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Liza D. Krug and Eric L. Krug

The New Debate: Postmodern Analysis of the Debate Activity


Volume 6, 1993.

The New Debate
Within the last few years, society has undergone tremendous changes. The proliferation of communication technologies, increasingly mobile families, specialization of the service industries, and global cultural interaction are all indications of current times. As people attempt to adapt to the rapid fluctuations, they search for ways to interpret these changes and make sense of them. This phenomenon is experienced in every aspect of society, including the institutions and activities in which people engage. The debate activity is a unique situation in which personal interaction is substantial and yet the events of the world have a tremendous impact. However, few participants in the activity of debate recognize the impact of the rapidly changing world on debate. This is not only warranted, it is overdue.

Postmodern Theory
As society begins to change, people start to look for an explanation of the abandoning of old ways and the acceptance of the new. The newest shift in perceptions of society at large is gradually being realized by many scholars. One currently popular school of thought which explains these changes is postmodernism.

An explosion of media, computers and new technologies, a restructuring of capitalism, political shifts and upheavals, novel cultural forms, and new experiences of space and time produced a sense that dramatic developments have occurred throughout culture and society. The contemporary postmodern controversies can then be explained in part by an ongoing and intense series of crises concerned with the breaking up of the 'modern' modes of social organization and the advent of a new, as yet barely charted, 'postmodern.' terrain (Best & Kellner, 1991, p. ix).


The overriding task for postmodern thinkers is to attempt to explain the impact of current society and its implications for most commonly held beliefs and value systems. Kenneth Gergen (1991), for example, argues that current society, through technological innovation, has become overwhelmingly interconnected.

Such events are manifestations of a profound pattern of social change. The change is essentially one that immerses us ever more deeply in the social world, and exposes us more and more to the opinions, values, and lifestyles of others. It is my central thesis that this immersion is propelling us toward a new self-consciousness: the postmodern (Gergen, 1991, p. 49).


The impact of this saturation involves a redefinition of the self. Rather than see the self as an independent actor, Gergen (1991) argues that the self is socially defined. Thus, the argument goes, when people enter into interactions with those who hold these differing opinions, they will adopt, for the time period, those same beliefs and standards.

To pray, to feel remorse, to express gratitude, to conduct business, to make a scientific discovery are all forms of cultural ritual--constructed forms of activity particular to cultures in given times and places. And one may indulge in such activities fully, following their rules and thus relating to those making up such cultures. Without one's culture to define the game and places possible within it, there is simply no being to be. We owe our sense of existence, then, not to internal sources--passion, reason, observation, and the like--but to our participation in the communal forms (Gergen, 1991, p. 197).


Thus Gergen (1991) concludes that the postmodern society is characterized by a continual set of encounters, each requiring particular actions, and that people should cease searching for anything more.

While Gergen concentrates on the impact of postmodernism on the self, other postmodern thinkers assess the larger picture. They believe that the entire society is changing.

Postmodern theorists, however, claim that in the contemporary high tech media society, emergent processes of change and transformation are producing a new postmodern society and its advocates claim the new era of postmodernity constitutes a novel state of history and novel sociocultural formation which requires new concepts and theories (Best & Kellner, 1991, p.3).

A common thread running through postmodern theories is that theories that propose any sort of concrete or absolute knowledge should be abandoned. Postmodern theorists argue for a perspective which recognizes the relative nature of knowledge. Knowledge here is not limited to academic or scientific learning. It is meant to symbolize anything that one professes to know, including experience.

Postmodern theory also rejects modem assumptions of social coherence and notions of causality in favor of multiplicity, plurality, fragmentation, and indeterminacy. In addition, postmodern theory abandons the relational and unified subject postulated by much modem theory in favor of a socially and linguistically decentered and fragmented subject (Best & Kellner, 1991, pp. 4-5).


Thus, postmodernism signals a break from earlier theory, and offers a revolutionary new way of looking at the world.

