Monash Association of Debaters

Q&A with Nick Bibby

Compiling a Global Debating Consensus

How many people are debating in the world today? Where is debating growing the fastest and
why? These are just a few of the questions that the Global Debating Census is seeking to answer.

The Global Debate Census 2011 was conducted between April and September. It
was predominantly conducted by email and through online questionnaires. It was
conducted in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese and German.
The critical issue was the standard of proof required. Rather than just taking
the existence of a website or the mention of a society at a competition or on the
website of a national body as evidence of their existence this required the society
itself to confirm their existence and a few basic details. The intention is to repeat
the process in five years and see what has changed.

Since he’s the man with the numbers, the MDR Editorial Board thought it might
be useful to throw a few questions at Nick, just to see if he had the answers. He
was keen to stress that his answers are a mix of solid data and educated guesswork.

How does debate breakdown around the world by region and country?

That’s actually a more complicated question than it sounds as ‘debating geography’
is slightly different from that recognised by the rest of the world – in typically
contrary fashion. To take one simple example, should Alaska be counted as part
of the USA or Canada? It’s an American university but does much of its debating
in Canada and is a member of CUSID. Equally, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and
Austria form a single circuit in competitive terms, should they count as one or
four nations?

Moreover, there are some nations where I know the data is incomplete; for
example I have one return from Kyrgyzstan but I have good reason to believe that
there are 27 societies active there. The same is true in the Middle East and Latin
America where I’m fairly confident that this study underestimates the number of
societies quite considerably. However, certain things are clear: North America is
the most populous continent, followed by Europe and then Asia.

There are some surprises, Spain for example generated 20 census returns and I get
the impression that the actual number of societies could be as many as twice that.

What’s the breakdown of the debating community in terms of language?

The easy part of that question to answer is that English remains the dominant
language for debate. The next observation is fairly easy as well which is that the
dominance of English is far from as great as it once was. With international
championships now taking place in Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin,
Worlds will, within the next few years, have to address seriously the issue of
whether it is THE World Championship or simply A world championship.

Interestingly, of the world’s major languages, French appears to be almost entirely
unrepresented. The only exclusively French language societies are in Canada
although there are some bilingual societies in Europe and Western Africa that also
use the language. This raises a point which I’ll cover in more detail in one of your
later questions but it’s worth noting that one thing this research has uncovered,
although I believe only touched on, is that there are entire debate communities
out there of which I for one was completely unaware. For example I knew there
was some English language debate in the Middle East and spent a frustrating
month trying, and failing, to find out how much. As a bi-product of that, I
stumbled across Arabic language debate but did so far too late in the research
period to give it the attention it deserved and so excluded it from the study.

Perhaps as a result of the study and of these articles we can begin to fill in the gaps.

How many debate competitions are there per year and in which languages?

The honest answer is that I have simply no idea. The utterly unscientific answer
is, really quite a lot and in more formats and languages than any of us might
guess. I’ve been working with Colm Flynn on a separate project that relates to this
question and we may have some clearer ideas in the next few months.

Where do you think debate is growing the fastest and why?

It’s obviously in the nature of a question like this that it’s guesswork. However, the
purpose of this survey was to provide a benchmark and then repeat the process
again in five years. So in the light of that, let me make some guesses and we’ll
know if I was right somewhere around the end of 2016.

I’ve already mentioned Latin America and the Middle East and I would stand by
those and add China and Russia – or rather the Russian speaking world – into
the mix. However there is something that goes beyond that, and I really cannot
call it more than a hunch – can you have an educated hunch – there was really
nowhere during the course of the census where I did not encounter optimism and
enthusiasm about the state of debate. It would be reckless to suggest that there
aren’t problems, of course there are but generally speaking debate is growing and
strengthening. In France the number of societies has increased fourfold in recent
years, in sub-Saharan Africa it’s blossoming, in much of the Far East debate has
been transformed from a past-time based around the occasional random Western
academic into a genuinely ingrained tradition.

What is the profile of the typical debater?

When I started my involvement with debating in 1994 there was a good deal of
truth in the bray, black-tie wearing image that still surrounds debate (admittedly,
St Andrews was not exactly a bastion of diversity then) and I had no problem with
that part of the debate community and still don’t. However, the simple reality is
that it is now a minority and a small one. To be honest though, I could have told
you that simply by looking at my diary, it didn’t require a global survey – and I’m
sure that’s true of many of the people reading this.

It is of course unsurprising that English language nations still dominate English
language debating – it would be strange if that were not the case. However, the
emergence of an increasing number of other language debate traditions and
competitions looks set put that in perspective.

We can now prove the role that debate plays in some of the poorest nations on the
planet as well as in some of the richest. It is perhaps worth mentioning that one
observation, perhaps the most satisfying observation, to come out of this process
was simply this: throughout a period of six months I had contact, frequently
prolonged contact, with debaters from around the world. Contact was made with
926 societies where I had good reason to believe there was a debate presence and
returns were received from 670 institutions based in 71 nations spanning every
inhabited continent. Between them they represent 31, 784 students with around
14,000 described as active.

Regardless of their ‘profile’ – and it really would be impossible to identify any as
typical – I was greeted universally with an enthusiasm, a generosity of spirit and
an intelligence that I would challenge anyone to find in any other group so large
and disparate. That I would say is the profile of the typical debater.