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Selected quantitative findings

The data presented in the following are based on the observation of 97 group sessions with 510 agenda items.20 Among the latter, informational inputs or proposals on activities are most frequent (36.1 percent). Controversies are often part of a discussion, which is the second largest category (35.9. percent).

When looking at the modes of decision making and ignoring those cases in which no decision was taken, we find that nodding/tacit agreement is by far the most frequent form (43.5 percent of all decisions; all decisions: N = 111). Unanimity comes next (17.7 percent), while majority votes overruling a minority as well as straw polls are very rare (2.8 percent). The first two categories roughly correspond to the idea of a consensus and, taken together, account for about 60 percent of all decisions.

Interestingly, controversies are far from being rare. We registered a total of 143 controversies, which corresponds to roughly 1.5 per group session. Hence, controversies are considered a ‘normal’ part of the group life. Although there were some instances of incivility and direct clashes, most of the time the groups communicated in a relaxed manner. This is particularly true for smaller and homogeneous groups. A clear exception from this rule was Attac France whose national steering committee engaged in bitter fights (including later substantiated accusations of ‘electoral fraud’). It was also in this group that the question was repeatedly raised whether only elected members are entitled to speak in the group (as opposed to those who were no longer delegates).

Controversies vary considerably in their duration. They may last from a few minutes to significantly more than one hour. The average number of group members present at a controversy is close to 14 (median = 10). The number of people actively involved by providing one or more speech acts is 6.9 (median = 5). In other words, half of those who are present during a controversy actively take part. On average, men are clearly overrepresented in the groups but, relative to their proportional presence, are only slightly more engaged in controversies. While the average percentage of women in group sessions is 32.1 percent, the proportion of women among the attendants actively taking part in controversies is 33.0 percent. However, we did not measure the frequency and length of speech acts. The general impression we got is that men tend to speak more frequently and longer than women. The duration of controversies averages at 16.8 minutes but varies greatly with a maximum value of 150 minutes.

Among the themes of controversies, the relationship of the groups with reference groups, both within and outside the movement, prevails (external group action: 37.8 percent; strategic decision: 23.1 percent) over internal aspects such as organizational questions, the groups’ structure, and debates over principal values (see Table 6.2).

Coming back to the four types of controversies based on the dimensions of power and symmetry, we can look at the distribution of these types. In order to reduce complexity, the four-point scale for each of the two dimensions has been transformed into a dummy variable (hard or soft power; asymmetry or symmetry). Contrary to our expectation, deliberation was by far the most common form of interaction in controversies (83 out of 143 valid cases; see Table 6.3).

Table 6.2 Themes of controversies

Percent of responses

Percent of cases

External group action

28.6

37.8

Strategic decision

17.5

23.1

Organization (technical)

14.8

19.6

Internal structure (basic)

11.6

15.4

Principal values

11.6

15.4

Meta-discourse

10.1

13.3

External delegation

2.1

2.8

Other

3.7

4.9

Total (percent)

100.0

132.3

n (cases/responses)

143

189

Table 6.3 Distribution of types of controversies (absolute numbers)

Type of power

Relationship of speakers

Asymmetric

Symmetric

‘Hard’

20

20

pressure

bargaining

‘Soft’

20

83

agitatory persuasion

deliberation

n = 143

One might suspect that the high number of cases of deliberation results from the crude categorization of combining only one value on each of the two dimensions (soft power and symmetric relationship). By using a two-point scale for each half of the measures (‘rather soft power’ and ‘soft power clearly prevailing’; ‘fairly symmetric’ and ‘very symmetric’), we can subdivide the generic category of deliberation (83 cases) into four cells. However, the value combination of ‘clearly soft’ and ‘very symmetric’ still accounts for 36 (44.6 percent) of all forms of deliberation, whereas only 14 deliberations fall into the weakest deliberation category (‘rather soft power’ and ‘fairly symmetric’). In other words, the most ‘pure’ cases of deliberation were far from being rare in the observed controversies. One should, however, remember that controversies are only one of the elements of group sessions. Not every session includes a controversy.

