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Public Discussion of Contrasting Conceptual Possibilities*

IF’s public discussions typically move from exploration of an area of concern to exploring and developing contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing it.

 The purposes of exploring and developing contrasting conceptual possibilities.  Public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities serves the immediate purpose of clarifying and expanding citizens’ choices and the longer-term purpose of enhancing public policy.

 Through exploratory and developmental discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities democratic citizens may discover new policy possibilities or they may discover new ways to think about policy possibilities about which they are already generally aware.  The re-discovery of familiar possibilities is probably more common.  Yet even when citizens re-discover possibilities they have considered before, their views of the possibilities are likely to change, sometimes significantly.  Re-discovery of “known” possibilities can lead citizens to a clearer and fuller understanding of any or all of the following:

  • rediscovered possibilities’ moral content
  • rediscovered possibilities’ conceptual content
  • rediscovered possibilities’ limitations.

 All of these impacts are probably facilitated and heightened when exploration and development deals with contrasting possibilities.

Both discovery and re-discovery serve the same immediate purpose, namely: to promote citizens’ autonomy by engaging them in civic activity on the one hand and by clarifying and expanding their choices as individual citizens on the other.  (Ultimately we might expect expanded civic engagement and enhanced citizen choice to improve the quality of public policy as well.)  However, it should be remembered that since citizens already need to be stimulated and engaged if they are to get involved in serious public discussion, public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities will perhaps more often sustain rather than create civic motivation and citizen autonomy.

 The process of public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.  Like the other two aspects of IF’s public discussion (exploration of an area of concern, exploration of policy consequences),  public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities is an interactive process, both in the sense that it involves the interactions of citizens and in the sense that its various moments interact with one another and with the other two aspects of public discussion.

Like public discussion of an area of concern, public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities involves five interactive stages or moments.  Public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities can, however, usefully focus on one or another of the three intermediate stages (exploration, development, or selection and exclusion).

 1)    Choice of a starting point: possible conceptual questions

Public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities, too, needs a place to start.  Such a starting point is provided by the possible questions explored and developed during discussion (in sanctuary or in public) of an area of concern.

 2)    Exploration of possible conceptual answers 

Public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities begins with a search for ways to address the concerns raised during exploration of the area of concern.  The focus at this stage is not on fine-tuning participants’ answers (which would be more akin to agreeing on the most convenient way to travel to a pre-selected destination) but on looking for something new—new conceptual possibilities especially.  To remain consistent with the process of exploration that produced them and the aim of stimulating further exploration, the “results” of exploration should be a survey not of a single possibility or two, but of multiple and contrasting conceptual possibilities.  In this way, the results can better reflect the best that the public discussion discovered rather than just a portion of participants’ thinking. As with exploration of an area of concern, exploration of contrasting conceptual possibilities is fundamentally open-ended.  There are many reasons exploration of conceptual possibilities cannot be exhaustive.  Among the most compelling is that, unlike a state (or section of the universe), public policy cannot be adequately or usefully “mapped” in any definitive way.  This is because the policy world and policy possibilities respond to forces that are to some degree foreseeable but also to an important degree beyond our control in an ever-changing world.  In addition, possibilities are themselves fundamentally open-ended.  If exploration cannot be exhaustive, the best that can be hoped for is that it be an ongoing, developmental affair.

3)    Development of possible conceptual answers: grouping, elaboration and refinement of conceptual possibilities

Development of conceptual possibilities begins where exploration has left off, i.e., with the full set of conceptual possibilities discovered in prior discussion.  During development exploration may continue, with new discoveries being added to the old.  But as development proceeds the emphasis will shift, however subtly, from acquiring wholly new concepts to grouping and elaborating those that have already been discovered.  Conceptual answers are grouped into conceptual possibilities—but in a way that allows their continual recombination as the discussion unfolds.  Elaborating and refining conceptual answers can take place at the level of individual conceptual answers or at the level of conceptual possibilities.  In both cases, it can take a number of different forms, including:

  • identifying and ordering their significant elements—especially those that are contrasting
  • identifying and filling in conceptual gaps
  • working out their conceptual implications
  • grasping their various interactivities
  • eliminating conceptual and practical inconsistencies.

4)    Selecting and excluding contrasting conceptual possibilities

 Although there may be some informal selection and exclusion of conceptual possibilities during the exploratory and developmental stages, public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities also allows for a more formal selection and exclusion process.   At this stage participants decide, through a process of convergence, on those contrasting conceptual possibilities they would like to “test” for possible practical consequences and/or report for further consideration by other democratic citizens.  Individual conceptual possibilities are only “excluded” (or dropped from further consideration) if all present agree to do so.  Individual conceptual possibilities are “selected” as long as even one participant is in favor of doing so.

5)    Conclusion of public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities pending choice or further discussion

As with public discussion of an area of concern, public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities—however deliberate its pace—must come to an end, either to face the necessity of choice regarding actual decisions or actions—or to await future opportunities for additional discussion.  Indeed, in the case of public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities, the necessity of choice is perhaps more pressing.  Theoretically or abstractly speaking, exploration and development of contrasting conceptual possibilities can be no more be exhaustive than of an area of concern.  Yet the usefulness of public discussion is if anything more, not less, dependent on the usefulness of the conceptual possibilities they yield than on their re-description of a selected area of concern.  And actually arriving at the point at which they are able to make such possibilities available to other citizens will require of discussion participants no small measure of self-imposed closure.

 The place of public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities in the policy-making process.  Public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities can be a useful activity, either on its own or—given adequate time—in combination with one or both of the other forms of public discussion.  The exploration and development of contrasting conceptual possibilities surely has its place, namely: after exploration and development of possible questions and before other sorts of discussion such as debate and deliberation aimed at actual decisions.  Citizens can without difficulty usefully focus on conceptual exploration, development, and selection and exclusion.  Unfortunately, like public discussion of areas of concern, public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities is far from being a regular feature of today’s policy-making process.

Encouraging Exploration and Development of Contrasting Conceptual Possibilities in Public Discussion.  Exploratory and developmental public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities (in response to questions developed either in sanctuary or in a previous public discussion) can be encouraged using the same general strategies that apply to public discussion of an area of concern, i.e., by keeping participants focused on:

  • concepts rather than technical problem-solving, debate, advocacy or efforts to develop a consensus 
  • the content of concepts rather than the language with which they are expressed
  • contrasts between possible conceptual answers, since these are useful in moving “beyond” the familiar or conventional
  • the flow of the discussion rather than external constraints such as schedules or deadlines.

 

* For an earlier, expanded, version of this essay, see essay T-3 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf