Deliberation, Debate, and Decision Making Research Paper

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Among the greatest powers of communication is the magnified wisdom and comfort of human choice that comes through disciplined rational interaction. The power to make decisions with others comes from many sources. There is the invoked influence of the rich disparity of experiences and perspectives brought to the communication. There is the variety of observation that comes from different eyes focused on a given moment. There is the variety of interests that makes our choices responsive to the values, wishes, and desires of others. But there are also qualities inherent in the processes that improve decisions: the testing of ideas, the challenging of faith, the exploration of alternatives, and the reaching of consensus. These rich advantages of choice through communication are the products of deliberation, debate, and decision making.



The three terms of this article’s title are interrelated. The root of the term deliberation is a Latin verb meaning to weigh, to balance. It emphasizes the quality that comes from a systematic approach to choice. Deliberations are also deliberate; that is, they take time, and they proceed carefully. Debate emphasizes the testing that characterizes successful deliberation. Today’s vernacular use of the term debate sometimes invokes a sense of combat, of stressful exchange, and indeed, the word’s origin is in a medieval word for “to beat down.” But fruitful meanings of the term are broader. They emphasize the responsibility of those engaged in debate to respectfully examine the intricacies of their own ideas and the ideas of others to refine individual experience into a communal product of greater worth. Debate, in this sense, is a productive art in which the ability to sift the quality of ideas is the hallmark of effective deliberation.

Deliberation by debate is also more structured, often with formal rules and often taking place within formal institutions such as Congress or at a monthly meeting of a civic organization. Decision making emphasizes the concluding of the process in choice. Decision making through a rich process of deliberation is the focus of this research paper.

The Historical Roots of Deliberation, Debate, and Decision Making

There seems little doubt that shortly after humans acquired the gift of speech, differences of opinion gave rise to choice and the disagreements that often precede it. But in the trail of human development, we mark the emergence of deliberation later. The best research in the Western tradition indicates that systematic study of deliberation emerged in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in the 5th century BCE. The citizens of Syracuse threw off a tyrant and founded an early republican form of government. They made deliberation an essential element of democracy. Citizens of Syracuse would gather together and address each other toward making decisions about their lives. They founded basic forms of what we today call courts of law, where issues such as land ownership could be resolved peacefully through a formal process of communication. This emergence of a communicative republican government then gave rise to the essential traditions for our purposes: the systemization or theory of our subject and the teaching of that subject. The theorist/teacher of Syracuse was Corax, who is credited as the first teacher of rhetoric. Corax studied the process of decision making in Syracuse and advised his student-clients on how to further their and Syracuse’s purposes in the assembly and the courts.

But the great systemitizer of decision making was the Greek philosopherAristotle (384–322 BCE).Aristotle wrote a treatise, Rhetoric, that systematically described the role of language in successful human deliberation.Among his great contributions was a tripartite division of the arenas of speaking: the deliberative, the forensic, and the epidiectic. The deliberative, Aristotle said, occurs in public assemblies and decides which action is best adopted. It is concerned with the future and addresses the desirability or undesirability of the action at issue. The forensic occurs most obviously in the law courts. It is concerned with the past and attacks or defends someone or seeks to establish the justice or injustice of some action. The epideictic, as Aristotle viewed it, is a ceremonial rhetoric and beyond this article’s purview in studying deliberation, debate, and decision making. So powerful was Aristotle’s overall view of rhetoric that it dominated the teaching of the subject into the 20th century.

Through the centuries following the classical age, rhetoric turned away from systems of decision making toward other problems. The resurrection of this interest came with the growth of democracy after the 17th century. At its core, democracy requires that communication among citizens be the mode through which society chooses action. Thus, deliberation is privileged, debate is framed within democratic institutions, and decision making is viewed as a public activity.The history outlined above maps this same rise of democracy from the overthrowing of the tyrant of Syracuse through the democracy of Athens. As democracy was reborn in the modern era, it is little surprise that many of the ideas about systematic decision making returned to the classical writings.

As democratic sensitivities spread, so did the prominence of deliberation. By the late 19th century, there was a great burgeoning of organizations in the United States. Civic organizations flourished in small towns and cities across the nation. Business organizations grew with corporate structure spreading throughout the economy. In such venues, meeting and deliberating to reach decisions became an important activity. As a result, interest in the techniques of discussion and debate grew. The first textbooks devoted to debating appeared during this time. Literary societies intensified their debating activities in American colleges.

By the early 20th century, deliberation was a focus of academic interest. John Dewey’s (1910) book How We Think developed the process of deliberation as a natural human activity. By the 1920s and 1930s, the tradition of debating in literary societies had grown into interscholastic and intercollegiate competition. Debating became a central part of training for leadership. After World War II, deliberation in all its forms—discussion and debating, public and organizational—became an important focus in the study and teaching of communication. Like many subjects in communication, this activity stimulated both research and teaching, and the teaching was both theoretical and practical. Systems for understanding deliberation and for conducting efficient and effective deliberation became central concerns. The goal of this article is to summarize contemporary ideas that are a product of this long history.

Principles of Democratic Deliberation

Deliberation is a pattern of communication tailored to provide a particular outcome: wise and accepted choice. For that pattern to yield its intended result, certain principles have been defined. Of course, deliberation does function short of full implementation of these principles, but the farther the process strays from their operation, the less satisfying the result. Thus, the principles provide benchmarks for satisfactory deliberation.

Contingent or Probable Choices. Deliberations do not operate with mathematical precision, nor are they appropriate when problems present but one solution. Deliberations occur when there is more than one option, with each option presenting some advantage over others or some probability of outcome that others do not have. In addition, deliberations are richer when different people have different opinions and knowledge relating to the subject at hand. Deliberations, in other words, happen in the presence of doubt or disagreement. Deliberation is a process of creative thinking and critical testing as well as a method for choosing alternatives.

Maximum Access to Participation. Several principles define the conditions of access to deliberation. Obviously, artificial barriers to participation that deprive the interaction of a variety of viewpoints are counterproductive. But in a more positive sense, deliberation is facilitated by the participation of people from varied backgrounds, with varied interests, and with varied experiences. In addition, except for a moderator or presiding officer, the authority of participants should be level to ensure open discussion of issues at hand.

Critical Respect and Cooperative Attitude. Those who participate in discussion on a regular basis know the advantages of comity. This requires respect for the process in which the participants engage and for the participants engaged in the process. Respect for the participants does not mean continual agreement. Indeed, respect requires recognition of the value of probative inquiry, and even disagreement, in the service of the deliberation’s goals. Under conditions of comity, exchanges are richly textured with agreement and disagreement, with inquiry into ideas replacing personal sensitivities.

Assumption of Responsibilities in Deliberation. At the heart of deliberation lies a responsibility to critical inquiry. In turn, this critical inquiry necessitates participants assuming the burden of proof and the burden of rebuttal. The former suggests that opinions expressed should be supplemented with reasons for those opinions. Where appropriate, deliberations should be based in facts relevant to the question at hand.Values and preferences underlying particular positions should be explained as well. The burden of rebuttal affirms that when satisfactory reasons are provided, there is a counterresponsibility to probe the reasons. Thus, the two burdens define the texture of exchange in deliberation.

Pooling of Judgment. Deliberations are defined by a commitment to an outcome shared by the participants. Participants may themselves have objectives in the deliberation; indeed, strenuous advocacy for a position often improves the likelihood of achieving the shared goal. But participants also recognize the primacy of a successful outcome to the purposes of deliberation.

In some cases, particularly in a structured debate, these principles may be formally instantiated into rules of conduct. But even when no formal rules dictate the following of these principles, acknowledgment of their influence on the quality of the deliberation marks the participation of discussants who contribute the most to successful deliberation.

A Vocabulary of Deliberation, Debate, and Decision Making

Deliberation, debate, and decision making are communicative patterns of everyday human experience. They are stylized accomplishments. That is, those who participate in deliberation do so in anticipated, coordinated patterns toward a specific end. To understand this process, perhaps the best avenue is to explore the specialized vocabulary that describes and structures the interaction.

Characterizing the Interaction

Deliberation. The term deliberation describes the process in which communicative exchange refines human understanding and leads to human choices. Deliberation is marked more by its goal than by its style. A wide range of specific behaviors contribute to accomplishing the goal.

Debate. Debate is a heavily structured style of deliberation. A strict set of rules defines the sequences and limits of interaction. Debates are often structured as a two-way pro-and-con deliberation over a defined proposition, in the debate context often called “the resolution.” The parties to the debate may be assigned responsibility for supporting or opposing the resolution that structures the debate. Typically, debaters take turns presenting arguments for or against the proposition. The speaker who is appropriately speaking at a given time in the debate is said to “have the floor.” The order of speaking may be decided or assigned and times designated for each speaker before the debate begins. Rules may or may not permit others to interrupt the speaker who has the floor. There may also be opportunities structured into the format for the debaters and/or their audience to question other debaters. Often, debates will have a moderator or a chair, whose responsibility is to remain an unbiased enforcer of the rules.

There are different forums that are characterized by debate. One of the best known is governmental deliberative bodies such as Congress, state legislatures, or local councils. In these, debates typically revolve around a proposed law, policy, or resolution that the body is considering. Members may support or oppose adoption. Rules of procedure are well-defined, often beginning with general rules of parliamentary procedure, which are then supplemented or refined by the body itself. Whether there are time limits for having the floor and restrictions on the order of speaking depends on the rules of the assembly. Arguments in these debates are addressed to the chair, who presides and enforces the rules of the assembly. Only at the local level is interaction with nonmembers of the body permitted in the communicative exchange, and at that level, it is often limited. Following the debate, the members of the assembly cast votes on the policy or resolution before the body.

Another notable forum for debate is competitive academic debate. Such debates are conducted before a judge, who decides at the end of the exchange “who has done the better job of debating.” Speeches alternate between those supporting and those opposing the resolution. Sometimes debaters are permitted to question each other or are asked to address questions generated by their audience. Time limits are typically strictly applied. Speeches by the debaters may be separated into constructive speeches, in which the debaters present reasons for or against the resolution, and rebuttal speeches, in which no new arguments may be presented, only responses and challenges to the arguments of the opposing debaters and reestablishment of one’s own arguments.

Since 1960, with only three exceptions, candidates for president of the United States have engaged in debates. The practice has penetrated to lower governmental elections as well. These debates are highly structured affairs with rules established in negotiations between or among candidates, with varying imposition of the rules by members of a sponsoring organization. Often, commentators question whether these exchanges are debates at all. They typically pass from issue to issue in the course of the debate without having a single proposition at their center unless, of course, it is the tacit proposition that “[the candidate speaking] should be elected.” Candidates may address a moderator or those asking questions, but rules typically do not restrict speeches to the questions being asked. Debates often occur several times in the course of the campaign, and the deliberative judgment consequent to the debate is the election of one of the candidates to the office contested.

There are variations on all these forums. Often, a sponsoring group will organize a debate with pro and con speakers on their chosen topic simply for the benefit of public education. In 1993, for example, the television interviewer Larry King organized a debate between Vice President Al Gore and the businessman and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. TheVice President supported and Perot opposed the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Such forums have public education as their primary purpose, although certainly the example given here had an indirect purpose of influencing congressional approval of the agreement.

Discussion. Discussion is a less structured style of deliberation. At its extreme, there are few rules beyond tacit understandings to hear out the opinions of others, and even those tacit understandings are sometimes violated. In many cases, discussions are spontaneous, without preliminary agreement on propositions or issues. Such loose discussions often lack focus, and their classification as deliberation may even be in doubt.

More formal discussions may be organized when understanding of some situation has not reached the clarity to formulate a specific policy for debate. For example, a parentteacher association may gather to discuss the following: Are there behavioral problems in our school? And, if so, what should we do about them? Such a discussion may be carefully guided to sequentially consider the following: Is there a problem? If so, what is its nature? If so, what are some alternative approaches to address it? And which of these would be a better approach?

At some point, the ideas behind discussions and debates merge, with the defined focus and the extent of rule-governed procedure defining the frontier between them. The choice of term to apply to the deliberation may, in fact, be a response to the pejorative use of the term debate. Some proponents of deliberation seeking to open the process to better achieve some of the principles of deliberation employ debate as a counterpoint and prefer discussion as the term to describe the rules of interaction that they establish. Thus, the differentiated use of these terms may not be strictly descriptive of distinctions in the process of deliberation but may become part of a strategy for imposing particular rules for the exchange.

Decision and Decision Making. Typically, decision points to the achievement of the choice that is the objective of the deliberation process. “Decision making” fixes the character of the deliberation as a process with the decision as the product.

Defining the Responsibilities in Deliberation

Once the character of the deliberation is defined, additional terms help guide participants in understanding their responsibilities in such an exchange.

Advocacy. If deliberation is to be an expansive, encouraging, and critical environment for ideas, the participants in the interaction must engage fully. This responsibility to present and provide reasons for judgments and beliefs is advocacy. At times, this responsibility may be taken to an extreme—to do whatever is necessary to achieve one’s own prejudged outcome—but a more satisfactory conceptualization recognizes that the responsibility is to the interaction and that the advocates’ responsibility is to maximize the values of the interaction, including fully engaged support for various positions by each advocate. Only with all advocates in a deliberation engaged are the advantages of deliberation sustained.

Burden of Proof. The responsibility entailed in the burden of proof is often stated as “he who asserts must prove”; that is, the responsibility of an advocate is not merely to offer claims and opinions about the subject but to provide reasons for those statements targeted to persuade others in the interaction. The burden of proof grows from the responsibilities of participation in full deliberation.

Burden of Rebuttal or Response. The responsibility entailed in the burden of rebuttal is the critical responsibility. Participants in the interaction share a responsibility to fully test and expand the positions introduced into the deliberation. Deliberations require engagement. This obligation extends beyond the responsibility to tell others when they are wrong. It demands more subtle exploration of probability and desirability to locate the nature and extent of an issue as fully as possible. Successful exercise of the burden of rebuttal then establishes a burden of response as the deliberation moves forward. Together, these burdens of proof, rebuttal, and response define the necessity for full engagement by participants in a deliberation.

Guiding the Structure of Deliberation

I have introduced some terms in the definitions above that provide productive as well as analytic value. When used in deliberation, such terms establish a process for productively structuring the content of deliberations.

Questions or Propositions. Deliberation operates most efficiently to achieve its goals when the process is focused. One way of defining that focus is by defining, as a first step, the question to be answered through the deliberation— for example, Is the evidence for global warning sufficient to require public attention? Often such a question is defined by those who organize the deliberation or by a subset of the deliberators. For example, typically legislative bodies have rules to restrict debate to the bill or resolution before the body. Another variation presents the question in the form of a proposition, a short unambiguous statement of fact, value, policy, or judgment to be tested through the deliberations—for example, Offshore drilling for oil on the continental shelf should be resumed. In contested academic debates, the limitations on debate are defined by a resolution: Resolved, that federal policy should encourage the development of alternative sources of energy. In all cases, the focus provides an orientation that limits deliberations to germane matters.

Once the question or proposition is defined, a typology of propositions helps guide the deliberation. A proposition of fact turns on an empirical dispute susceptible to resolution by collecting and testing pertinent evidence—for example, Carbon-based gases in the atmosphere are having a significant influence on the world’s climate. To be advanced by deliberation, such propositions must have a complexity that requires more sophistication than mere sensory observation. The example benefits from careful consideration of various interpretations of climate and of the relationship of natural cycles and man-made effects and from different opinions about the tipping point of global warming In short, contingency and probability are debated by informed participants to further understanding of the proposition.

A proposition of definition turns on a question of how words are to be used—for example, Pluto should not be considered a planet. These propositions recognize the ways in which vocabulary organizes various human activities—in our example, astronomy—and refines definitions that guide communication within those activities. This proposition was debated by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to clarify how planets would be defined. In the end, this body clarified the definition of planet and reclassified Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.

A proposition of value turns on a question of the importance of principles of morality in a context—for example, A spirit of community enhances the quality of life. These propositions go to questions of right and wrong, the desirable and undesirable, the important and unimportant, and similar choices. Often, debates over questions of value attain their importance not from a final resolution of the propositional content but from the understanding and clarification they provide in the terms they explore. In the example, the debate may foster appreciation for the value of community or greater understanding of what quality of life represents.

A proposition of policy or action turns on whether following a particular policy or taking a particular action is beneficial—for example, The federal government should provide health insurance to all citizens regardless of employment status. Policy propositions are the most complex of propositions, entailing facts and values as part of the process of reason giving. In a debate, a well-formed proposition of policy usually names an actor and specifies the action to be taken. The terms should or ought to are signs of such propositions. Questions for discussion may focus more on problems and have less specified actors or actions than is typical in debate. For example, a discussion of food-vending policies in a school may not even begin with a presumption that there is a problem, although the fact that the discussion will occur indicates that someone believed so. But the discussion will take it up as an early issue whether or not there is, in fact, a problem. The purpose of such a discussion rests at the stage of developing and legitimating a public concern.

The types of propositions do not affect the function of the proposition—providing a focus for the discussion—but do become important in identifying the issues that guide deliberations.

Issues. The term issues is a common vernacular term in disputes. The meaning in deliberation is no different from the everyday definition. The interaction between a proposition and its subject matter provides natural seams where deliberation develops. These are called potential issues. Such issues are potential because they may or may not be disputed in a particular deliberation. For example, a deliberation over the health insurance proposition cited above has the following among its potential issues:Are there citizens who do not now have insurance of some kind?Are their numbers significant? Is insurance the proper way to provide access to medical care? Should the federal government establish an insurance program or facilitate its provision through private sources? Can the federal government afford to provide such insurance? How will it do so? Will such a system significantly improve the nation’s health? Note that the issues are posed in terms of questions that can be answered in deliberations.This is a common way of expressing issues.

One of the ways in which potential issues are identified is through a system known as stock issues. The use of stock issues begins by identifying the type of proposition at dispute: fact, definition, value, or policy. Then, a set of generally stated questions specific to that type are applied to the specific subject matter of the proposition to indicate potential issues. For example, one scheme of stock issues for policy propositions poses the following general questions: Is there a problem? Is the problem significant enough to deserve attention? Is there an action that will remedy the problem? How significantly will the action remedy the problem? Are there other reasons the remedy should not be followed? These stock issues generated the potential issues specified in the example of the health insurance proposition above.

Typically, deliberations do not exhaustively treat the issues on a proposition. Positions on some issues are easily agreed to by all in the deliberation. Other issues take on such importance that the time limits place a premium on those issues over others as the deliberation proceeds. The issues that, in fact, mark a deliberation are referred to as actual issues. Thus, actual issues are a subset of potential issues. The concept is central to the participants in the interaction because the actual issues define the topics that require attention in a particular deliberation. A useful classical term for these actual issues is stasis: the points of dispute on which the decision turns.

Issues function in several ways in managing deliberation. Perhaps most important, issues, like propositions, provide a focus to the deliberation. Where propositions help define its relevance, issues organize it by identifying points of focus to be tracked through the deliberation. The speakers participating in the deliberation typically identify the issue that they are addressing as they move through a presentation. Thus, issues become a kind of signpost for advocates to organize their presentations, which is particularly effective because issues tie directly to the deciding factors in the deliberation. Within the texture of a deliberation, issues also assist in differentiating the importance of various arguments. In a sense, issues are the units within a deliberation on which questions of importance turn.

Issues also help organize a deliberation vertically. That is, we have not only issues but also subissues in a deliberation. The relationship between issues and subissues is the same as the relationship between propositions and issues: The outcome of issues turns on the subissues defined as potential or actual and is often determined by a scheme of stock issues.

Finally, issues are useful as a bridge between deliberation and decision making. They help bring the various arguments within a debate into an overall pattern that permits a decisive outcome. Except for the statement of the question or proposition, no element of a deliberation is as central to orderly and efficient deliberation as management of issues.

Terms Managing the Structure of an Argument

A final set of terms invoked in deliberation manages the presentation of ideas, the provision of reasons for supporting an idea, and the testing of those reasons.

Position. A position is a particular claim about an issue. Any particular issue may lend itself to one, two, or many different positions. Typically, a position is a declarative statement that articulates an advocate’s belief or conclusion on the issue. Positions, in turn, define the actual issues in a deliberation. The impact of effective statements of position is to clarify the issues that differentiate the various possible outcomes.

Argument. The term argument has several vernacular meanings. One is a heated exchange among people—“having an argument.” Full deliberation is, in fact, an argument among people. Orderly argument may lack the anger but not the intensity of this meaning. The other major meaning is to give reasons for something—“making an argument.” It is this sense in which arguments are the basic unit of deliberation. Responsible advocates present arguments in the deliberation.

An argument consists of a claim and its explication. The claim is a succinct statement of the advocate’s belief or judgment. The claim is what the advocate seeks to prove. Typically, a speaker opens presentation of an argument with a short, succinct statement of the claim. The explication follows. The explication is an appropriate combination of four different responses to the need to prove an argument. The significance of the argument explains why the argument is important to the issue at dispute. The explanation provides the elaboration of the ideas necessary to make the argument clear to those engaged in the deliberation. Explanations may illustrate, define terms, divide the question, or make other moves that help to clarify. The proof provides reasons for believing the claim. A well-constructed argument then ends with a statement of what has been established through the presentation of the argument. This final step is often called the clinch. Consider the following example:

Our current system of health care leaves a large number of citizens without the advantages of health insurance. According to the Health Insurance Association of America, 43 million Americans now lack an insurance mechanism, through individual purchase, an employer, or a government program. Certainly so many of our fellow citizens, uninsured and forced in the face of health problems to choose care or some other consumer commodity, deserve our public concern.

This argument opens with a statement of the claim. The second sentence provides proof, in this case a combination of authority and statistical proof. The statement reporting the statistics ends with an explanation of the meaning of “without insurance,” a recitation of the various ways citizens can acquire insurance. The final statement not only clinches the argument but also asserts the significance of the argument to the issues—indeed, to the proposition—by posing the choice faced by the uninsured.

Proof. The notion of proving one’s assertion is so basic to deliberation that additional terminology governs exchanges over the sufficiency of proof. Those who study argumentation identify several characteristic ways to give reasons for, or prove, claims. Some of the most important are as follows:

Example. Examples have more impact as illustration than as proof. When Congress was deliberating health care, one common strategy was to provide an example of Americans who found themselves requiring treatment, not having insurance, and suffering long-term economic hardship in addition to their health difficulties. These narrative accounts often contained much emotion and stimulated empathy for the subject of the narrative, thus helping prove the reasons why health care was needed. As proof, examples are only as strong as the typicality of their content.

Analogy. An analogy is a comparison between two situations designed to carry the known qualities of one situation into another. Analogies between the Canadian and American health care systems, for example, may be called on to support or oppose government programs.As proof, analogies are only as strong as the degree and essentialness of similarity between the compared instances. Deliberations in which analogy is central often turn on the details of such similarities.

Authority. Authority relies for its power to prove on the expertness of the source of the information. The argument in the example above about the number of Americans without insurance relied on the authority of the Health Insurance Association of America. Proof by authority often evolves the issue under deliberation to the expertness of the source or the source’s degree of knowledge of the situation.

Principle or Generalized Fact. This strategy of argument relies on reasoning from the general to the more specific.

For example, an argument in favor of banning smoking in restaurants may use the health risks of secondhand smoke as a reason for supporting the ban. The strength of such proof relies on the belief in the principle or generalized fact.

Evidence. Evidence is specific information brought into the deliberation and related to the claim in the process of giving reasons. In a sense, the various forms of proof listed above differ because they have different types of evidence at their root. The details of an example are the evidence for the argument from example; the details of an analogous situation for the argument by analogy; the statement of the expert for the argument by authority; the principle or generalization for the argument from principle or generalized fact. Thus, one scheme by which evidence is differentiated is the type of information employed in the argument.

