by Hans Blokland and Raíssa Silveira

Since 2016 Social Science Works has organized and implemented almost forty rows of deliberative workshops with refugees and German natives. Together with the participants, in our workshops we try to develop, mainly by asking questions and feeding discussions, an understanding of the pivotal values of an open, democratic society: what are these values, how can they be defended, how do they hang together, how can they be understood and justified as an interwoven pattern of values and insights on (social) life. We discuss, among others, ethical and political pluralism, monism, democracy, freedom (of expression, association and religion), personal autonomy, tolerance, human rights, identity, discrimination, racism, masculinity, femininity, sex equality, and homosexuality (an overview can be found here).

On our deliberative assumptions and approach we published before, among others, “How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach and experiences”, and, for more immoderate circumstances, “Challenging extreme claims for truth: how to deliberate the open, pluralist society with monist thinkers”. We also hope that deliberation can play a role in the prevention of radicalization: “Countering radicalization: what the research on deliberation teaches us”.

Besides 14 series of workshops with refugees from, among others, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroun, Kenya and Eritrea, we organized 22 series of workshops with civil volunteers and professional social workers assisting refugees to integrate in German society. As in the other workshops, we met with on average twelve participants for about fifteen hours in total and discussed the same themes, as well as, how to deliberate these with native and recently arrived citizens in such ways that insight, understanding and consensus are advanced.

Until now, we have organized workshops with German citizens in Brandenburg, Berlin, Schleswig-Holstein, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Rheinland-Pfalz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Hamburg. The workshops with refugees took all place in Brandenburg. In total, we talked in depth with about 250 natives and 200 refugees.

The general aims of Social Science Works are to develop new ways of meaningful citizen participation and to advance new strategies to strengthen civic and political competences. We try to further integration and democratic participation, and to counter populism and radicalization.

To advance this, information and knowledge is needed about how people can be engaged in deliberations that bring forth insight, mutual understanding, and consensus. Therefore, we research the workings of deliberative workshops, the motivations of citizens to participate in civic activities, as well as, the political values of newcomers and natives. We are collecting large amounts of data (via surveys, participative observations, and interviews) that could contribute to our knowledge on deliberation, democratization and integration.

In the coming time, we will publish a row of articles on our empirical observations and analyses. Apart from rather “thick” descriptions of the workshops, these will include statistical analyses of the surveys that many of our participants filled in. In these they were asked about their beliefs and values regarding the topics we usually discuss in our workshops, as well as about their experiences within the workshops.

In this first article, we give an overview of the results of the feedback forms we asked the participants to fill in at the end of the workshops.[1] Before going into this, we present some considerations on deliberation-research.

Research on deliberation: some pitfalls.

Regarding deliberative events or workshops there are many questions to ask (but not always easily to answer). Research can be done on: the optimum institutional, cultural and personal conditions needed for deliberation (from party systems and cultures to personality types); on the deliberative process itself (assuming that deliberation has an independent effect, we can research what actually happens when people deliberate and whether we can influence this by organizing or steering the deliberations in different ways); and on the end results (Bächtiger and Wyss 2013). These results could be manifold: the preferences can change, preferably in the direction of the common good; the preferences can become better informed and more coherent; people can get a better understanding of each other’s positions, their tolerance and respect could increase and they could become more willing to reach a working agreement or compromise; and people can get more trust in their own political abilities, in those of others, and in democracy itself.

It goes without saying that the methodological challenges for this kind of research are enormous: the number of variables, the number of their interactions, as well as the problem to “measure” many variables in a meaningful way, make it hard to reach firm conclusions. The most we can find are some plausible indications and tendencies.

What do we like to accomplish with the workshops? And, therefore, what should we “measure”? First of all, we want to show and to experience that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss with other citizens fundamental values, ideas and perspectives that too often are not talked about in our societies. It is a general experience in citizenship, deliberation, reflection, civility, social and political participation that hopefully will prepare the ground for many more deliberative exchanges.

Consequently, the aim of our deliberative workshops is not just to communicate fundamental ideas and values, but to create a social setting in which people are able to discuss these ideas and values freely and courteously. We offer an experience and training in the communication of often very sensitive topics, topics that can lead to misunderstandings, frictions, conflicts and radicalizations. The workshops aim to help people, migrants as well as natives, to express and openly discuss in a respectful way ideas, values, orientations, and habits that often stay implicit and therefore develop into unproductive, disruptive conflicts. We try to resolve frictions, before they become unmanageable struggles.

We cannot be certain that all the participants fully understand everything that is put forward during our deliberations. But even when not everything is fully comprehended, the experience that it is possible to talk sensibly on this kind of topics, is essential. The discussions on homosexuality are an extreme example: many people, certainly from non-western cultures, never talk about the topic, it is a taboo. Some participants might have talked about it openly for the very first time. We might not have changed their mind. But we certainly demonstrated that one can have a consistent, coherent discussion on it. The rest hopefully comes later.

Last but not least, what we in the end can achieve and aim for is to seed some doubt, to create some cracks and to open some windows for reflection. Thus, by going into democracy, ethical and political pluralism, freedom, tolerance, or identity we show that there is not much we can be really certain and therefore dogmatic about. Values clash and need to be balanced. Values have different weights in different circumstances. Consequently, balancing values is a continuous endeavor. We want and we need freedom because there are no eternal, universal truths about how to live one’s life. We want and need democracy basically for the same reason: we need a procedure to reach compromises and agreements because people have different, regularly conflicting, ideas, interests and values, and because there are no king-philosophers or other dictators that know all. Identities are, to an important extent, the product of coincidental times and places; they are flexible and changing. Autonomy means that one understands under the influence of which factors one’s identity has been formed.

Consequently, much is fluid, unstable, in the process of change, and all democracy, pluralism, freedom or respect in the ends rest on doubt, on the understanding that there are no final, universal and eternal answers to many of the questions we have to deal with in our (social) life. But this all does not mean that anything goes: on the contrary, there is a constant need to talk things over, again and again, and we can do that in sensible, fruitful ways coming to plausible conclusions.

Now, how to research this? Again, people do not change their mind easily, and even when they did change their mind, they will not readily admit or realize this. Therefore, it is very difficult to find out to what extent people have come to other positions during deliberative workshops. We do not try to answer this by, for instance, bluntly asking participants at the end of our meetings how much they have changed. They do not know, they do not want to tell, and changes might appear much later, silently, working in the background. Maybe, the changes of opinion that can be observed, are only the result of socialization, group-pressure and conformism (cf. Rosenberg 2014), and the people that appear to have changed their mind, do not “really” believe in their new position. But, then, did they “really” believe in their old standpoint?[2]

On top of that: how to research whether people have become more doubtful of their own positions, have gotten a better understanding of the epistemological limitations of their standpoints, and therefore have gotten a better understanding of the foundations of pluralism, democracy, freedom, respect and tolerance? And how to research whether people, despite this understanding, are still firmly able to defend and to believe in pluralistic, democratic, tolerant, open-minded positions? How to measure these substantial-rational qualities in a meaningful way? It is possible to research some tendencies and we have some ideas here.[3] But the research findings will always remain indicative.

The research debate on deliberation slightly resembles the one on the workings of art subsidies. Art too can have many important effects that are hardly to measure: art can constitute a social lab where new forms and thoughts are developed and tested, art can help us to reconcile with the irreconcilable, art can move us with unexpected beauty in a barbaric existence, art can express truths in powerful, evocative ways, truths that can only be inadequately expressed with non-esthetical means. We all know in some sense this is true. When we have been fortunate, we learned this via the experience of many expressions of art. No real need to “prove” this. Still, in an age of “evidence-based policies” too often we fall for the temptation to provide quantitative evidence that art subsidies are a good investment of tax-revenues. Regularly, we then end up with research showing that art subsidies are good for tourism (cf. Blokland 2013).

Feedback forms

Despite all the methodological issues, we tried to get some relevant feedback from our participants. As said, the workshops are aimed to demonstrate to the participants that deliberating with fellow citizens about the fundamental issues we put on the agenda could be enlightening, bonding and entertaining. Hopefully, they have the feeling they improved their understanding about particular issues and about how these issues hang together. Hopefully, after fifteen hours of deliberation they have the feeling that it is worthwhile to communicate with fellow citizens about these issues. And hopefully, they would like to participate in this kind of events again.

In our form we asked six indirect questions about the experiences of our participants. Also because most of our participants were extremely polite and supportive people, asking direct questions like “Did you learn something in the workshop?” or “Do you think the moderator did a good job?” often does not bring much, apart from measuring how nice the different groups of participants were. Consequently, we asked them:

  1. The most important points on each topic were dealt with in the group discussions. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)
  2. I found many of the comments of other people helpful for my own perspective on these issues. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)
  3. I’ve found that people with different views often had very good reasons for their views. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)
  4. I believe that I have developed a better understanding of some subjects. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)
  5. I believe that I have developed a better understanding of how certain topics are related. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)
  6. I would like to participate in a program like this again. (1 Completely disagree – 5 Completely agree)[4]

The participants of the workshops for refugees were also asked three open questions:

  1. Are there certain values, traditions or opinions in Germany that you find very different from you own and make it harder for you to live here?
  2. Have we dealt with topics that were unpleasant for you and which you did not like talking about?
  3. Were there other topics that you would have liked to talk about and which were not discussed?

Not many people answered these open questions. When they did, “homosexuality” was often mentioned (4 times) in response to question 2. This theme regularly caused anxiety (we will report on this separately). In response to the first question several people wrote that racism and xenophobia worried them. And regarding the third question several respondents said they would have liked to discuss German culture and history more than we did. Respondents especially wanted to learn more about how they could get into contact with Germans. The (Dutch) moderator and author of this article did not know either.

Results

In 2018, 73 feedbacks were collected after workshops with “multiplicators”, German volunteers and professionals assisting newcomers to integrate in German society. We did this in the West of Germany – Andernach, Germersheim, Osthofen, Köln and Hamburg – and in the East – Berlin (Lichtenberg), Neuruppin, Delitzsch and Haldensleben. In the previous year we had a smaller number of workshops for multiplicators. We received 52 feedbacks from participants in Neuss, Mettmann, Kiel and Berlin (Neuköln) in the West, and from participants in Jüterbog and Babelsberg in the East. Last but not least, in 2017 and 2018 we collected 41 feedbacks from the participants of our workshops for refugees. These took place in Babelsberg, Luckau, Gross Glienicke (2x), Potsdam, Bad Belzig, Eggersdorf, Teltow, Waßmannsdorf, and Fürstenwalde (2x).[5] Consequently, the total number of feedbacks is 166.

Feedback of the multiplicators in 2017 and 2018

When we take all the questions together, 74.3% of the in total 750 answers were positive: “agree” (47.6%) or “completely agree” (26.7%). Negative answers represent only 8% of the total (3% “Completely disagree”). Neutral answers represent 18%, but with great variation along each question, as we can see in the following data. The mean answer for all questions together is 3.98/5, which we consider a very encouraging result.

  1. The most important points on each topic were dealt with in the group discussions.

The mean answer for this question is 4.3, with 89% of respondents agreeing or completely agreeing that the relevant points were covered by the group discussions. The very small number of very negative answers (1.5%) came, as with the other questions, mainly from participants of a workshop in Delitzsch, Sachsen (we will also provide some qualitative descriptions of the workshops where we will go into the different experiences in this town).

  1. I found many of the comments of other people helpful for my own perspective on these issues.

The mean answer for this question is 4, with 80% of respondents agreeing at some level that other people’s comments were constructive to their own opinions and views on the issues discussed.

  1. I’ve found that people with different views often had very good reasons for their views.

As with the previous feedback question, the ability to not only learn from but also to understand the reasons for someone else’s opinions and views is the desirable outcome of deliberation, fundamental to a democratic mindset. The mean answer for this question is 3.66, with 62.7% of respondents agreeing at some level that others had good justifications for their views. When we compare the answers to the second and third question with the other answers, it seems that the participants were somewhat more content with the workshop itself than with the contributions of the other participants. We are pleased that the input of the moderators was apparently appreciated. Ideally, though, in a well-developed pluralist democracy their role would be negligible.

