Roundhouse Student Journal

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index

Martin King

The DQI seems to invite the absurd notion of comparing and balancing different aspects of speech. For example, to allow statements declaring that “the justifications were inferior, but the participation was good, so overall the discourse was”, does not seem a coherent or desirable usage of discourse ethics theory. Steenbergen et al do not address these issues. Since there is no convincing qualification for the conception of current coding categories, producing more categories in an attempt to capture the theory would seem misconceived. A final point would be that the test for reliability (comparing two coders results) was unconvincing since both coders were involved in the production of the DQI (Steenbergen et al 2003), and were more likely to have reached consensus over what the categories consisted of, and therefore much less likely to reveal ambiguities in instructions than two coders not involved might be. The criticisms raised suggest that attempting to measure ideals identified by discourse ethics through qualities objectively observable in the content of expressions will be problematic. This paper will now demonstrate how the act of coding does not achieve the objectivity claimed, and suggests that attempting this may be undesirable.

The position of the coders and objectivity

The coders are expected to make judgements on matters that could not possibly retain absolute objectivity, such as the quality of participants’ justifications, and the degree of respect that participants exhibit towards others. Consider the example Steenbergen et al give of an inferior justification: in the speech of Conservative MP Jacqui Lait, she makes a demand for the requirement of receipts for people claiming childcare allowances, since in theory they could spend their allowance on washing machines. Steenbergen et al immediately misconstrues the argument as a claim that people would spend the money frivolously or are likely to (for which Lait provides no evidence) (Steenbergen et al 2003:32). One could argue that an argument genuinely engaging with Lait would challenge whether it obtained that people could spend the allowance on washing machines. Furthermore this whole act seems to re-orientate the discourse as if it were between the coders and the other participants. It also challenges the notion that coders are recording objective facts, since the reading seems to rely in part on the coders’ interpretation. Consider another possibility: suppose Lait was suggesting that receipts be demanded, not because she thought it was likely that people would spend child care allowance frivolously, but rather as an attempt to pre-empt any accusation that recipients could abuse the policy, which would threaten public support for social welfare. Suppose the other participants were aware of this inference. Suppose Lait assumed participants were aware of her intentions so neither she, nor the participants felt she had not conveyed her concerns authentically. It is possible that the speech contributed to a good act of deliberative discourse, while the coders would render it insincere or an inferior inference because they did not recognize the true nature of what was being communicated. This implies that the coders may not have access to the inferences and subtleties that might exist between the participants of discourse. Their interpretation of respect and justification may not correspond with the general consensus of the participants (indeed it seems that coders, as outside observers, are necessarily in this position, even if their readings correspond). The DQI seems to have failed to measure deliberative quality accurately, since discourse ethics is concerned with participants’ actual behaviour towards other participants and how this is perceived by other participants – not merely the subjective speculations of outside observers.

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

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