Roundhouse Student Journal

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index

Martin King

This paper explores Steenbergen et al’s Discourse Quality Index (DQI). The DQI is an attempt to develop an instrument capable of measuring the quality of a discourse. Steenbergen et al intends to base the assessment of discourse quality on the ideals of discourse identified by Habermas. This paper briefly outlines the discourse ethics theory of Habermas that the project draws on. The paper also describes the design and application of the DQI carried out by Steenbergen et al. The paper will then discuss issues around this application; a central problem lies in the DQI’s attempt to develop an objective method of judging the quality of discourse. This is inconsistent with the significance placed on subjective and intersubjective features of communication in Habermas’ theory. This results in coding instructions that distort and limit the ideals it aims to measure, and the subjective beliefs of the coders being misinterpreted as objective facts about discourse. The paper will consider how these problems are significant in regarding applications of Critical Theory in general; it will argue that the problems encountered in this application do not exclude any application of Critical Theory, although they do highlight the significance of the distinction between the intersubjective and objective within Habermas’ theory, and the need for applications to maintain this distinction.


This paper concerns the application of discourse ethics to the empirical study of deliberation in political discourse, specifically the application of Steenbergen et al. Steenbergen et al develop a discourse quality index (DQI), an instrument designed to measure the extent to which real life discourse is deliberative (conceived according to the principles prescribed by Habermas’ discourse ethics). They apply the DQI to the parliamentary debate titled “women (government priorities)” which took place in the British House of Commons (Steenbergen et al 2003).

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index - Martin King [PDF file]

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