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A Fateful Trend or a Transient Mood?

September 2, 2014

Observing small groups of people engage in dialogue with each other has led Dan Yankelovich to cautious optimism about our country’s future.

Our democracy is betraying ever-stronger symptoms of stress. Congress is too polarized to take action on urgent problems. The President reels from one crisis to another with sagging levels of public approval. The business community seems blind to everything except its own profitability. Doctors, lawyers, colleges and universities thrive in their own isolated silos, often pursuing their own agendas at the expense of the larger society.

How serious is the widespread sense of our society unraveling?

Does it foretell a trend likely to grow even worse? Or is it a transient mood that will dissipate as our economy improves? Is it deep and profound, or is it superficial and subject to change when circumstances change? What would make it change for the better?

In the quest for answers, I want to share with you some results of extensive research I’ve conducted with the public over the past few decades. The research findings shed light on a number of these questions. They lead me to adopt a cautious optimism. They create reasonable grounds for hope for our future.

In recent decades I have conducted a new in-depth form of research called dialogic research. It seeks to engage small samples of the public in dialogue with one another. It differs markedly from the more familiar forms of public research such as public opinion polls, individual interviews and focus groups.

Superficially, dialogic research most closely resembles focus groups. Typically, focus groups are two- to three-hour discussions with small groups of consumers or citizens to explore their attitudes about or test their reactions to a product or social issue.

These groups use dialogue to achieve a high level of mutual understanding among people who disagree with one another.
It can happen here.

Dialogic research sessions are usually twice as long as focus groups. Most frequently, they are full-day sessions. They have different purposes than focus groups and they observe different rules.

Unlike focus groups, the purpose of dialogic research sessions is not simply to reveal people’s attitudes and feelings or to test their reaction to a product or public policy. Dialogic groups are much more ambitious. These groups use dialogue to achieve a high level of mutual understanding among people who disagree with one another. They dig behind highly controversial issues such as abortion, illegal immigration, taxes, climate change and gun control.

For example, Public Agenda incorporates dialogic research into its Learning Curve methodology. In extended focus groups, participants first engage in open discussions about their views and experiences about the topic at hand. Next, they are presented in a nonpartisan fashion with key facts about the issue as they ask questions and work through what those facts mean for people’s lives. Participants then engage in facilitated deliberation, during which they consider a variety of approaches to resolving the issue at hand. Finally, in small surveys and one-on-one follow-up interviews, participants reflect on the deliberations and talk about their views.

This methodology assesses how participants’ opinions evolve as they move along the Learning Curve. Recent participants in Learning Curve focus groups about health care costs were able to move beyond their ample frustration about the U.S. health care system in relatively little time. After engaging with some key facts, participants deliberated on a few different approaches to reducing the burden of health care costs. They were not only willing but eager to weigh even complicated, technical approaches, and they did so civilly.

One participant perhaps summed up the benefits of dialogic research, saying, “There were some differences but I think ultimately everybody was willing to compromise. Now, why the government can’t come to that consensus, I have no idea.”

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.

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Daniel Yankelovich

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