When reality strikes: Opinion changes among citizens and politicians during a deliberation on school closures

AuthorJanne Berg,Kim Strandberg
Date01 September 2020
Publication Date01 September 2020
International Political Science Review
2020, Vol. 41(4) 567 –583
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0192512119859351
When reality strikes: Opinion
changes among citizens and
politicians during a deliberation
on school closures
Kim Strandberg
Åbo Akademi University, Finland
Janne Berg
Åbo Akademi University, Finland
This article reports on deliberation between citizens and politicians in a citizens’ forum about closing small
schools and building a school center in a Finnish municipality. This real-world policy issue was highly contested
at the time of the deliberation. The purpose of the study was to analyze both the magnitude of opinion
changes and potential opinion convergence between citizens and politicians. The citizens’ forum used an
experimental design whereby half of the groups engaged in discussion under the guidance of a facilitator with
discussion rules, and the other half of the groups had no facilitation or rules. The analyses test how potential
opinion changes are mediated by how deliberators experience discussion quality and moderated by the type
of participant (citizen or politician). The findings show that opinion changes, both regarding magnitude and
convergence, are not uniform for politicians and citizens. Moreover, this study shows how different layers
of opinions may be affected differently by deliberation.
Experiment, opinion changes, deliberation, politicians, citizens
This study reports on a field experiment that brought together politicians and citizens to deliberate
in a citizens’ forum event held in a Finnish municipality in November 2016. The forum concerned
the closure of village schools and the construction of a school center. Of special interest was the fact
that there was a division of opinion among deliberators regarding what the solution to the school-
center problem should be. Local politicians favored the school center, whereas most citizens strongly
Corresponding author:
Kim Strandberg, Social Science Research Institute, Åbo Akademi University, Strandgatan 2, Vasa, 65100, Finland.
Email: kistrand@abo.fi
859351IPS0010.1177/0192512119859351International Political Science ReviewStrandberg and Berg
568 International Political Science Review 41(4)
opposed it. Our findings show that, even concerning this kind of value-laden issue, deliberation can
lead to some convergence of opinions between citizens and politicians, especially when the partici-
pants encountered new perspectives on the school-center issue during the deliberation.
Deliberation entails a communicative process with distinct elements of rationality. Scholars
usually mention inclusion, equality, reciprocity, rational argumentation, sincerity and respect as
key components of high-quality deliberation (e.g. Fung, 2003). The goal of deliberation is often to
achieve mutual understanding and to find a common ground concerning societal matters (Bächtiger
et al., 2014; Barabas, 2004: 689–690; Grönlund et al., 2015). The purpose of this study is to inves-
tigate how opinions change due to deliberation on a divisive societal issue and whether there are
any distinct patterns in opinion changes among politicians and citizens respectively. The study thus
focuses on group-composition effects (e.g. Farrar et al., 2009; Grönlund et al., 2015; Mendelberg
and Karpowitz, 2007) within deliberative settings. The study also builds on the literature about
deliberation between politicians and their constituents (e.g. Barrett et al., 2012; Button and Mattson
1999; Hendriks 2016; Minozzi et al., 2015). To systematically test the impact of deliberation per
se, we varied the discussion setting (cf. Strandberg et al., 2019): half of the groups engaged in
discussion with rules using facilitation (henceforth: facilitated deliberation) while the other half
had a free discussion without rules or facilitation (henceforth: non-facilitation). All of the discus-
sion groups contained a mix of citizens and politicians. We thus study how opinion changes are
affected by the type of discussion (facilitated deliberation or non-facilitation) and the type of delib-
erating actor (politician or citizen).
Mixed deliberation between citizens and politicians
From a systemic perspective on deliberation, the most important aspect is that the system as a
whole contains various interconnected spaces for deliberation (Elstub et al., 2016; Hendriks, 2016).
Some of these spaces may be only for policymakers, others only for citizens and some may contain
a mix of both. The citizens’ forum of interest in this paper is of the last type. We will thus elaborate
on mixed micro-deliberations between citizens and politicians (henceforth: mixed deliberation)
and potential group-composition effects contained therein.
Arguably, when citizens and politicians meet to deliberate, the best-case scenario is that it is part
of a decision-making process (e.g. Bächtiger et al., 2014: 239; Levine et al., 2005). This, however,
is seldom the case (Barrett et al., 2012; Button and Mattson, 1999). In fact, to require that delibera-
tion has a direct policy impact might be setting the goal too high. Button and Mattson (1999: 612),
for instance, state that the goals of deliberations are to achieve learning about an issue, to gain an
increased mutual understanding, to achieve direct legislative impact or to serve as an arena for so-
to-speak ‘letting out steam’. According to Barrett et al. (2012: 188), we should evaluate the impact
of deliberations according to the goal of each deliberative event, rather than staring blindly at direct
policy impact. In fact, regardless of impact on actual policy, citizens taking part in mixed delibera-
tions tend to appreciate the opportunity to meet with politicians and gain some insight into politics
(Barrett et al., 2012: 189; Button and Mattson 1999: 633).
Often, opinion changes in mixed deliberations concern achieving mutual understanding between
citizens and politicians and letting out frustration. Opinion changes in deliberations potentially
take place due to the deliberative process forcing people to encounter various opinions, facts and
rational arguments on a given topic, which helps them form reasonable, well-informed opinions
(Barabas, 2004; Chambers, 2003: 309). According to Mansbridge (1992: 36, see findings in Farrell
et al., 2016), this also holds true for deliberations between citizens and representatives: ‘After
absorbing new insights and information and after experiencing new ways of feeling, citizens and
representatives may be expected to change their minds.’ However, non-deliberative forces that also

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