what makes conversation go well (a network model)

I’m looking forward to presenting later today at NULab’s first annual conference, on the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

I think of the “public sphere” as all the venues where people come together to share experiences, emotions, and reasons in order to form public opinion. In turn, public opinion should then influence institutions; that makes the society democratic.

An open public sphere, as in the title of the conference, is one that permits and appropriately responds to every person’s ideas; no idea or person is blocked. The state can threaten the openness of the public sphere by censoring ideas or blocking individuals from participating. The marketplace can threaten the openness of the public sphere when, for instance, ISPs charge more money for some content, or when private donors flood the airwaves with campaign commercials. Thus, to preserve an open public sphere, we need policies like a strong First Amendment, net neutrality, and campaign finance reform.

But openness is not enough. The conversations within any public sphere can go well or badly. Along with several colleagues, I have been thinking about deliberation in the following way:

  1. People hold ideas prior to a conversation that we can think of as networks. Each idea may be connected to each other idea by reasons. The person’s network has content (what the ideas say) and also a form. For instance, someone might arrange all of her ideas around one central node, or might hold a set of disconnected principles.
  2. When we talk, we share portions of our existing networks, one node or one reason at a time.
  3. Interaction with other people may cause us to change our network. We can adopt ideas that other people disclose, see new connections or doubt that connections really hold, think of new ideas on our own, or even adopt contrary ideas. In any case, our personal networks are subject to change.
  4. The discussion itself can be modeled as one network to which the various participants have contributed nodes and links.

If we could develop a valid and reliable way of modeling an individual’s private network with respect to a given topic before a conversation, and then we put individuals in dialogue and modeled their interactions, I would predict that: 1) the formal properties of their networks before the discussion would influence the quality of the discussion, 2) the quality of the discussion would be related to changes in their personal networks, 3) an individual’s networks would tend to look formally similar even when the topic changed (e.g., some people would be prone to thinking about most topics in a centralized or in a scattered way), and 4) a given issue would tend to produce formally similar networks for diverse individuals (e.g., the abortion debate and a budget discussion would generate different-looking networks regardless of the participants).

There then follow a whole set of questions about what a good conversation looks like and how people should structure and change their thoughts.

See also: it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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