How are the four types of communication related to other characteristics of the group and its controversies? Only a few aspects can be considered here. It is plausible that a number of factors have an impact on the kinds of controversies that prevail. Drawing on the sparse literature on this aspect (Gastil 1993a; Bachtiger and Steenbergen 2004; Bachtiger and Steiner 2005; Mansbridge at al. 2006) as well as common sense reasoning, one can hypothesize that deliberation is more likely when:

  • • the number of participants is small
  • • the issue debated is organizational rather than substantial
  • • the style of interaction is cooperative rather than competitive
  • • uncivil speech acts are rare or even absent
  • • the atmosphere is relaxed
  • • no or little time pressure exists.

Table 6.4 gives a rough idea of the extent to which these assumptions hold. Surprisingly, the percentage of deliberation is lowest in the category of the smallest group in the sample. Yet, unsurprisingly, deliberation usually goes along with a cooperative attitude, civil forms of interaction and a relaxed atmosphere. But it is also worth noting that deliberation is not impossible in a tense atmosphere. As expected, deliberation occurs more frequently in the absence of time pressure.

As stated earlier, not every controversy has a clear result, nor does deliberation always lead to unanimity, let alone consensus. If a decision was reached at all,

Deliberation as an ideal and practice in progressive social movements 127

Table 6.4 Types of controversy by group characteristics

Pressure

Bargaining

Agitation

Deliberation

Total (%)

Number of participants

3-7

20.5

20.5

15.4

43.6

100

8-14

11.8

15.7

7.8

64.7

100

15+

11.3

7.5

18.9

62.3

100

All cases

14.0

14.0

14.0

58.0

100

Mode of interaction

Cooperative

2.4

13.1

8.3

76.2

100

Competitive

31.0

15.5

22.4

31.0

100

All cases

14.1

14.1

14.1

57.7

100

Incivility

No incivility

6.8

13.6

9.7

69.9

100

Rare incivility

35.5

16.1

19.4

29.0

100

Some incivility

25.0

0.0

50.0

25.0

100

Frequent incivility

20.0

20.0

40.0

20.0

100

All cases

14.0

14.0

14.0

58.0

100

Atmosphere

Relaxed

2.8

8.3

5.6

83.3

100

Mixed

22.4

20.4

20.4

36.7

100

Tense

31.8

18.2

27.3

22.7

100

All cases

14.0

14.0

14.0

58.0

100

Time pressure

None

7.0

14.0

15.0

64.0

100

Somewhat

26.1

21.7

8.7

43.5

100

High

36.8

5.3

15.8

42.1

100

All cases

14.1

14.1

14.1

57.7

100

n = 142 or 143 for all variables

deliberation mostly ended with nodding/tacit agreement (54 cases) or unanimity (27 cases).21 Interestingly, there were also instances of straw polls and even majority votes concluding a phase of deliberation. It may well have been that the gaps between conflicting views were on their way to coming closer but due to other factors, for example the need to take a decision before people have to leave, the discussion could not continue.

The kind of decision has to be distinguished from the outcome of the controversy. For example, the group may decide by nodding that no decision is to be taken or that the decision is delegated to a subgroup. As can be seen from the second part of Table 6.5, frequently no decision was taken at the end of a controversy

128 Dieter Rucht

Table 6.5 Types of controversies by types of decision and outcome (absolute values)

Pressure

Bargaining

Agitation

Deliberation

All forms

Mode of decision in controversy

Straw poll

0

3

1

5

9

Nodding, tacit agreement

16

9

13

54

92

Majority vote

3

2

0

7

12

Unanimity

1

3

1

27

32

Not applicable/unclear

5

6

5

11

27

n (sum column)

25

23

20

104

172

Outcome of controversy

No decision was taken

7

6

9

25

47

Postponing

2

2

1

7

12

Delegation of decision

0

1

0

3

4

Rather decree

4

1

3

2

10

Rather acclamation

0

0

1

3

4

Rather compromise

6

5

4

12

27

Allowed consensus

1

0

1

8

10

Rather consensus

0

5

0

23

28

n (sum column)

20

20

19

83

142

(47 cases). Consensus (allowed consensus22 and rather consensus23) was second most frequent, followed by ‘rather compromise’. A delegation of the decision and ‘rather acclamation’ each occurred in four instances only.

