Institute of Urban and Regional Development
Consensus Building: Clarifications for the Critics
- Author(s): Innes, Judith E.
- et al.
Many critiques of consensus building have been uninformed about the nature of this practice or the theory on which it was built, though there is extensive literature on both. It is grounded in the theory and practice of interest-based negotiation and mediation. It is not grounded in Habermas' concept of communicative rationality, though theorists have found useful illumination in his ideas. Claims are often made about pathologies of consensus building based on cases where the conditions for authentic dialogue recognized by both practitioners and theoreticians were not met. Documentation of cases shows that when these conditions are met, many desirable outcomes occur. The article examines the various critiques, including the claims that external power differentials are deterministic, that lowest common denominator solutions are the outcomes, that valuable tensions are lost in the process, and that agreements are fleeting at best. It shows how and why each of these is not borne out by experience. Consensus building is time consuming and requires skill and training. It is only appropriate in situations of uncertainty and controversy where all stakeholders have incentives to come to the table and mutual reciprocity in their interests.