Roundhouse Student Journal

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index

Martin King

Evaluation of the DQI

The DQI represents a particular attempt to apply discourse ethics using an objective measure. This paper argues that Steenbergen et al’s attempt to operationalise the theory produces conceptions that distort, reduce and omit vital notions of the ideals it aims to measure. This paper will argue that from these criticisms it is possible to identify a tension between the intended objectivity of the measure, the intention of Habermas’ theory, and qualities identified by discourse ethics. This paper considers the implications of these challenges for the application of Critical Theory to social issues, and in particular, to deliberative politics.

The DQI’s approach to Measuring Discourse

This paper will now demonstrate how the DQI distorts and limits the ideals it aims to measure. For example, the DQI determines normal participation according to whether an interruption is explicitly objected to by a participant or not. This is a great departure from the notion of participation expressed by Habermasian discourse ethics, which suggest that all those affected by a decision should ideally be included (Habermas 1996, Chambers 1996). The DQI does not attempt to measure the extent to which this is achieved. The results of this case study show that the DQI found normal participation (coded (1)) to be possible throughout. However, this does not satisfy the notion of participation used in discourse ethics: for example, the debate concerns policies affecting UK society, particularly women, and these people do not all take part. Arguably not all views are represented; only MPs (those successful in elections) are allowed to comment, and it is arguable that MPs did not cover the spectrum of views available on the subject. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to suppose that there existed potential coercion and pressure regarding views (for example, in terms of a statement’s implications on the speaker’s political career), and interruptions that were not explicitly objected to, but were nonetheless resented. The DQI does not measure these intuitive obstacles to participation. Various forms of reduction can be found in all categories. For example, the categories only consider evidence in speech; they do not consider non-verbal communication that offers a range of factors that could contribute or detract from an ideal. For example, a neutral statement may be delivered sarcastically, or accompanied by non-verbal communication suggesting disrespect or attempts to degrade the other participant, which may be obvious to the interlocutors but not identified by the DQI. Does this suggest a problem for measuring deliberative quality? The DQI claims to measure ideals of speech identified in Habermas’ discourse ethics, such as participation, by objectively examining the content of speech. However, it fails to register non-verbal aspects of interaction that inevitably influence discourse. One response may be to introduce more complex coding instructions. This paper will explore considerations that suggest such an exercise would still be insufficient.

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

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