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Deliberation in context

Most definitions and concepts of deliberation remain at the general level without considering the structural and situational factors that enhance or reduce the possibility of deliberation. However, when studying attempts to deliberate, it is important to reflect about the potential impact of the conditions under which such endeavours take place.9

First, in terms of the setting and the context, various aspects should be taken into consideration. Deliberation may be direct or indirect (West and Gastil 2004: 2). The participants can either meet in small encounters and interact face to face, or they are separated in time and place so that their debate requires some kind of media that connect the participants. This occurs, for example, when speaker B responds in newspaper Y to what speaker A said the other day in the television channel X. Speaker A may be verified or falsified before B replies. It is also likely that B responds in a more controlled way than he would in a direct encounter where an immediate response is expected. In addition, discussion in a situation of time pressure may look differently than in a relaxed atmosphere in the absence of a long agenda. It is very likely that under time pressure latent or manifest power structures and tensions come into play. Finally, the presence or absence of an audience, the audience’s knowledge about the background of and facts pertaining to the debate, and its assumed stances and stakes in the conflict may have an impact in what the actors say, how they frame it, and whether or not they take other views seriously.

Second, the kind of issue may also influence the course and outcome of deliberation. Some issues, for example the legitimacy of the death penalty, are perceived in terms of either/or. In these kinds of questions the speakers typically refer to fundamental and sometimes incompatible values so that deliberation goes on and on. Under these conditions, compromise, let alone consensus, is unlikely. Other issues can be framed in terms of more or less. This applies, for example, to wage negotiations or the question of appropriate speed limit on highways. In these discussions, the moral and emotional load tends to be lower and an agreement seems easier to reach. Still, both kinds of issues refer to a normative debate on the question of what is appropriate and what should be done, as opposed to the empirical question on whether or not a statement about ‘reality’ is true or false. While in real life situations both kinds of discourse tend to be intertwined, it still makes sense to keep them analytically separate.10 Consider again the debate on the death penalty. Deliberation on whether this penalty has a deterring effect on potential perpetrators is one thing; whether or not the death penalty is compatible with human values is another thing. While the first question can be answered, in principle, by empirical research and, more concretely, by means of statistical analysis, such data are of little help to answer the second question, at least as long as legitimacy is not reduced to supportive public opinion.

Third, the kind and composition of participants influences the possibility and process of deliberation (see also Geissel in this volume). In part, this is related to the kind of issue. Some issues affect masses of people if not the world population, while others are directly relevant to small groups only. In the former case, attempts to deliberate are mainly undertaken by representatives or advocates of large groups. In the latter case there is a higher chance of the affected people directly participating so that authenticity, personal experience and (probably) emotions play a greater role. Further, participants can be more or less experienced with deliberation, putting different emphasis on symmetric and rational communication so that deliberation is more or less likely. Finally, it matters whether the deliberating actors are more or less homogeneous in terms of their social composition and ideological background. It may be assumed that homogeneous groups can deliberate more easily than heterogeneous groups.

To sum up, though it is necessary to develop a general definition and concept of deliberation, this should be differentiated when applied to different situations. By the same token, it is advisable to avoid sweeping generalizations on the basis of narrow empirical evidence when it comes to deliberation. Much of the literature on deliberation and deliberative democracy carries a high normative load. Sometimes, it is merely wishful thinking, particularly with regard to the strong version of deliberative democracy in contemporary nation-states. Sceptics even doubt that weak versions of a deliberative democracy have ever been put into practice. A different matter, however, may be the possibility of deliberation in more specific settings such as associations, religious congregations, social movements and informal citizen groups. Are there at least some pockets of civil society where deliberation actually takes place? Let us first have an overview of communication practices in a number of progressive movements before moving to an empirically grounded study of controversies in Global Justice Movements’ groups.

 
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