  1. I believe that I have developed a better understanding of some subjects.

The mean answer for that question is 3.88, with 70% of respondents agreeing or completely agreeing that the discussions were helpful in developing a better understanding on the discussed issues.

  1. I believe that I have developed a better understanding of how certain topics are related.

The mean answer for this question is 3.94, with 75% of respondents (completely) agreeing that they had developed a better understanding of the interrelations between the topics. This is an encouraging result since we especially try to further the insight how definitions and justifications of (“essentially contested”) concepts like pluralism, democracy, freedom, emancipation and respect hang together.

  1. I would like to participate in a program like this again.

The mean answer for this question is 4.1, with 79% of respondents agreeing or completely agreeing that they would like to participate in other deliberations. Obviously, this result is no less encouraging: we hope that the participants experience that discussing fundamental issues with fellow citizens is not just enlightening, but also entertaining.

Differences between West and East Germany

Are there any differences between the feedbacks of the participants in the West and the East? In accordance with our experiences during the workshops, we indeed found differences.[6]

Regarding the first question (the most important points on each topic were dealt with in the group discussions), the people in the West were more positive than those in the East: In the West 51.3% “completely agreed”, in the East 34.1%. In the West 95% of the respondents “agreed” or “totally agreed”, in the East 78% of the respondents.

Did people find the comments of other people helpful for their own perspective on the issues we discussed (question 2)? We here observe comparable tendencies: In the East, 17% of participants completely agreed, while that number in the West was 28%. The percentages of the people that “agreed” was in both cases about 56%. More people in the East than in the West neither agreed or disagreed or were plain negative about the contributions of other participants.

The third question, “I’ve found that people with different views often had very good reasons for their views”, received the largest number of negative answers in the feedback. This number was still relatively small, though: About 68% of the respondents in the East and 54% in the West “agreed” or “totally agreed” with the statement. In the East 20% and in the West 36% neither agreed nor disagreed.

What to make of these somewhat different results? Were people in the East tempted to be slightly more positive about the standpoints of others because they feel that standpoints that in the public sphere are particularly associated with the East (the support of populist standpoints is about twice as big in the East as in the West) are stigmatized? We got this impression during the workshops. In the West many people were worried about populist tendencies that they particularly observed in the East and were also less patient with the related views and opinions. This might have played a role in their answers. The question though, was how they valued the reasons for different views that people gave in the workshop.

More than in the East did the Western participants “believe that they had developed a better understanding of some subjects” (question 4). Almost 80% of the participants in the West answered “agree” of “totally agree”. In the East this percentage was 51. It might be that the last group of participants is better educated or informed, or that this group collectively feels stigmatized. Consequently, their members feel less willing to admit that they have heard something new.

Significant differences we also found regarding the statement: “I believe that I have developed a better understanding of how certain topics are related” (question 5). In the East, respectively 9.8% and 56% responded “completely agree” and “agree” to the statement. In West Germany, this number changed to 32% “completely agree” and 48.7% “agree”. 22% of the participants in the East and 16.7% in the West answered undecided.

Would the participants like to participate in a workshop like this again (question 6)? In West Germany the overwhelming majority of the respondents, 88.4%, “completely agreed” or “agreed”. In the East this percentage was 61. In East Germany 17% of the respondents “completely disagreed” or “disagreed”. In West Germany this number was only 4%.

As remarked before, negative replies in East Germany were predominantly given in Delitzsch. When we take all the answers to the six different questions together, then this group of participants (or better: a group in this group) had four times more negative feedbacks than in East Germany on average.[7] 1.5% of all the answers in Delitzsch belong to the category “completely agree”. In the whole of East-Germany this percentage was 20.  The following table summarizes these data:

% Completely agree Agree Neither agree nor disagree Disagree Completely disagree
Delitzsch, Sachsen 1.5 31.8 39.4 12.1 15.2
East Germany 20 47.2 21.7 6.8 4.3

Still, even when we take out Delitzsch from our dataset, we find that the participants in the West were somewhat more pleased with the deliberations than in the East. Several factors might explain this (the qualitative descriptions of the workshops that we will publish, might shed more light on this).

First, it might be that citizens in the West have more experience with this kind of discussions or deliberations. They knew better what to expect and also evidently took more pleasure in the exchanges. Asking a question like “what do you consider a democratic decision” often stirred an enthusiastic and frank deliberation where people tried to find plausible answers by building up together an understanding of all the issues and dilemmas involved. In the East people were regularly more afraid to give “wrong” answers, were frequently a bit suspicious or seem to take a question like this even as an insult: “would you like to suggest that we (in the East) do not know the answer?” Certainly in Sachsen this seemed to be an unwanted association. Many people seem to feel disrespected by representatives of academia, press, politics, or “the West” and posing a simple question as the one above can trigger profoundly different emotions and answers than in the West.

Second, we already know from the existing literature (cf. Blokland 2011, 2015) that happy, flourishing people with a strong identity and a good sense of self-worth, people that also feel safe and respected in their community, are better deliberators than unhappy people. Are people in the West happier than in the East? Probably so.[8] Certainly in wealthy, flourishing and healthy places in Rheinland-Pfalz (great wine too!) or in Köln and Hamburg, we found many people that just seem to be very cheerful and content. They were eager to have a good time together, and so we had.

Differences between Refugees and Multiplicators

On average, the refugees gave even more positive feedbacks than the (most of the time) German multiplicators. For example, when we take all the questions together, then 47% of the answers of the refugees falls in the category “completely agree”. For the multiplicators this percentage is 26.7 (see the charts below).

Nevertheless, the refugees often had bigger reservations towards participating in the workshops, than their German counterparts. Probably, in their home country they had had negative or no experiences with talking openly on fundamental ethical and political issues. Often they were also fearful to give wrong answers that might have consequences for their status in Germany. But after they had settled, they often were very much into it. They were curious and felt, we believe, taken seriously as citizens, able to develop their own thoughts on the issues we proposed to discuss. We also have the feeling that regularly they were relieved that they finally had the opportunity to discuss these themes (cf. Blokland 2017b). They were aware that many Europeans fear that they have profoundly different positions. But their hosts seldom openly addressed these supposed differences. We did this straightforward, also as a sign of respect, and this was much appreciated.

Feedback of the refugees on the separate questions.

61% of the refugees “completely agreed” with the statement “The most important points on each topic were dealt with in the group discussions” (question 1). 39% “agreed”. For the multiplicators the total was not 100 but “only” 89%.

85% of the refugees “completely agreed” or “agreed” with the statement “I found many of the comments of other people helpful for my own perspective on these issues” (question 2). For the multiplicators this percentage was 89.

25.5% of the refugees “completely agreed” and 53.5% “agreed” with the statement “I’ve found that people with different views often had very good reasons for their views” (question 3). For the multiplicators these percentages were 16.2 respectively, 46.5. Of the last group 32% gave a neutral answer. For the refugees this percentage was 19.5.

80% of the refugees “completely agreed” or “agreed” with the statement “I believe that I have developed a better understanding of some subjects” (question 5). For the multiplicators this percentage was 70%. 15%, respectively, 23.5% answered neutrally.

31.7% of the refugees “completely agreed” and 44% “agreed” with the statement “I believe that I have developed a better understanding of how certain topics are related” (question 5). For the multiplicators these percentages were 24.4 respectively 51.3. Only 2.5% of the refugees gave a negative answer (6% of the multiplicators).

The last question was “I would like to participate in a program like this again.” 80.5% of the refugees answered “completely agree” and 7.3% “agreed”. 79% of the multiplicators gave a positive answer too, with slightly more people “completely agreeing” than “agreeing”. 5% of the refugees would not like to participate again, 8.4% of the multiplicators (mainly in Sachsen).

Concluding remarks

The people that visited the deliberative workshops more than often had a good or even very good time and mostly expressed the strong wish to participate again in comparable events. They also had the feeling, or stated as such, that they had learned something about the topics and about the ways these topics hang together. Deepening the insight about the interrelations between the definitions and justifications of the pivotal concepts we discussed, certainly was an important goal of our workshops. In comparison to these very positive experiences the participants were somewhat less enthusiastic about the contributions of their fellow citizens. Nevertheless, we ourselves were often impressed by the abilities of native and new citizens to build up together an understanding of the issues we brought to the table. Skills are evidently developed by practice and also for this reason we should revitalize and energize our democracies by making deliberation a constitutive element of our societies. It is not always easy to recruit people for these events, but once they participate, they rarely make negative experiences.

