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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Group Styles of Consensus Decision-Making in the United States and Germany: A Comparative-Historical and Cross-National Analysis

  • Author(s): Bongar Hoban, Kathryn
  • Advisor(s): Polletta, Francesca
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Consensus decision-making is a horizontal decision-making practice used by activists in the United States, Germany and other countries. Scholars tend to address consensus as a uniform practice and have heavily criticized it. Nevertheless, consensus decision-making has only increased in its frequency of use and its reach. Which raises the questions: How have activists’ consensus-decision making practices changed over the many historical eras in which it has been practiced? How do activists in different nations come to practice consensus with a common approach and what explains differences in their practice? And, have contemporary activists approached consensus in ways that have effectively resolved the dilemmas of consensus identified by scholars? To investigate these questions I employ Eliasoph and Lichterman’s theoretical framework of group style, which refers to culture in interaction, as observed in the norms members of civic organizations hold for how they are expected to behave, speak, relate to outsiders, and make claims. Drawing upon 60 semi-structured interviews that I conducted with activists in the US and Germany, historical analysis, and the lens of group style, I have found that that activists are more flexible in their use of consensus than scholars expect.

My analysis reveals that activists are able to adapt consensus decision-making through group style, in response to the missteps of past generations and the circumstances of their current context. However, there are limitations to the extent to which activists may adapt consensus because their commitment to consensus is ultimately ideological. Because group style can be shared by many groups, movements, and nations it is of great relevance when attempting to understand how the same practices and perspectives come to be shared by German and American activists. Considering that group style is an element of culture, it is useful for understanding how activists’ commitment to consensus is enduring, even when it may not always be the most effective way to make decisions. Group style can enable activists to address the dilemmas of consensus, but it can also mask them and therefor prevent activists from accurately assessing and addressing the shortcomings of consensus.

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