Discussions vs. disputes vs. controversies

A friend in the eBay Israel office shared this with me... pretty interesting...

"Debates are communicative exchanges that evolve in time. Their minimal unit consists in a full set of four communicative “turns”, where at least two “speakers” – a ponens (P) and an opponens (O) – intervene in a P-O-P-O pattern.

Important debates usually extend beyond this minimal unit, through further interventions of P and O or of other participants. Such an extension can go beyond a single generation, especially in philosophical debates. The longer its temporal extension, the more a debate is likely to evolve thematically and argumentatively. Nevertheless, some debates can remain, over their many “rounds”, narrowly focused on the initial issue that sparked them, while in others one may observe significant thematic shifts that lead far away from the original issue. In such cases, the criteria for the identification of the debate are not always precise, and may require the elaboration of rather vague notions such as that of “thematic affinity” or “family resemblance”.

Discussions, disputes, and controversies differ in their inner dynamic behavior, especially regarding their thematic expansion (and consequently their temporal extension). Both discussions and disputes tend to remain narrowly focused on the specific issue that triggers them, whereas controversies are characterized by broad thematic shifts, involving both the object- and the meta-level.

Debates are not static in another important respect: they can shift from one of the three ideal types to another. Such shifts are recognizable through changes in the issues debated, as well as in the argumentative strategies or rhetoric employed. Thus, a discussion may evolve into a controversy when the contenders begin to question each other’s presumptions, and into a dispute when they see in such questioning a sign of the opponent’s irrationality and/or maivaise foi. Full pendulum swings between discussions and disputes are quite common in the participants own perception of their debates, for the existence of a tertium between these two extremes has been generally overlooked.

Obviously, if a debate’s type changes, the ways in which it can be concluded also change. Typically, discussions can be solved and disputes can be dissolved, whereas controversies can at most be resolved. However, the very possibility of type-shifts shows that any of these modes of conclusion may be only temporary. The possibility of such type-shifts can also serve as the basis for a strategy of conflict resolution (or escalation)."

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