Online deliberation among regional civil society groups - the case of the Caribbean
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Deliberative democracy has been promoted as a way improving legitimacy and political equality in policy debates. This dissertation seeks to understand how deliberation takes place within the intersection of two unique spaces: dialogue among members of regional civil society groups and communication in online fora. The motivation for this research is based on the notion that existing forms of decision-making have contributed to political inequality, a major issue in areas such as the Caribbean. Accordingly I examine the online discussions of three different civil society groups in the Caribbean. I looked at how certain variables in these fora were related to three of the main dimensions of deliberation, the use of reasoned arguments, reciprocity and reflection. With regard to reasoned arguments I examined how diversity among members, the participation of the moderator and the topic and scope of the conversation were pertinent to a discussion in a regional and multi-national setting. For reciprocity I looked at how variables related to time and the posting structure of a conversation were relevant in an online forum. Finally I looked at the strategies that were employed by participants as part of the communication process in an online forum and how these were related to processes of reflection. To address these questions I used a combination of content analysis and conversation analysis of email conversations and interviews with participants. One set of contributions from this dissertation is methodological through the development of a codebook and the novel application of conversation analysis to online deliberation. Also, the results are significant and can contribute to our understanding of deliberation in a context for which there has been little previous research. For example, I showed that national and occupational diversity can contribute to an increase in the proportion of reasoned arguments used in a conversation as does the presence of the moderator. However, these factors along with the scope and topic of a thread vary in their degree of influence on the use of reasoned arguments by the civil society group in question. I also showed that there are specific communication strategies that participants employ such as preference organization or speaker selection that are related to different forms of reflection evident in a conversation. Finally I observed that the posting structure of a conversation specifically the distribution of emails that participants send becomes less equal as reciprocity increases. This does not augur well for a deliberative ideal that envisions both reciprocity and equal participation. Furthermore, when considering deliberation as a whole, the results indicate that its different parts are not always correlated with each other. None of the lists has more than one significant correlation between the three dimensions of deliberation. In fact, reciprocity and the use of reasoned arguments were never significantly correlated in any of the lists. Together these results point to another main finding of this dissertation which is deliberation as a whole is difficult to observe in practice. Nevertheless I suggest that separately the results for each dimension can be useful from both a design perspective and for policy-makers in general. For example, encouraging the sharing of information and a more active moderator, having the opportunity to discuss regional issues could all help to promote a greater use of reasoned arguments overall. Experimenting with different ways in which group members can get to know each other might help to reduce the disparity between participation and reciprocity. Also encouraging participants to reply inline where possible, creating easier access to the message archives and having a system for collating threads and discussions online could all promote better reflection in the lists. Finally the list might benefit from having members go through an exercise of determining whether or not and in what way decision-making should be part of their discussions. With regard to policy-makers I note that several members reported benefits for policy-makers who themselves were members of the lists. This could stem from listening and learning from the discussions of other members or actually contributing to discussions. The groups also showed the potential to collate many different policy positions around a specific problem, thus assisting policy makers in understanding issues at a regional level.