There is a second important distinction in types of evidence: Direct evidence, sometimes called experiential or enthymatic evidence, has its power because the participants in the deliberation have experienced the fact personally. In a technical sense, such argument is not argument by authority, since the power of the argument turns on direct experience. Primary evidence is, however, an argument from the authority of the speaker. The evidence is primary when the speaker reports his or her own observations. Secondary evidence is an additional step removed, the speaker cites someone else as an authority for the proof. Generally, the closer the evidence is to those in the deliberation, the stronger it will be as proof, although this principle is modified by the relative authority of the sources.

One other type of evidence worthy of attention is statistical evidence. Typically, statistical evidence is coupled with authority proof, as it was in the example above, which combined a figure on the number of Americans without health insuranceand the authorityoftheHealthInsuranceAssociation of America to provide proof. Statistics may be descriptive or inferential. Descriptive statistics merely describe the dimensions of a problem. Indicating that 43 millionAmericans lack health insurance is an example of descriptive statistics. Inferential statistics are a form of proof of relationships. For example, a report analyzing how exposure to secondhand smoke raises the incidence of cancer uses statistical procedures to support a link between the smoke and cancer.

The above terms provide a texture for describing and participating in deliberative processes. They are not merely terms useful for studying the phenomenon but are key strategic resources in shaping the deliberation toward the objective of a decision. They form a metalayer of the process, apart from the subject matter, that directs and organizes the activity. Thus, they are an essential component of deliberation.

Recent Research in Argumentation

In the late 20th century, few areas of communication research have been as active as argumentation.Argumentation studies focus on the role of reason in human communication, and thus on the processes of deliberation, debate, and decision making. Several approaches interact in this research tradition.

Historical and Critical Studies of Public Deliberation. Historical studies investigate the origins of the positions and issues that have marked the turns of national and local history. Critical studies seek to enhance understanding of the role that deliberation plays in modern public issues. For example, since 2001, interest has been high in the role of argument in historical deliberations about war, with particular attention to the justification for the war in Iraq (see, e.g., essays in Riley, 2007).

Public-Sphere Studies. Jürgen Habermas’s work in argument has stimulated research on the preconditions and processes for healthy public participation in governing society. Habermas’s original work (1962/1989) located the central place of the public sphere in the emergence of democratic forms of government in post-Renaissance Europe. This work stimulated a number of critiques revolving around the exclusions that became a part of the history of democratic deliberation (see, e.g., essays in Calhoun, 1992). Feminist critiques (Fraser, 1992) and critiques of the exclusion of minorities (Black Public Sphere Collective, 1995) led to an understanding of how a political system is composed of multiple public spheres in which citizens acquire a voice that they take to deliberation. Meanwhile, Habermas’s work turned toward a project to develop a normative theory of deliberation (1981/1987, 1988). He was interested in developing a mapping of the assumptions and procedures that define what has been called “emancipatory discourse.” Habermas’s normative theory seeks to connect the democratic goals of deliberation with the institutions of contemporary society.

Argumentation Theory. The late 20th century was a time of great flowering in the study of the ways in which people make arguments to prove claims and weave those arguments into a texture of everyday life. Spurred by seminal work by Stephen Toulmin (1958) and Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958/1969), Aristotelian notions of argument gave way to more sophisticated understandings of argument throughout the institutions of society. Toulmin’s work contrasted the understanding of formal logic with what he called “working logic.” Toulmin worked on a theory of the latter, and by 2000, his model for argument, featuring the key terms of his layout of argument—data, warrant, and claim, dominated teaching in argumentation. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca stressed the role of audience in argument. They portrayed argument as less a response to subject matters and more a response to those whom arguers seek to persuade. An important branch of argumentation theory has been informal logic, a branch of logical studies grounded in Toulmin’s distinction of a working logic, thus the logical moves with which humans craft arguments to influence others.

