Dealing with disputes
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Dispute is a difference in opinion about a state of the world, or the preferability of a state of the world.
When a diverse group of contributors participate in making a risk assessment, it is obvious that disputes may arise. One of the most instructive features of risk assessment is to understand both these disputes and the reasons why a particular outcome occurs. The risk assessment method must include guidance to deal with disputes, find resolutions and document the choices made so that they can be defended afterwards. Argumentation theory offers a basis for these methods.
Structure of the process
Formal argumentation (according to the pragma-dialectical argumentation theory ) is used as the primary means to describe and resolve any disputes about scientific or valuation issues within the assessment. In traditional risk assessments, there is guidance to describe major disputes, but there are no structural rules for this. In addition, many disputes are (implicitly) resolved using conventions without challenging the foundations of the convention. The new method attempts to achieve more in dealing with disputes.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst have operationalised the dispute resolving problem in the following way: "When should I, as a rational critic who judges reasonably, regard an argument as acceptable?"  Their answer is, very briefly, that disputes are solved using formal argumentation. The proponent and opponent of a statement can give arguments supporting their own statement (or other arguments) or attacking the other discussant's statement or arguments. There are certain criteria that each argument must fulfil, such as rationality and relevance. The dispute is resolved when one discussant is able to base his/her argumentation on arguments that both discussants agree on.
|The structure of a discussion has three parts:
|Possible arguments include
An argument must always be signed. Otherwise, it is not valid.
An example of a resolved dispute
Can the collaborative workspace calculate?
|Fact discussion: .|
|Opening statement: It is possible to calculate variable results in the collaborative workspace.
Closing statement: Accepted.
(A closing statement, when resolved, should be updated to the main page.)
The theoretical background referred to here is the pragma-dialectical approach to argumentation theory, also known as the Amsterdam school of argumentation, developed by Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst from the University of Amsterdam. Only the main aspects of the theory in this scope are presented here and a more detailed and thorough representation of the theory can be found from e.g. van Eemeren, Grootendosrt, Henkemans: Argumentation - Analysis, Evaluation, Presentation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., 2002. The view presented here (as well as pragma-dialectics itself) also builds on critical rationalism as philosophical basis.
Traditionally the main objective of the pragma-dialectical approach is to resolve a difference of opinion by means of argumentative discourse. Critical rationalism in practice means that there are no absolute truths, so everything can be questioned and standpoints are always accepted only as temporarily and they can be discarded or changed if better/improved ones are found.
Pragma-dialectical argumentation can also be seen as a means for knowledge production, i.e. to bridge the gap between current knowledge base and the needed knowledge e.g. within a group. From the point of view of environmental health risk assessment, this is probably the most useful aspect of using argumentation in risk assessments. Argumenting for and against is used as a means to explore the validity, acceptability and correctness of the central standpoints/statements in focus. Accordingly the standpoints/statements are refined, reformulated, discarded etc. as appears necessary along the argumentative discourse.
The pragma-dialectical argumentation theory presents an ideal case that always differs from real live implications of argumentation. Nevertheless the theory can well be used in making the argumentation schemes and especially the strengths/weaknesses of argumentation explicit. It thus offers a way of improving the analysis and evaluation of real-life argumentation and improves argumentative presentation. It does not however guarantee exact definite results, but is always situation and context specific and easily affected by the view taken by the analyst/evaluator/presenter.
Basic building blocks of argumentation
The essential terminology in relation to our uses of the theory that requires some explanantion is explained here.
- Protagonist: The party that expresses a standpoint and is ready to defend that standpoint with arguments. The protagonist bears the burden of proof, i.e. is obliged to defend his/her standpoint by argument(s) in order to have his/her standpoint accepted.
- Antagonist: The party that expresses doubts and/or counterarguments on the standpoint expressed by the protagonist. Note that the antagonist does not need to express an opposing standpoint to question the protagonists standpoint, also expressing a doubt towards it is enough.
- Standpoint: A statement expressed by the protagonist, representing his/her view on some matter. Standpoint is the focal point of an agumentative discussion. Standpoints can be positive or negative and defending them means to justify or refute the standpoint respectively.
- Argument: A defensive or attacking expression in relation to the standpoint or another argument. Defensive arguments are expressed by the protagonist(s) and attacking arguments are expressed by the antagonist(s).
- Premise: Assumption presumed true within the argumentative discourse at hand. Premises form the basis and the background of the discourse. Can be explified or left implicit, but those premises that are likely to be perceived differently by the protagonist and the antagonist should be made explicit and agreed on before starting an argumentation.
- van Eemeren, F. H. & Grootendorst, R. 2004. A systematic theory of argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.