‘Disagreement’ – A Theory and Applications Workshop

Our latest blog post – kindly provided by Dr Stuart McAnulla, Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Leeds – provides a roundup of the discussions from a recent workshop, held at the University of Sheffield, on the theme of ‘Disagreement’. The discussions around this theme relate to some of the CDE’s core research themes, including political communication, public opinion and engagement. 

On 22nd July scholars from the universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Amsterdam and Jerusalem participated in a one day workshop on the theme of ‘Disagreement’. The event was held at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, having been co-organised by Yonatan Shemmer (Sheffield) and Graham Bex-Priestley (Leeds). A key premise of the workshop was that despite the role of disagreement in the worlds of politics, institutions, movements and personal relations it is not a concept which has yet attracted the academic attention that it merits. The key goal of the event was to explore the potential for interdisciplinary research collaboration in this area whilst also working with practitioners from organisations and movements.

The day began with a lecture by Chris Ranalli (Amsterdam) on the question ‘should you be steadfast about your fundamental convictions?’. This considered the extent to whether we should treat our fundamental convictions as ones we should be less willing to revise than our ordinary beliefs. Relatedly the lecture considered rival perspectives on how far fundamental beliefs are ones that we actually open-up for challenge through rational argumentation. Subsequent discussion amongst participants produced insightful reflections on what kinds of beliefs have a taken-for-granted status as against ones which can potentially be revised or even abandoned following disagreement with others.

In the afternoon attendees each briefly introduced the research interests they have which particularly relate to the theme of disagreement. Areas included: philosophical reflections on epistemology and disagreement; public opinion and the role of partisanship in shaping apparent disagreement; how disagreement is managed within the ‘intellectual dark web’; disagreement and ‘dirty hands’ moral dilemmas; disagreement and meta-ethics; the extent to which apparent disagreement on certain issues is merely expression of proxy support for political views rather than real convictions (e.g. that Trump’s crowd was biggest); government, leadership and disagreement; and, managing disagreement in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Reference to the work of other interested scholars who could not attend on the day was also brought in to discussion. Questions of shared interest included how far disagreement is something to be encouraged, reduced and/or managed in particular ways.

It was agreed that disagreement was a theme worthy of close attention in its own right and that there was considerable mileage for subsequent interdisciplinary activity, across fields including philosophy, psychology, political theory and law. This is likely to include both conferences and grant bids, perhaps beginning with a White Rose application with a view to formulating a subsequent larger project. It was felt that research in this area could potentially have end-user impact, particularly with regard to government and political organisations, as well as wider societal groups and leaders. Possible outcomes for public engagement included workshops for targeted groups, an interactive website for classifying kinds of disagreements with advice for how to proceed, and YouTube videos or podcasts.

Dr Stuart McAnulla is an Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Leeds.