Literature

Bächtiger, Andre und Dominik Wyss. 2014. Empirische Deliberationsforschung – ein systematischer Überblick. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Politikwissenschaft. Vol.7. Pp.155-181.

Blokland, Hans T. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge: Robert A. Dahl and his Critics on Modern Political Science and Politics, Burlington (VT) and Farnham: Ashgate publishing.

Blokland, Hans T. 2013. Cultuur is geen marktgoed (Culture is no economic commodity). Beleid en Maatschappij, Vol.40, No.4, pp.427-31.

Blokland, Hans T. 2017a. Deliberation against Populism: Reconnecting Radicalizing citizens in Germany and Elsewhere.

Blokland, Hans T. 2017b. Taking people seriously: a new approach for countering populism and furthering integration.

Blokland, Hans T. 2018a. How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach.

Blokland, Hans T. 2018b. Challenging extreme claims for truth: how to deliberate the open pluralist society with monist thinkers.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2018c. Countering radicalization: what the research on deliberation teaches us.

Fishkin, James. 1995.  The Voice of the People:  Public Opinion and Democracy.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rosenberg, Shawn W. 2014. Citizen competence and the psychology of deliberation. In: Elstub, Stephen and Peter Mclaverty (eds). Deliberative Democracy: Issues and Cases. Edinburg University Press, pp. 98-117.

Notes

[1] Over the years several people have importantly contributed to the collection and analysis of the data. We especially would like to thank Tessa Schneider and Alexandra Johansen. For comments on a draft of this article we thank Florentin Münstermann.

[2] Criticaster of deliberation regularly ask much more from deliberation, than they ask from any other form of social life. Suddenly people have to fully understand and to really believe in their new positions, because otherwise the deliberation is not a genuine success. But different people take out different things of a deliberative workshop. Some might indeed only take over a position after they have socially found out that this position is the most accepted in the particular group or in society at large. They are predominantly conformists. Unfortunately, humans have many shortcomings. But is it still not progress when some people conform to particular positions that can be better defended, although they themselves do not fully understand or follow this defense?

[3] We also proposed several institutions to support possible research in this direction. This research, though, takes up much more time and resources than we had available until now. We proposed, for instance, to deliberate with different groups for a year and to conduct, among others, repeated surveys and content-analyses of essays that the participants would be asked to write on essentially contested concepts like democracy. Even then, the results can mainly be indicative. To name just one additional problem here: when a research takes longer, the number of intervening variables on the personal, social and political level increases, with the consequence that causal relationships become progressively hard to detect. This problem can again only be countered by substantially increasing the number of participants.

[4] The first three questions were inspired by Fishkin (1996: 223).

[5] The number of feedbacks is smaller than the number of participants because, for random reasons (like forgetting to bring the forms), we did not always collect feedback. We also asked the participants to fill in the forms only at the very end of the workshop. The group often did not break up, though, but hanged on for some time, continuing the conversations and exchanging contact data. Regularly, because of other obligations like childcare, people had left before we could hand out the forms. We do not expect that this non-response has a structural impact on the end results.

[6] It has to be taken into account that we organized a bigger number of workshops in (former) West Germany. Combined these workshops had 78 respondents. In (former) East Germany a total of 47 people filled in a feedback form (in Jüterbog, Babelsberg, Berlin (Lichtenberg), Neuruppin, Delitzsch and Haldensleben). The presence of 3 extremely negative participants in Delitzsch obviously had a relatively big impact on the average results in the former GDR-states.

[7] As teachers and other entertainers know, the presence of just one dominant person in a group of fifteen that, for any personal reasons or motivations, persistently stirs negativity, can have profound consequences for the outcomes of any event. We will give some examples of this in the empirical descriptions of the workshops. Obviously, the larger the number of workshops and observations, the smaller the influence of this kind of variables and the more chance to observe tendencies.

[8] See also our populism project.

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