More Empirical Evidence of Habermasian Processes in Real Life

One of the common dismissals of Habermas’s theory of communicative action is that the requirement of an ‘ideal speech position’ is unrealistic. In Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace I argued first that these critics misunderstood what Habermas required, that the so-called ‘ideal’ was not idealized and thus unattainable, but rather, ‘best achievable in real life’, optimal subject to the constraints of matter and time, and thus — in principle — attainable. Second, I argued that the internet standards process managed by the IETF achieved a Habermasian discourse, at least at times. Recognizing the special conditions, in particular the relative linguistic and professional homogeneity of the participants, I did not argue that the result was necessarily generalizable. Rather, I claimed that an existence proof of even one Habermasian discourse should at least silence critics who claimed the theory was unrealizable.

Comes now Karthikeyan Umapathy, Sandeep Purao and John W. Bagby, who have just published Investigating IT Standardization Process through the lens of Theory of Communicative Action. In it they state that,

Due to the openness, consensus orientation, and volunteer participation, many researchers have argued that standardization processes are quite similar to Habermasian view of rational discourse (i.e., open – ended discussion geared towards reaching consensus) described in the theory of communicative action1. However, none have conducted empirical investigation on an actual standardization process to provide evidence of social actions described by Habermas occurring within the process. Thus, the objective of this paper is to investigate IT standardization process from the theory of communicative action perspective and find evidence of social actions within an actual standardization process.

I told stories about the IETF, but didn’t formalize them. The authors of this paper tell the story of the SOAP standardization process and count incidents of Communicative Action (31%), Strategic Action (22%), Instrumental Action (18%), “Dramaturgical Action” (15%), and Normatively Regulated Action (14%):

Our findings reveal that participants in standardization processes engage in communicative action most frequently with aim of reaching mutual understanding and consensus, engage in strategic action when influencing others towards their intended goals, engage in instrumental action when taking responsibility for solving technical issues, engage in dramaturgical action when expressing their opinions, and engage in normatively regulated action when performing roles they assumed. Our analysis indicates that 60% of activities performed are consensus oriented whereas the rest are success oriented. This paper provides empirical evidence for Habermasian view of social actions occurring in the standardization process setting.

Again, this is not necessarily generalizable:

In this study, we perform analysis only o n one standard (i.e., SOAP) and on one SDO (i.e., W3C). Thus, findings from this study cannot be generalized for all anticipatory standards or SDOs.

Even so, useful data.


  1. Here, in addition to mine, they cite some papers I wasn’t aware of but will need to read, notably Schoechle, T.: Toward a Theory of Standards. In: IEEE Conference on Standardisation and Innovation in Information Technology (SIIT). IEEE, Los Alamitos, CA, USA (1999), and Lyytinen, K., Hirschheim, R.: Information systems as rational discourse: an application of Habermas’s theory of communicative action. 4, 19-30 (1988). They do not cite to Andrew L. Russell, The W3C and its Patent Policy Controversy:A Case Study of Authority and Legitimacy in Internet Governance (2003), which is also relevant. []
This entry was posted in Internet, Readings. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *