberation and a facilitator as well and so I love looking at these questions from both perspectives. In response to Kim’s question about which voices are privileged, I found one thing missing in the chapter. Yes, being able to communicate one’s reasons and make an argument are important but I find that in practice those who come with a particular orientation to others – a commitment to truly explore and attempt to understand (even if not agreeing with) another’s perspective tend to be those whose voices are privileged in the forums I have facilitated. I often find that these people tend to have nuanced interpersonal skills which are skills that transcend many of the differences the chapter talks about.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks, Lori.

        Are any of the skills that you’ve noticed skills that you can name or that could be specifically observed on video? I’m thinking that specifically identifying the skills that help some people be heard could is a step toward strengthening developmental approaches that empower groups and individuals with more effective skills.

      • Lori Britt says:

        Kim I think the skills I “see” are speaking from general curiosity, being able to connect ideas, being able to restate and summarize things in a way that gets to their essence, asking questions of others that help them articulate their ideas, an ability to show how things compare and contrast, excellent ability to invoke metaphors to aid in understanding, etc. I know many of these things we usually think of as being the facilitators’ tole, but when participants have and employ these communicative skills they seem to set an incredible tone for the forum.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        I’m wondering whether there are any gatekeeper factors that affect when those skills will lead to privilege. I’m thinking about the research on group status and gender that indicates that women tend to get interrupted more and are not allowed to interrupt as much in mixed group. Groups tend to defer to male voices. I am wondering if there are conditions under which this skill set would trump those dynamics. Also, wondering if there is any interactive magnifying effect among variables.

  3. Kim Crowley says:


    Dryzek emphasizes competition among discourses as the most viable frame for democratic deliberation. Are there other viable frames? Might shared political imperatives — listed in the Foreward by David Mathews as “the need to be free, to be secure, to be treated fairly” — serve as foundations for collaborative building among ostensibly competing discourses?

    • Phil Neisser says:

      Hello everyone, and thank you Kim for the excellent questions you have posed.

      The way I see it, Dryzek does not speak in praise of competition. Instead he asks us to conceptualize the “public sphere” as necessarily consisting of such competition, the reasons being that (1) some discourses do in fact fundamentally conflict with others in their basic assumptions, and (2) that conceptualization can help us guard against the groupthink, pressure to conform, and exclusion of some from the conversation that can creep in even when (or because) we facilitators and discussion designers value “collaboration” and “cooperation.” On the first count, consider fascism. That discourse does not share many of the political imperatives that are shared across many other discourses. The “need to be free, to be secure, to be treated fairly,” for example, count for naught compared to each person giving all to the “laws of history” and to the state whose history (supposedly) embodies those laws. On the second score, consider how some points of view are in some settings silenced by the admonition that participants should be more “cooperative.”

      Granted, if, in a discussion setting facilitators try to apply Dryzek’s rule about connecting the particular to the general, the same problem could occur: the rule could end up silencing people who have something to say worth hearing. After all, who will decide what’s “general”? Thus in practice Dryzek might leave is us with just one useful test, instead of two.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks, Phil.

        Note that my story below was not meant as a response to you since the page hadn’t refreshed until after I posted.

    • Kim Crowley says:

      Our discussions here could probably use more storytelling and testimony. I’ll share a personal story that’s helped me think about models to balance our cultural default view of competition over collaboration among discourses:

      Once while volunteering for a presidential campaign, I had a difficult but wonderful discussion on a town square with a very hostile, cranky, loud supporter of the candidate I was working against. Over the course of two hours, I ultimately got her to shift gears and talk about some of her personal frustrations.


The woman had suffered considerably as a single mom, and she was angry that she was no longer allowed to go into the public schools as a volunteer to teach abstinence. She was also angry that since she had sacrificed so much, other single parents should also be able to pull their own weight and stand on their own two feet without requiring her to support them through her taxes. That brought us exactly to the reasons I was supporting my chosen candidate — to support efforts that help people be able to stand on their own two feet. By the end of the conversation, she told me that the schools needed more people like me. That was shocking given where we had started two hours earlier. I had to check the sign I was carrying just to make sure I hadn’t picked up one of her signs by mistake.

      As it turned out, I had somewhat cluelessly moved our improvised discussion toward the core values we all share:  freedom (which I call self-ownership), security, and fairness. We all have different ideas about the paths that get us there, but if we focus on our shared goal, we have greater hope of hearing each other and moving forward. I felt like, after two hours of on and off discussion while freezing our socks off, we had gotten the discussion to a place where, had we had the opportunity to meet again, we could focus on building on the best of each other’s ideas for getting to the fairness and security we both were willing to give our weekends for. The barage of lies that the people on “her side” had been aiming at the character of our volunteers were no longer relevant.

      The two dozen or so people passionately protecting their version of democracy from the “enemy” on that cold November day probably all came to the square working under a frame of competition among discourses. Powerful interest groups certainly have a strong interest in keeping people within that model. I think there’s room to flesh out a different model.

      • Wonderful story. Sounds to me like a great example of “the spaces of everyday talk” — see more on this tomorrow.

        What could one learn from this for facilitating a larger group – where there probably isn’t time for prolonged one on one interaction with each cranky participant?

        And kudos for the story-telling.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks, Chris.

        I’ll probably carry the theme that we’ve just started to scratch at here into the “everyday talk” discussion: If humans are like fish swimming in the water of cultural assumptions that we don’t easily see, how do we manage the cultural assumption of competition as it relates to deliberative democracy as a whole and in all of its parts? How do we manage tacitly accepted norms that frame the “appropriate” place where specific kinds of people are supposed to wind up in the competition?

        I’ve learned from experience that many people live within a competitive frame for all types of discourse and often see rationality itself as coercive if it in any way might lead toward learning, change, or acceptance of difference. Yet, their rejection of certain kinds of rationality becomes coercive in itself. That’s important to address if we want to be more inclusive.

        What are the implications of my personal story for larger groups? I could probably think of dozens, but the one overarching implication is the need to have a well-developed set of tools (including an organizing model) for helping participants sometimes let go of perceptual habits that distort interaction in the direction of competition. The pervasive bias toward competition displaces the foundational search for a shared values and goals around which to build.

  4. Kim Crowley says:


  5. John Dryzek says:

    I have a comment on the ‘lens’ with which Kim begins. The first is that this chapter (and the book of which it was originally a part) develops a macro-systems version of deliberative democracy – especially so when it comes to the final section of the chapter on the contest of discourses. This can be contrasted with a micro-forum version. So I see the home of such contestation (which in susbequent years I would be more likely to call engagement) operating in the public sphere at large – possibly even in the global public sphere. And rather than just celebrating contestation, I point to the importance of the degree to which it is engaged by free, equal, and reflective actors

    When writing this, I was much less concerned with what happens in particular deliberative forums. That said, I think contestatory inquiry (as Andre Bachtiger has recently called it) has an important role to play in such forums. Along with my colleagues Simon Niemeyer and Nicole Curato, I’ve been doing some work recently on the balance of appreciative inquiry and contestatory inquiry in citizen forums. Intial results suggest that domination of either appreciative or contestatory inquiry can produce problematic results: it is important to combine moments of both.

    • Kim Crowley says:

      Thank you, John. 

There’s a lot to build on here!

      First, I’m intrigued by the relationships among macro-systems, micro-forums, and the global public sphere. Do you believe that micro-forums are culturally separate from macro-systems? If there is a cultural relationship, does public discourse create an interactive template for micro-forums or is the relationship reversed or circular? Does the global public sphere operate under different social rules than either of these?

      Second, I want to make sure that everyone has a shared understanding of the terms “contestatory inquiry” and “appreciative inquiry.” I’ll set out my interpretations, and then perhaps you can tweak as needed:

      Contestatory inquiry — Questioning intended to uncover false assumptions. May include playing devil’s advocate, examining validity or existence of evidence, exploration of unintended consequences, and questions about process.

      Appreciative inquiry — I’m assuming this does not refer to the entire process model of Appreciative Inquiry but rather to questioning intended to uncover and build on strengths. May include questions about best practices, success stories, vision, skills, evidence, and values.

      Am I in the right general neighborhood here?

      • Derek W. Barker says:

        Kim’s questions here about the relationship between the micro and macro are at the core of our concerns that led us to this book. In recent years, we at Kettering have been very self-critical about focusing too much on deliberation at the micro level. It is possible that we have concentrated so much on techniques to create the “perfect” deliberative forum that we have made “deliberation” into something inaccessible or impractical on a larger scale? If deliberation at the macro-level is really what we are trying to achieve, is it possible that the methods we are using are actually inconsistent? I hope we can return to these questions when the book club discusses the pieces by Iris Young and Jane Mansbridge.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Thanks for the clarification, Derek. The missing piece for me in most discussions is culture (defined as the set of standard problem resolutions that a group tacitly agrees to in order to make processes less time-consuming). What happens at the micro level is partly generated through the culture created at the macro level and vice versa. Neither the micro or the macro can stand alone in this regard as far as I can tell. Roles, stories, artifacts, language, symbols, etc. drive all the silent rules that form professional deliberative culture. Translation from one set of cultural assumptions to another (at both levels) may be important keys to accessibility and practicality.

        If I had one cultural question to explore further, it might be: In an American culture that is largely driven by metaphors of sport and battle, how much do we want to defer to and align ourselves with those metaphors, and how much to we want to pair them with other balancing metaphors?

  6. Tim Cole says:

    I want to preface my comments about the very intriguing discussion here with a brief note about me and what I bring to the table – which I believe will be in the spirit of what’s being talked about here. I am an outsider to the field of deliberation, both as theory and as practice; so I feel that I am eavesdropping on a conversation that interests me intellectually and as a citizen, but that requires knowledge of a discourse I am not fully fluent in. For going on 30 years I have been socially and politically engaged professionally and as an activist and a volunteer trying to be a “change agent” in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the nation’s poorest and most troubled cities. As a non-theoretician and non-practitioner, I have been an occasional participant in deliberative forums and processes. I have facilitated conversations and planning processes within community groups and had a hand in supporting the creation of several cross-sector collaborative initiatives involving very diverse stakeholder groups and large institutions and corporations.
    As I have been watching the discussion unfold over the last 4 weeks, I have been struggling with the question where democratic deliberation fits in the somewhat different spaces where politics are practiced and public policy is developed and enacted. The fact that insiders are having difficulty even defining what “democratic deliberation” means strikes me as significant, insofar as it suggests grounding in the practical experience of “democratic” processes as we live them in this time and place is necessary and may be helpful. This chapter’s discussion I found particularly helpful in bringing to the surface aspects of what I have experienced engaging with different mixes of people in different settings – from groups that are highly diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, educational background, income, familiarity with public processes, etc.; to groups that are comparatively homogeneous along some, if not all of those vectors.
    John Dryzek’s basic point about contestatory processes resonates with me and jives with my experience. Much depends on what the objectives of the process are and what peoples’ motivations are for participating. This seems to be true whether it is a community conversation about educational outcomes or increasing civic engagement in immigrant communities on the one hand, or a project team meeting in a work setting or deliberations by a state board charged with overseeing energy policy on the other. Participants’ willingness to engage and stay engaged seems to depend on whether they see openness and receptivity to them and their concerns among the others involved. Such indicators of basic human respect are qualities that matter more than what different participants, as individuals and groups, bring to the conversation in terms of identities or specific starting agendas. It does not surprise me that John Dryzek and colleagues are finding a blend of contestatory and appreciative inquiry processes helpful and productive. I suspect too that his supposition that such approaches to “engagement” are more readily transferable to the public sphere at large – even at the global scale where decisively important processes now play out thanks to the power and reach of electronic media.
    In a related vein, I find Lori Britt’s comment above regarding a certain set of aptitudes really apt, when she talks about “those who come with a particular orientation to others – a commitment to truly explore and attempt to understand (even if not agreeing with) another’s perspective [and] tend to be those whose voices are privileged in the forums I have facilitated. I often find that these people tend to have nuanced interpersonal skills which are skills that transcend many of the differences the chapter talks about.” In the end then, maybe for deliberation to be productive and meaningful, along with good outreach to get the “right” participants involved, and designing processes to accommodate the special needs and requirements of those participating; the make or break consideration is whether a climate can be established from the get-go that invites full engagement by all.
    People who have been actively discouraged by previous life experience or cultural or socio-economic circumstances from speaking up or from allowing themselves to express their hopes and concerns, may require support to do so. People who have been actively encouraged by previous life experience and cultural and socio-economic circumstances to put more value on talking than listening, may require support to discover what they are missing. Everyone comes with their emotions, fears, concerns, frustrations, hopes and dreams – that seems to me given, unavoidably, and totally okay. Provide a framework of trust, openness and respect, and highly diverse groups of people will arrive at very “rational” notions of plans or solutions they can sign off on. Absent those, highly homogeneous groups may not get there. (Witness the members of the US Congress these days, if you’ll pardon my saying so.)

  7. Kim Crowley says:

    Thanks, Tim.

    “the make or break consideration is whether a climate can be established from the get-go that invites full engagement by all.”

    Are there any specific greeting behaviors or other behaviors you’ve observed that typically contribute to creating that climate? On the flip side of that, have you noticed any barriers? I’m curious whether the successes/failures you’ve observed seem to map onto Dryzek’s two tests of non-coercion and connection of the particular to the general. Or does something else seem to have an effect?

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