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A conceptual framework for analysing controversies

As already stated, deliberation may occur in the context of controversies. A controversy starts when people disagree about a statement, a judgement or a decision. The ways in which controversies are handled can vary considerably. Some scientists rely on a dual conception of coercion vs persuasion (Mansbridge 1996). Others distinguish between coercion, bargaining and persuasion or, as Rummel (1976, Chapter 20) does, between coercive, bargaining, intellectual, authoritative and manipulative forms of power. Physical coercion and the use of words or, more particularly, the use of convincing arguments, can be a source of power. 13 However, when it comes to categorizing forms of power other than physical force, it might be useful not just to come up with a list of forms but to develop a more systematic categorization of controversies that is based on two analytical dimensions.

By the dimension of symmetry of a controversy, we refer to the way the speakers relate to each other. Symmetric (or reciprocal) relations exist when the speakers respect/recognize each other as being equal and act accordingly. In an asymmetric constellation one side is considered/treated as inferior or less important than the other side. The dimension of power-type refers to the source of influence on each other. In this regard, one can distinguish between ‘soft’ power (power based on words, arguments and/or symbols) and ‘hard’ power (non-communicative power14 ultimately based on material, physical or similar kinds of sanctions, e.g. expressing a veto, threat of exit, application of the majority rule). From these two dimensions, we wish to keep separate the quantitative distribution of participation.15

By combining the dimension of symmetry/asymmetry of the speakers with the kind of power they exercise, one can create a four-fold table representing different types of interaction in a controversy. Each type represents a distinct way of handling conflicts and its logically corresponding outcome (Table 6.1).

Pressure is a process in which one actor (or conflict party) exerts ‘hard’ power on another actor or conflict party in a fundamentally asymmetric relation. Because hard power ultimately rests on non-verbal sanctions, the actor using it can impose his/her will on others. Thus dominance is both the background situation and the likely outcome in a situation of sustained pressure. The typical speech act of this type of discourse is a directive. In a radicalized version, pressure is exerted by an order to which the inferior actor obeys to avoid hard sanctions.

Bargaining is a process in which all conflict partners are interested in a common solution while, at the same time, having the potential power to negatively affect the other side. Bargaining usually results in a compromise that, by definition, is accepted by all partners although it does not fully correspond to their genuine interests and preferences. A typical act of bargaining is to make offers and counter offers. In its purest version, there is a balance of power between the actors so that the compromise is fixed halfway between their original positions.

Agitatorypersuasion (in German: uberreden) is the process in which one actor, without really putting the superiority of his or her views or arguments into question, influences the others by means of assertion and/or agitation. If successful, the others accept the view of the persuader by acclamation without having thoroughly

Table 6.1 Types of interaction in a controversy

Type of power

Relationship of speakers









agitatory persuasion




scrutinized his or her position. A typical act of agitatory persuasion is the use of rhetorical tricks and the manipulation of emotions.

Deliberation is a process in which actors consider each other as equals and rely on reasonable arguments to identify legitimate claims and make decisions. Ideally, deliberation results in a consensus, i.e. a decision or proposition of which every participant is fully convinced. In its radical version, deliberation neutralizes all other factors that might restrict the power of arguments. In other words, in deliberation, views or opinions diverge but a solution (finding common ground, the truth, developing a proposal, etc.) is sought by non-coercive and non-manipulative means.

These are four ideal types. In the real world, they tend to exist in more diluted forms.16 Also, they may occur in combination or sequentially in a given setting. For example, bargaining may be increasingly flanked or supplanted by pressure. Moreover, it is important to stress that the outcome attributed to each type is not inevitable. As long as we refer to controversies in democratic settings or controversies in which, for instance, hard power is limited, the actors have an exit option that, under certain conditions, will result in a situation of stalemate, nondecision and the like.

Besides these key factors, a number of additional features are supposedly relevant for group communication in general and controversies in particular. For example, a group may have a strong preference for certain modes of decision making, such as applying majority rule or aiming at a consensus. Also, controversies can focus on different thematic levels (substantive discourse or meta-discourse), or thematic concerns (organizational matters, value conflicts, personal relations, etc.). Finally, as argued above, group communication can vary with regard to the number of participants, a more or less competitive spirit, a more or less relaxed atmosphere, and more or less time pressure. As hypothesized above, these factors are likely to have an impact on whether or not deliberation does occur.

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