It is important to stress that, in the eyes of most activists, the ability to reach consensus is not based on a naive assumption of the absence of power. This is illustrated by the interpretation of consensus provided by Christophe Aguiton, a French social scientist who is also involved in trade union campaigns and is an experienced activist in networks of the GJMs. With regard to the latter, he affirmed that decisions are mostly taken by consensus. When asked what consensus means, he answered:

The consensus is one of the characteristics of this new network. It’s a way to decide. The consensus is not unanimity. The consensus is a very powerful tool. And it is not a tool without a correlation of forces. In the consensus, some groups are stronger than others, because if there is an issue they don’t accept voluntarily, they leave. (...)

Question: ‘So consensus means everybody has to agree to the decision?’ ‘No, that means that no one has to refuse, which is not the same.’24

Deliberation as an ideal and practice in progressive social movements 129 Conclusion

Scattered information suggests that not all progressive movements within the large spectrum of the political left try to reduce inequality among their own ranks and seriously aim to deliberate when it comes to handling internal controversies. Some groups following a Leninist principle rely on strong leadership to which the rank and file is supposed to submit. Examples for such a pattern can be found in some strands of the labour movement and, in the German context, the so- called K-groups that emerged in the wake of the student movement in the early 1970s. The socialist and Social Democratic branch within the labour movement took a middle position between the elitist Leninist pole on the one hand and the anarchist-egalitarian pole on the other. More recent progressive movements, including the new social movements emerging in the 1970s and the contemporary GJMs, generally put much emphasis on reducing what they perceive as illegitimate forms of power within their own ranks. They try to deliberate as much as possible. Nevertheless, they exhibit aberrations from this ideal. Probably as in any social group, one can identify informal hierarchies, struggles over and misuse of power, hidden agendas, forms of incivility and so forth.25 Some observers may be tempted to become cynical in view of such examples, particularly when these groups have explicit and high moral standards regarding their own structures, forms of communication, and decision making. However, the findings of our large, multinational research project, as well as my observations during the last few years in these and other kinds of groups, do not lend support to such a cynical perspective.

It is obvious that the majority of new social movements, especially the GJMs, are extremely sensitive to issues of power and democracy in their internal communication (Young 2001; Haug 2010). They show an open and accessible style of communication, a willingness to listen to different viewpoints, a readiness to rotate leadership roles or to accept moderators or facilitators, a preference for participatory discussions and avoidance of long speech acts. These characteristics are also found in earlier ‘progressive’ social movements, but, I would argue, to a lesser extent. Taken together, these elements are not a democratic innovation in the strict sense, but at least a move towards deliberative practices that previously have been largely perceived as ineffective, if not impracticable.

The research findings presented here suggest that deliberation, at least at the level of small-scale groups, is not just a dream but actually occurs. And it occurs to a greater extent than we expected at the outset of our research. Again, sceptics may argue that the researchers were biased in being too sympathetic to their research objects, that categories used for the research were not defined rigidly enough, or inter-coder reliability was unclear. Perhaps there is some truth in such doubts. Nevertheless, I would contend that the majority of these groups are more successful in reducing ‘hard’ power and enabling deliberation than most trade unions, political parties and big non-governmental organizations. Most highly institutionalized groups tend to equate the idea of democracy and participation with formal procedures such as majority vote and delegation. They also give much greater weight to ‘strong’ leadership and to experts as the proper agents in processes that they still consider to be democratic and rational. However, if applied to the GJMs, these practices very likely would put an end to the GJMs in the long run.

 
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