Consensus Building in a Context of Storytelling: A Review of Lawrence Susskind et al.’s The Consensus Building Handbook

James A. Throgmorton. 2003. Planning Theory 2, 1: 61-67.

This article reviews Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan, and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer’s The Consensus Building Handbook. The review concludes that the Handbook is a comprehensive and indispensable but dauntingly long guide to consensus building. In my reading, consensus building can be a quite valuable means of resolving difficult conflict, but it can produce legitimate and trustworthy outcomes only if it makes space for counter-narratives. Admirable though it is, the Handbook is flawed in that it fails to place consensus building in context, fails to explain how pervasively context influences processes, and fails to reveal the extent to which consensus-building processes can be used to co-opt or exclude counter-narratives. First, consensus building efforts take place in (and derive their meanings from) the larger stories of which they are a part. Differences between those larger stories often generate the conflicts that consensus building efforts seek to resolve. Second, although consensus building can be a valuable endeavor, historically dominant groups often use it as a means of suppressing, de-legitimizing, or co-opting counter-narratives. And third, locally-grounded personal stories often play an important role in consensus building processes.

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