When deliberation divides: How people with strong views respond to political disagreement

Magdalena Wojcieszak, University of Pennsylvania


Increasingly, modern societies are ethnically, racially, and ideologically heterogeneous. Divided nations include Poland, where sexual minority rights polarize the elites and the public or the United States, where contentious debates have cropped up over issues ranging from immigration policy to evolution in the school curriculum. How might such political divides be bridged? Some theorists propose that deliberation, which exposes participants to opposing views, would encourage people to take those views into account in reconsidering their predilections, foster understanding, and ultimately contribute to social cohesion (see Delli Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004). Other scholars, however, worry that when citizens encounter political disagreement, their strongly held predilections might alter the deliberative process and its effects (Walzer, 2005). When exposed to dissimilar views, people might be motivated to uphold their beliefs and emerge from deliberation with polarized attitudes (Nickerson, 1998) and with antagonistic attitudes towards the out-group. Both views remain prevalent, and each has its merits and drawbacks; and the existing evidence is not conclusive. ^ This dissertation aims to offer systematic evidence on potential disadvantages generated by deliberation. It examined three factors that may influence deliberative process and its outcomes, resulting in polarized views and intensified conflicts: psychological processes related to biased information processing, sociological factors that pertain to issue characteristics, and sociopolitical factors associated with mobilization to collective action. Two quasi-experimental studies were analyzed: the Electronic Dialogue Project, which entailed structured and moderated online groups discussing various sociopolitical issues and the Polish Dialogue Project, which involved heterogeneous groups debating sexual minority rights in face-to-face settings that approximated deliberative ideals. ^ Results indicate that, on average, participants in online discussions tended to maintain their views. At the same time, strongly opinionated participants were more likely than moderates to uphold or strengthen their opinions following discussions where they felt there was disagreement. This effect appeared on such "hot" issues as gun control or the death penalty, but not on "cold" issues—such as teacher funding or Internet voting—that do not engage moral positions, core values or self-concepts. Results also suggest that it is perceived disagreement, rather than actual expressed opposition during online discussions, that leads to these effects. ^ Results from the Polish Dialogue Project offer additional evidence that deliberative settings may exacerbate strong predilections. The results indicate that those strongly opinionated deliberators who perceived disagreement and conflict polarized on such issues as sexual minorities in the teaching profession, which were discussed by the groups. They also polarized on the issues that were not discussed, such as homosexuals being sinners. The results further find that all participants—especially strongly opinionated deliberators who perceived low and high disagreement and conflict—reported that their prior attitudes had strengthened. ^ Finally, following deliberations perceived as disagreeable and conflictual, participants with firmly held views were mobilized to such public and confrontational political actions around sexual minority rights as protesting or petitioning, but not to such communicative actions as discussing the issue or persuading others. Perceived disagreement and conflict also evoked a sense of a collective action frame, and primarily injustice, among strongly opinionated participants. A collective action frame, in turn, further mobilized those participants to communicative as well as to public and confrontational actions around sexual minority rights in Poland. ^ This dissertation concludes by discussing the implications of these findings for deliberative theory and research, as well as for practitioners who promote deliberations to bridge social cleavages and conflicts between oppositional groups. ^

Subject Area

Mass Communications

Recommended Citation

Wojcieszak, Magdalena, "When deliberation divides: How people with strong views respond to political disagreement" (2009). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3363689.