Pragma-Dialectics. European work on argumentation has been particularly influential in developing this branch of argumentation research. Pragma-dialectics stands out for its methods of study, seeking to develop a set of rules that, taken as a total system, describe the process of argumentation (Grootendorst & van Eemeren, 2003). In their search for normal modes of argument, pragma-dialectics share a perspective with Habermas’s later work toward a normative theory of deliberative argument.

Social Scientific Study of Argument. In the United States, a growing circle of social scientists have been studying the modes and methods of the human accomplishment of argument. Their work approaches the problems of resolving conflict and achieving influence through argument as a human accomplishment to be understood in relationship to a theory of action. In many cases, they borrow concepts and ideas from traditional theories of argument and study the influence of those concepts on the argumentative texture of people’s lives. In other cases, they begin their study in the performance of argument itself, seeking to understand how arguers conduct the natural process of making arguments. (For examples, see Riley, 2007.)

Pedagogic Studies in Debate Training. A final approach to argumentation works to map the direction of contemporary approaches to teaching deliberation and debate and to refine that process. For example, one recent work studied the influence of new technologies on the practices of academic debating (Voth, 2005).

The vitality of research in argumentation comes from the many strands of research that come together to focus on the processes of deliberation, debate, and decision making. The theory that has shaped our understanding of this practice comes under review not only to refine traditional approaches but also to question the basic approaches that have been instrumental in its development and seek new ways of understanding the process. The practice of deliberation, both historical and contemporary, comes under scrutiny to understand the process of rational decision making and also to map the ways in which deliberation has shaped political and social history. And the techniques with which we have sought to teach the skills of deliberation have come under scrutiny to understand their limitations and to suggest alternative methods for approaching the task of passing the skills of rational decision making to a new generation.

The Venues for Deliberation, Debate, and Decision Making

At the heart of the prominence of deliberation is a democratic spirit. The democratic ideal expresses faith in the benefits of people coming together to pool their knowledge and judgment in the service of better and more accepted decisions. Obviously, then, one of the most prominent places where deliberation, discussion, and debate form a texture of decision making is in the public business of democratic government. In the idealized New England town meeting, citizens gather to make the decisions that govern their lives in a well-defined and historic institution. Representative bodies, from school boards to Congress, are more common venues for democratic governing. Nearly all such bodies are guided by rules that structure an open, democratic deliberative process. Even when supplemented by cloak room or executive sessions, there is a public dimension to such meetings.

But deliberation in a democracy extends beyond the formal venues of democratic bodies. Local schoolboards, planning boards, councils, commissions, and task forces conduct hearings where advocates present positions bearing on the question before the body. Parents may gather in a school auditorium to explore the behavioral problems at their school, the food served in the school cafeteria, or even the importance of sports or the arts to their children’s education. Democracy spawns a large number of venues in which citizen input is structured through variations in the process of deliberation to ultimately influence governmental decision making.

But the spirit of democracy has infiltrated beyond formal governments. Deliberative processes are an important part of business organizations. Meetings are held every minute throughout business institutions in which the processes of deliberation are guiding the decision-making process. Even in instances where the decisions themselves are not democratic, where a leader assumes ultimate responsibility, wise leaders organize deliberation to inform their judgment. Public corporations ultimately report to stockholders’meetings, which, although often formalities, can on occasion become lively venues for deliberation. In between the small working group and the stockholders’meetings are layers of meetings with various degrees of openness in which deliberation proceeds and decisions are shaped.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his visit to the United States in the 1830s that Americans were joiners. A patchwork of voluntary organizations infiltrates all aspects of American life, from service organizations, such as the Lions or Kiwanis, to associations of bird watchers to nongovernmental advocacy groups, such as the Wilderness Society. Such groups deliberate throughout their processes and often hold deliberative programs to inform citizens of their issues as well as to urge citizen participation in effecting solutions to the common or complicated problems of life.

In short, deliberation, discussion, and debate are ubiquitous features of modern life. The public dimension of everyday life brings people into contact with others, communicating about mutual concerns with a wish to influence the course of their lives through the contact. This public dimension is enriched through participation in the opportunities for deliberation provided by the institutions of society.


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