The revolutionary nature of the postmodern view should not be underestimated. In a seminal work, Thomas Kuhn (1970) describes the importance of revolutions in theories, or as he labels them, paradigms. Kuhn's (1970) task is to explain the way in which scientific knowledge changes over time. Kuhn (1970) attempts to prove that the traditionally accepted view of the nature of scientific progress is incorrect. The traditional view is that science is a linear form of knowledge, and that new knowledge is always based upon former knowledge; that is, that every time a new discovery is made, it has as its basis some formerly known scientific fact of theory. Kuhn (1970) challenges this view, saying that everyday, or normal, science is indeed conducted in this way, but that there are times in which this process is transcended. These periods come when the method of normal science encounters too many anomalies and someone begins to question the assumptions, or paradigms, that provide the basis for scientific inquiry. At these times, traditional knowledge is abandoned in favor of some radically new way of conceptualizing scientific knowledge, and if this new view is capable of explaining the anomalies encountered by the old science, it is accepted. Additionally, this new view must not only abandon the old, it must render the old impossible. This change in view signifies a scientific revolution, the complete breaking off with the old and an acceptance of a new which has no basis or grounding in the old. Obviously, this explanation of scientific progress denies the conventional view, since scientific enterprise and provide a new set of assumptions upon which normal science can base it s research.

The application of Kuhn's (1970) theory to the modern and postmodern theories should be clear. The theories of the postmodern theories should be clear. The theories of the postmodernists attempt to deal with what is viewed as a crisis in society, namely that people are losing a sense of what it means to be an individual and a member of society. Modern theories no longer appear adequate to explain society given the rapid changes that have occurred and continue to occur. Postmodernism denies the very foundations of modern thought, that reality is absolute and knowable, thus making any compromise between the two impossible. According the Kuhn's (1970) theory, postmodemism reflects a paradigm shift from the modernist school of thought.

Debate Categories
Competitive debate offers a microcosmic example of the postmodern shift of society at large. In the past, competitive debate has been assesses primarily in terms of the mechanical process of debating. Debate texts contain strikingly similar table of contents, listing chapters on the different aspects of the debate round, such as speech order and structure, logical argumentation, and delivery. Few texts address the broader realm of debate, the social context. Those few typically only mention it in passing in a preface or introduction. However, even these brief mentionings provide recognition that debate as an activity is undergoing change.

Knowledgeable teachers of argumentation recognize that the accelerated rate of change has had a marked impact on the field of argumentation and debate. In many important ways, we no longer analyze arguments, conduct research, build cases or conduct debates in the way we did ten or even five years ago. Not only is more knowledge available today than every before, it is also more accessible. In the field of argumentation and debate each new academic year brings change as newly emerging theory and practice come to the fore. (Freely, 19910, p. viii).


It is important to realize that the social context of debate defines the activity and creates the standards in which debate rounds take place. This paper proposes a broader look at debate than is traditionally undertaken in an attempt to understand the social context in which competitive debate takes place. it

Initially, an assessment of the elements of the debate activity important to this activity must be undertaken. Since most debate texts focus on the mechanical aspects of a debate round without discussing the social context, we will not be examining the concepts contained within these textbooks. Consequently, the elements we offer as the important components of debate rounds are non-traditional, but, we believe, valid. The four components of the social context of the debate activity are the debate round, the debate squad and debate team, formal and informal socialization, and information gathering. Additionally, each of these components can be participated in on different levels. A person may play the part of a debater, judge or coach. At times, roles can be intermixed, so that one person actually participates in more than one of these roles at the same time.

Debate Round
The successful execution of a debate round is a complicated process. Many considerations, such as argument choice and style of delivery, can affect the outcome. For the purposes of this inquiry, it is important to note only that debate rounds are expected to follow certain time and speaker order rules, and debaters are expected to engage in logical argumentation. The nature of debate rounds is such that as debate team is expected to both defend and refute a given proposal from one round to the next. This creates a unique communication situation, since debaters must take a stance in half of their rounds that they may not personally agree with. For instance, a debater in one round might support the contention that global warming is currently happening, which they also personally believe, but in the following round they will argue that global warming is not occurring. This role change requirement is perhaps the most blatant one in the debate activity. Additionally, during a debate round, a debater may experience numerous roles. A debater may be a speaker in communication with the judge and the other team, an opponent to the other team, a panel, a representative for their school. Even though the debate round consists of many diverse roles, it is only one component of the entire process.


Debate Squad
The debate squad is made up of all the participants that attend the same school. This may number from only two to as many student as the coach feels he or she can handle. The squad also includes any coaches and helpers that participate in some part of the process. For most squads, this means a director, or head coach, and graduate assistants, or assistant coaches. Few fortunate teams have more that one coach and even fewer, more fortunate teams are able to hire research assistants. All of these people make up different parts of the squad. On the other hand, a debate team consists of two members of a squad who actually debate together. This requires a unique, close, working relationship. Partners often use their arguments together, develop their strategies together, sometimes with help from the larger squad, and win or lose debate rounds together. Most crucially, a debate team must be capable of clear, quick communication within debate rounds, since time is limited. They must be able to understand each other, and effectively communicate their ideas to each other. For some teams, this communication comes naturally, while for others it requires time, patience and hard work.

The formal socialization process refers to the actual competition behavior engaged in by the various participants. While in competition, participants assume more formal roles than in non-competitive settings. Competition time would include any time spent in tournament activity, which entails more than just the time in debate rounds. The time spent in interaction before, after, and between rounds a so qualifies as formal socialization time. This manner in which participants interact with competitors, judges, coaches, and squad members is affected. Formal socialization requires that people be more professional in their approach to others, and the distinctions between authority (coaches, judges), and subordinates (debaters) remain clear. Informal socialization, on the other hand, refers to the interaction time outside of the high-pressure tournament setting. Meals, evening parties, or just relaxing in the hotel pool are all examples of informal socialization. The lines between authority and subordinates often become blurred or disappear altogether at this time. Coaches and debaters mingle and the atmosphere is relaxed. The close-knit nature of the debate community and the large amount of time commitment often preclude participants from joining in other social communities, so that the debate community provides not only a competitive activity, but also friends and social groups. Thus, informal, as well as formal, socialization is an important component of the debate process.


This article places information-gathering in its own category for two reasons. First, research plays a prominent role in the debate activity, and second, the amount of information proliferation in society at large is clearly reflected in the debate process. Research in the debate context requires knowledge of computer systems, skillful use of libraries, good reading capabilities, and superior information processing abilities. Evidence, or expert support, for the arguments presented by debate teams is a crucial element in the argument construction in debate rounds. Many rounds are won or lost on the quality and amount of evidence a team presents in a round. Further, information-gathering can happen either within teams, or in the broader context of the squad. Since information-gathering failed to fit neatly in with one of the other categories, it warranted its own interpretation.

Debate has evolved along with society. As culture changes, the institutions and practices which are a part of it also change, or they die out. Since debate continues to flourish, it needs to be examined in concordance with the theories that attempt to explain this cultural paradigm shift. Therefore, it is time to assess debate in terms of postmodemism.



Debate Round
The debate round poses the most difficult category for a postmodern assessment. The argumentation process of a debate round relies on the very things that postmodernism rejects: logic, absolute truth, and structured content. However, if the argument process is seen only as one element of the debate round in which participants engage briefly and for a specific purpose, the challenge to postmodernism is removed. Postmodernists argue that people enter into encounters and adopt the rules that are acceptable for that encounter. The argumentative process of the debate rounds is only one such encounter. The roles of the debater as speaker, partner, and opponent are also encountered within the debate round, as are roles for the judge as critic of argument, assessor of communication skills, and decision-maker. Each part of the debate round can also be paralleled to the larger social context. People in work situations often find they must justify their actions (the argument process), compete for promotions (the opponent), cooperate with coworkers (the partner), and often assess the work of subordinates (the judge). Each of these roles calls for different actions, thus creating a social context in which the person at work or debating, is created.


Debate Squad and Team
The squad and team components of the debate process land themselves easily to postmodern critique. As a member of a debate squad, each person must know the particulars of their role. Whether one is a debater, assistant, or coach changes the actions which are acceptable. Further, a person may change their role over time, moving from a debater to an assistant coach and eventually on to the position of head coach. Reorienting oneself to these new roles is the essence of postmodernism. The old self is left behind, and the new role defines the sense of self for the person. The debate team requires a different, more personal role. Each member of the team must learn how personal the ties are between them, and act accordingly. These roles tend to be established by the two members, rather than the debate community or even the squad. The debate squad and team also provide metaphors for the larger society. The squad might be likened to a family, where children of different ages (debaters and assistant coaches) have different levels of authority and interact differently with different members of the family based on those factors, while parents (head coach) have ultimate authority. The debate team, on the other hand, would be representative of the spousal relationship, in which roles are determined by the two people involved, and authority is shared. The postmodernist would point out the changes in roles and sense of self that family members undergo as they change and grow, pointing to examples such as children getting married or becoming parents, or new siblings entering the family, much the same as changes in roles that debaters undergo as they become coaches or new members become pan of the squad.

The processes of formal and informal socialization also lend themselves to postmodern interpretation. As is made clear in earlier explanations, the socialization practice entail learning the proper actions for the proper times. Hence debate socialization provides a virtual definition of the process of postmodernism. One of the postmodernism's basic tenets is that there are different roles for different situations. Socializations provides the method of learning these roles, and the process is no different in debate than in society. Formal socialization parallels the formal situations in society. Some examples are the way one should act when in church, when in a business meeting, when at the opera, and so on. Informal socialization parallels activities such as the way one acts when at a ball game, when playing cards with friends, or when at a rock concert. Learning which situations are formal and which are informal is also a part of the process. Thus, formal and informal socialization in debate provide excellent examples of the method by which postmodernist society perpetuates itself.-

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the process of information-gathering must be assessed in terms of postmodemism. It is this process which places debate on the cutting edge of postmodern thought. A common theme among postmodernists is that the information explosion has led people to become aware of the relative nature of society and the self. Due to the nature of the activity, debaters are exposed to the information explosion much more that the average person. Debate, as mentioned previously, requires that debaters be informed about the resolution at hand. However, the debater must also be knowledgeable about any subject which may in any way be related to the specific resolution. Thus, debaters make extensive use of information sources, primarily libraries and, increasingly, computer databases. Debaters actively seek out what many people attempt to avoid, the accumulation of as much information as possible. As a result, debaters tend to be more informed, but they also tend to become more cynical about that knowledge. As the amount of information they gather increases, debaters become aware of the conflicting messages sent out by society. This is an inevitable consequence, since debaters must always research both sides of an issue. However, a recognition of the information in terms of a postmodern analysis would help debaters, as well as society, to be less cynical of the information. Realizing that the often contradictory nature of the many messages that saturate society is merely a result of different rules would have the effect of decreasing confusion and disillusionment. Slowly, debaters seem to be making this transition in thought as the scholars of postmodernism are, and it is reflected in the way that argumentation occurs. Rather than only arguing for particular positions, debaters are able to step back and see the relative nature of their arguments, allowing for more diverse interpretation of debate resolutions and more interesting argumentation.

Postmodern theories provide a unique and cogent explanation of the changes the debate activity is experiencing. These theories also hold potential for decreasing the conditions in society at large in terms that decrease disillusionment and confusion. As information increases and the rate of social and cultural change accelerates, people will require explanations that help them make sense of their experiences. Postmodemism may provide those answers.


Best, S. and Kellner, D. (1991). Postmodern theory: Critical interrogations. New York: The Guilford Press.

Freely, A. (1990). Argumentation and debate: Critical thinking for reasoned decision making. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gergen, K. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. USA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.