Estimated reading time: 1 minute, 9 seconds

The Problem with Consensus

Estimated reading time: 1 minute, 9 seconds

So…on the one hand, life would be great if folks could have consensus on all decisions so that everyone was happy. 

The problems I see with always seeking consensus is that you risk one of the following:

  1. Surrounding yourself with particular people who think like you so that you keep getting consensus 
  2. Encouraging groupthink so that even folks who are diverse converge towards the same decision 
  3. People feeling pressured to concede when they don’t really agree 100%

Now this is an oversimplification. And I realize that consensus is necessary in certain situations with small groups where really important decisions will affect everyone. Like families. I realize that consensus may come after negotiations and compromises all around.

However, most of my experiences with consensus involve power and coercion and compliance and silence and silencing and frustration.

So rather than taking pride in consensus, when we see it, I think we should ask ourselves 

  1. Whose opinion are we seeking when we mention consensus? Whose voices might be missing and what are their thoughts? Why were those voices not considered in the first place? How can we involve them earlier?
  2. Whose views have more influence and power? Is it possible others have been coerced, been complying, been compromising? How can we avoid that in future? If compromise occurred, who has compromised more and who less?

Thoughts? Not seeking consensus here…

10 thoughts on “The Problem with Consensus

  1. Really interesting question on many levels. I am working with an example of it in my institution at the moment. I may blog about it as it’s a bit long here. But the key issue here is whether teachers will accept to give up a part of a grade to what students choose to do outside of class.

    Giving up control is really the issue there.

    Consensus: the more I think – the more it is interesting.

    Carnival – where hierarchy was over turned for a day.

    Thinking of alcohol – my parents would accept to drink small amounts in France but not in UK (only for communion.)

    Crisis – where unlikely people are brought

    So there are spaces and moments not of consensus but of surrender/acceptance/silence/giving up/lowering of demands.

    I think the idea of consensus is perhaps a privilege.

  2. This is such a powerful post and it really speaks to me at this stage of my life and career. Especially no. 3: People feeling pressured to concede when they don’t really agree 100%. I reflect about this happening on Facebook (for me) – how easy it is to feel you should agree with people if the majority express strong views, how easy to get swept up in their confident stance.

    Your final questions are very pertinent – I’m going to save them and refer to them especially when I feel invisible/unheard during meetings, wondering if the silent ones are feeling the same as I am. Is failure to admit and possibly articulate the existence of inequality in the power/influence balance a weakness? Does the fear of doing this stem from wanting to please/be liked or just the reality of being the most vulnerable?

    1. Great questions, Tania.
      Something you said struck me. Are the other silent ppl possibly disagreeing silently? I need to blog about this. I once as an undergrad disagreed w something and spoke up against it. Leaders in the room made fun of me. Later, ppl told me privately they respected my decision to boycott the thing and speaking up during the meeting. Why didn’t any of them speak up at the time?

  3. Many important questions here – there seems to be a good critical journal article in this πŸ™‚ Of course, I can (and probably will) cite this blog post if not. Like we discussed on Twitter, this also touches on the problem with some student-centered learning: it becomes more “group-centered learning” or “consensus-centered learning” than true individualized learning. Even many personalized learning concepts are more consensus-based than “personalized” (the options that learners can choose from to “personalize” their learning are determined more by consensus than giving the most individually-helpful options… with that consensus more and more driven by algorithms each passing year). Even when the goal is “community is the curriculum,” this consensus issue could end up being a big problem within a community.

    1. Yes πŸ™‚
      And also recently during #lxconf Indi Young talked about how personas are often created by designers w/o proper research into real ppl and their complexity.
      U think there’s a journal article in this? It feels like a very obvious point I am making πŸ˜‰

      1. Student-centered learning, creating consensus in classes, etc are kind of the “golden standard” of education in many circles. You would have to do a lot of critical re-examination of a lot of research to point out flaws in the conclusions to start cracking open people’s minds on this. Probably with some pretty deep dives into Habermas and many other power theorists. This stuff really isn’t that obvious to a lot of people πŸ™‚

        1. This is actually one of those things that… Ok, i could do research on it (let’s brainstorm that) but really, any teacher who has eyes should be able to see. I don’t think it’s any surprise to ppl who do critical pedagogy from a feminist poststructuralist perspective (like Elisabeth Ellsworth) where they question grand narratives of empowerment and highlight intersectionality. Jo Freeman questioning structurelessness and its Tyranny. The vconnecting research we do alone shows how a movement meant to empower/include constantly excludes and disempowers certain people because decisions get made that cannot possibly meet everyone’s needs

          1. At the risk of stating the obvious… but if we didn’t publish what anyone with eyes “should be able” to see, we probably wouldn’t publish anything πŸ™‚ Probably a very small group within educational circles that are familiar with anything you quote here. And even various “critical” movements miss the obvious – I seem to remember a Twitter conversation where I had to remind someone (not you) that quitting a job was not a good critical response to systemic problems because quitting is often a privilege that many can not afford (I think you were involved in that conversation somehow?). My two cents is that the student-centered/consensus narrative is a largely accepted concept that many have not critically examined.

            1. I’m up for working this into a peer-reviewed paper. Wanna do it together? Gonna email you now

  4. Great post. I so agree with you.

    Teachers often introduce group work to reduce their workload. Yet they don’t take into account the psychological processes that take place in groups. Thus group work pressures may actually hinder the learning process of some learners.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.