As our catalogue of “Perspectives” grows, it’s probably useful to reconsider from time to time some of the basics of the IF process. That’s what I want to do here, all the while recognizing that the process is in some ways quite complex and is under continuous development.
The IF discussion process was developed over the course of more than two decades for use in our multi-year sanctuary projects, which now number upwards of 14. But it has also been used, with some modification, in the 130-odd public discussion series we have conducted and in our numerous experiments in college classrooms around the country.
The IF discussion process lacks any single, defining “essence.” It is more useful to think of the Process as embodying a number of key aspects that interactively make the Process what it is and distinguish it from other sorts of democratic discussion. (Each of these will be the subject of individual entries in the future. My goal at the moment is just to enumerate some of the most important among them.)
Interactivity. The IF discussion process is characterized by numerous forms of interactivity, including interactivity between:
- participants during (and often between) discussion sessions
- the participants and the facilitator
- the participants, the facilitator, and the Report they are discussing
- the exploratory and developmental “phases” of the discussion
A distinctive objective. The goal of IF discussions is not to “win” an argument or to achieve group consensus but rather to use exploratory discussion as a means of promoting thoughtful choice.
Sanctuary. An unhurried pace and confidentiality are guaranteed in IF projects; in public and classroom discussions these desiderata are compromised out of necessity, but are still considered guiding values because they are important means to the end of exploratory interactivity. Providing time and a protected space both encourage discussants to be bold, to work collaboratively, and to follow their discussion wherever it might lead.
Small groups. Interactivity is also promoted in the IF process by relying on small groups, typically from six to eight participants. Small groups are not unique to the IF Discussion Process, but they are crucial because they contribute to and may even be essential to truly interactive, collaborative discussion.
Diverse rather than representative citizens. The IF discussion process does not depend on “representative” discussants but rather on participants capable of thinking imaginatively and collaboratively. Diverse backgrounds and skills can help stimulate exploration—but can also get in the way when individuals feel obliged to simply represent an interest or point of view.
Flow: exploration, development, choice. The IF discussion process is not linear; it has no set pattern or strict sequence of “steps.” But it’s not aimless, either. It is exploratory and developmental throughout. Exploration is largely a matter of expanding possibilities; development largely a matter of elaborating them. (IF discussion Reports in addition involve a series of informal and formal choices regarding content.) Thus the process can be described as a form of discursive inquiry or, if you prefer, learning. As such, it requires careful but neutral facilitation to maintain its flow rather than procedures or rules designed to ensure a fair decision or equal opportunity for all to express their views.
Content: contrasting conceptual possibilities. The IF process deals with contrasting conceptual possibilities (most often for public policy). Our discussion Reports, though brief, typically contain three elements:
- a well-explored description of the area of concern
- at least four contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing it
- a description of the panels’ exploration of their possible practical consequences
That the possibilities contained in the Reports are conceptual rather than problem-centered, quantitative or technical may be especially useful in that such possibilities tend to be conspicuously absent from media, scholarly, and governmental reports. The contrasts among the conceptual possibilities help clarify citizens’ choices—both about the possibilities contained in the Reports and about others that might result from their further democratic discussion.
* For an earlier, expanded, version of this essay, see essay IF-1 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf