Issues Forums and Civic Engagement
My research on “issues forums” shows the impact of participating in informal discussions on current public concerns. This continuing line of research extends back to my dissertation, “Democratic Citizenship and the National Issues Forums.” As a graduate student, I had discovered the National Issues Forums, which are now celebrating their 25th anniversary as a popular discussion format for bringing together community members, adult basic literacy students, and a range of social groups and professional organizations.
The Kettering Foundation, which designed the Forums, presumed that participating in their deliberative forums could transform private individuals with unreflective opinions into public citizens capable of making informed judgments.1 My research on the forums has borne out some—but not all—of the Foundation’s claims. Issues forums can teach deliberative skills and dispositions,2 but they have complex effects on public opinion. The Foundation’s aim was to encourage nuanced, non-ideological thinking through discussion, but one of the clearest effects I found is that deliberation can strengthen the ideological clarity of one’s views.3 If one goes into a forum on energy policy with somewhat liberal views, one is most likely to come out with more consistently liberal (and anti-conservative) views. This does not mean a person has become ideologically rigid across a range of issues; rather, deliberation promotes clear and consistent beliefs on a given topic, which is more likely a sign of attitudinal sophistication more than rigidity.
My research has also looked at the forces shaping public opinion beyond the relatively formal and crafted setting of an issues forum. One study shows how political conversations can develop issue-specific knowledge to the extent they are deliberative (respectful, balanced) exchanges,4 and another study examines how deliberative conversational habits can grow out of other forms of political engagement and civic attitudes.5A more recent investigation finds that Deliberative Polls do not have a clear ideological skew in how they shift public opinion, though the polls have tended to steer participants toward more collectivist.6
1 Gastil, J., & Dillard, J. P. (1999). The aims, methods, and effects of deliberative civic education through the National Issues Forums. Communication Education, 48, 179-192.
2 Gastil, J. (2004). Adult civic education through the National Issues Forums: A study of how adults develop civic skills and dispositions through public deliberation. Adult Education Quarterly, 54, 308-328.
3 Gastil, J., Black, L., & Moscovitz, K. (2008). Ideology, attitude change, and deliberation in small face-to-face groups. Political Communication, 25, 23-36.
4 Gastil, J. (2006). How balanced discussion shapes knowledge, public perceptions, and attitudes: A case study of deliberation on the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Journal of Public Deliberation, 2.
5 Moy, P., & Gastil, J. (2006). Discussion networks, media use, and deliberative conversation. Political Communication, 23, 443-460.6 Gastil, J., Bacci, C., Dollinger, M. (2010). Is deliberation neutral? Exploring patterns of attitude change during "The Deliberative Polls." Journal of Public Deliberation, 6(2).