Operationalizing deliberation

I’ve been, for some time, working on conceptualizing and operationalizing “deliberation” – after all, this is what I’ll look for in analysing the discussions on social news websites.

Janssen and Kies (2005) offer a comprehensive rundown on previous attempts at pinning down what deliberation is. Steenbergen et al. (2003) go so far as creating a “Discourse Quality Index” to measure political deliberation; and both papers are openly endorsed by Habermas (2005) himself. What is interesting is that, although it has been noted (by Bohman, Mutz, Sunstein and others) that the presence of conflicting views, the clashing of opinions is an essential part of deliberation, the presence or absence of contradicting arguments does not feature any of the operationalization attempts mentioned in these papers.

How come?

I don’t think deliberation could be operationalized using only procedural criteria. We cannot say that “well, basically deliberation is conversation that satisfies this set of procedural requirements – such as that people conversing should be given equal opportunity to speak and to be listened to.”

It would be great – and simple – if we could do that; but we can’t, because whether or not a conversation qualifies as deliberation also depends on the presence of rational arguments. And in order to assess whether a discussion contains rational arguments, we need to go beyond the level of practical procedurality.

But it still seems to me that those analysing deliberation try to capture most of its aspects through procedural criteria. Admittedly, that might be easier to measure. And so from that point of view it might make sense to say: well if a discussion is open and inclusive, and the conversation is reflexive – so it consists in a meaningful exchange of arguments -, then this automatically means that there ARE going to be contradicting arguments directed against each other.


if this is so, my suggestion would be that we still are much better off if we don’t try to look for “openness, inclusiveness, reflexivity” or the like, in order to establish that there “must be” contradicting arguments around, but we look for contradicting arguments, and by their presence, we try to infer if the discussion is open and inclusive.

I think this way is more reasonable, isn’t it?

Habermas, Jürgen (2005): “Concluding Comments on Empirical Approaches to Deliberative Politics” in Acta Politica 40, 384 – 392.

Janssen, Davy and Raphael Kies (2005): “Online Forums and Deliberative Democracy” in Acta Politica 40, 317 – 335.

Steenbergen, Marco R., Andre Bächtiger, Markus Spröndli and Jürg Seiner (2003): “Measuring Political Deliberation: A Discourse Quality Index” in Comparative European Politics I., 21 – 48.

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