Constructive Controversy: The Value of Intellectual Opposition
By David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Dean Tjosvold
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Dean Tjosvold. "Constructive Controversy: The Value of Intellectual Opposition." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 65-85.
Intellectual conflicts can be constructive, motivating people to seek new knowledge, to accommodate others' perspectives. The authors offer a theoretic description of constructive controversy, and discuss how this theory might be applied.
Constructive controversy involves deliberative discussions aimed at creative problem solving. It can be contrasted to debate (a competitive process where one view "wins" over the other), concurrence seeking (which suppresses disagreement and consideration of alternatives), or various individualistic processes.
The authors sketch the basic process of constructive controversy. When presented with a problem people form an initial conclusion and supporting rationale. They become uncertain of that initial opinion when confronted with others' differing opinions and rationales. This uncertainty motivates parties to search for more information and more valid forms of reasoning. In constructive controversies this search is a cooperative effort, seeking to accommodate the perspectives and reasoning of others. It yields creative solutions and positive feelings among the parties.
Controversies are more likely to be constructive (as opposed to destructive) when they occur in a cooperative context. Participants must be skilled collaborators, and follow the norms of cooperation and the rules of rational argumentation. Necessary skills include criticizing ideas not people, and being able to take another's perspective.
Participants in constructive controversies benefit in a number of ways. Participants are strongly motivated to produce solutions, and display high-level reasoning and greater mastery and retention of new knowledge gained. They generate high quality, creative solutions. Expertise is more effectively shared, and participants often undergo a lasting change of attitude. Participants develop a stronger sense of mutual friendship and support. They become more able to cope with stress and adversity, and have higher self-esteem.
The authors offer examples of how a constructive controversy process can be implemented in two different settings. In a decision-making setting constructive controversy would proceed by assigning an advocacy team to each of the various possible courses of action. Each team develops the best possible case for their assigned position, and presents that case to the whole group. The group then turns to open discussion of the options. Teams challenge other's cases, and seek to strengthen their own rationales. Constructive controversy then requires next that "advocacy teams reverse perspectives and positions by presenting one of the opposing positions as sincerely and forcefully as they can."(p. 78) In the final decision-making stage, all group members drop their advocacy, review the best arguments for all the options, and reach a decision by consensus. They group may then reflect on how the decision-making process went, and how future performances could be improved.
Constructive controversy procedures can also be used to promote academic learning--for instance, to examine whether civil disobedience is constructive or destructive, or which scientific explanation or mathematical approach is better. Students are divided into small groups, each assigned a position to research and defend. They proceed by advocacy, open discussion, reversal of perspectives, and finally by synthesizing a consensus position. Students are graded by being tested on both sides of the issue, and on their final group report on their consensus position.
In conclusion, the authors observe that "American democracy was founded on the premise that 'truth' results from free and open-minded discussion in which opposing points of view are advocated and vigorously argued."(p. 83) The skills needed to engage in constructive controversy are also crucial to maintaining democracy.