Florencia Enghel and Karin Wilkins (2012:9) in their opening piece in the special issue of the
Another more or less insidious reality is the growing corporatisation of the enterprise of communication for social change. When large institutions such as the CSC Foundation encourage enclosures by trademarking the very term ‘Communications for Social Change’ (for the second year running and in the context of the annual CSC Awards – I received an email on the 3rd of January, 2012 reminding us that this was a trademarked term), I think that there is something deeply wrong with this field. Should theory address such concerns, should theorists engage with such concerns or should we like the proverbial ostrich, bury our heads in the sand and hope that the problems will disappear as we lose ourselves in the practice of CSC? What kind of a practice should theory be an aid for? And is the time right for us to really understand ‘social change’ as opposed to ‘communication’? Let me quote a passage from Vincent Mosco (1996: 71–72). In his classic text
The theorisation of CSC has always been dependent on borrowings from other disciples – from rural sociology that provided the basis for the diffusion model to the radical pedagogy best illustrated by the contributions made by the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire's theory is a classic example of critical social science given that it was built on a theory of false consciousness, a theory of crisis, a theory of education and a theory of transformative action (See Fay: 2011). While ‘false consciousness’ sounds like a quaint Marxian category from yesteryear, in my way of thinking it is important that we invest in understanding how power flows and affects understandings and shapes mindsets related to the practice of CSC. CSC theorisation has also been shaped by a great variety of ‘isms’ and schools of thought including Marxism, feminist theory, post-colonial and subaltern theories, identity theory, globalisation, social movement theory and ICT for development theories. In recent times, social networking and urban interventions have also contributed to shaping the practice of CSC, although this is yet to be reflected in its theory. While one can argue that these many borrowings and traditions of inter-disciplinarity have contributed to the shaping of CSC as a field and to its dynamism, it is also clear that a consequence of these many influences is the existence of a variety of fault lines – between theory and practice, between technology and the social, policy and the implementation of policy, the global and the local, technocratic and managerial approaches versus endogenous, people-centred approaches. While fault lines in themselves are to be expected, can be healthy, and are a reflection of conflict and contestations, many have argued that there has been a grand co-option of all those terms that once seemed to suggest that another world is possible. The terms that are a key part of the identity of CSC have themselves been shorn of their original meaning.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavok Žižek, who has been described as an ‘all-purpose’ subversive, has pointed out the limits of corporitised ‘causumerism’ and the slackvitism that accompanies corporatized approaches to social change. This is the Bono version of social change where corporations fulfil their social responsibilities by dealing with issues such as poverty through the act of consumption. American Express contributes to fighting AIDS through funnelling a percentage of its profits to the Red project that facilitates the purchase and distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in Africa although we are not sure of how much is actually sent to Africa. Žižek uses the example of those with a heart buying into the goodness encapsulated into a cup of coffee bought from Starbucks. He argues that as ‘caring capitalists’ we buy the coffee because of the promise that the coffee is bought via a corporate strategy that embraces Fair Trade and in which part of the profits go to help starving children in Uganda. As he points out “The “cultural” surplus is … spelled out: the price is higher than elsewhere since what you are really buying is the “coffee ethic” which includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life…” (53–54). The upshot of our involvement in such circuits of cultural consumption is that we end up contributing to initiatives that are destined to forever deal with the symptoms of poverty but never with its causes that include unjust trade practices, poverty and exploitation, the issue of land, etc. Participation in this utopia is limited precisely because it does not give either the producer or consumer the opportunity to take part in an exercise of freedom. It is very similar to the ‘slacktivist’ cultures that are rife in the era of social networking. This is a culture that encourages people to click and contribute to online polls and issues but that does not enable an engagement with real issues in the world of the here and now. NGOs, for the most part, tend to replicate the logic of neo-liberalism and participation therefore tends to become the means for extending the project of neo-liberalism through enabling people to participate in a variety of forms of ‘compassionate capitalism’. Žižek points out that while we might feel good consuming that cup of coffee and knowing that part of the profits is being used to fund an operation to set right a child with a cleft palate – we only end up massaging the symptoms but not the real causes of poverty including unequal trade, global pricing of primary commodities, corruption and poor governance. In other words, transformative change is almost always impossible. We always end up shuffling the chairs although we also hope that shuffling it in the right order might make a difference. Does CSC theory end up massaging the symptoms when we ignore dealing with causes? When we do invoke our favourite key words – participation, development, empowerment, are we merely invoking empty signifiers?
In spite of the evidence of quantum, what seems to be the case is that the ‘practical horse’ has bolted leaving the ‘theoretical cart’ behind. In other words the literally thousands of CSC initiatives are yet to become foundational material for an explication of theory reflective of and that is conversant with the local. I used to work for the international ecumenical NGO, the then London, but now Toronto-based World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) in the good old days when money was not an issue as it is today. In the 15 years that I spent at WACC, we must have supported more than a 1000 CSC projects, although with one or two exceptions there was little sustained reflection on the learnings from projects. I suspect that this lacunae is largely the reasons for the accent on matrix based evaluations and impact studies that are a mandatory aspect of project support today. The accent in other words, is now on evaluation. The advent of the ‘participatory’ model has further stymied theoretical innovation given that this was interpreted as the ‘Holy Grail’ that would usher in the promised land characterised by communications for all. Today key words such as development, participation, social capital, poverty reduction, civil society and empowerment, among others have an auratic power that disallows any form of questioning. Issue 4–5 of the journal
One can argue that communications and development theory consists in the main of principles that become the basis for pathways to practice. Any theory is based on five distinct levels – 1)
When these five levels are applied to an assessment of CSC theory, it is clear that in most cases one or the other level is often privileged at the expense of other levels, resulting in an incomplete theory. For example if one were to use these levels to explore ICTs for development theory projects in India, it will become clear that the level that dominates is that of practice. This is to be expected given that there is a belief that telecentre projects for example, will result in ‘push’ and ‘pull’ effects and eventually to information flows that make a difference in the lives of people. E-governance, for example, is based on the ‘pull’ factor – meaning people accessing and making use of online information related to a variety of services. In other words the theory of knowledge associated with ICTs is more often than not ‘taken for granted’ rather than based on a clear and sophisticated understanding of the relationships between technologies, peoples and structures. Often a knowledge of structures is not factored in and neither is a knowledge of context. There are exceptions such as the Bhoomi (Land) project in Karnataka, India, that was specifically directed towards creating an accessible database of land records that could be accessed by the local farmer without having to enlist the help of the local revenue officer. In the case of Bhoomi, the computerisation of land records and the provision of district-wide kiosks based on biometric identifications helped ‘disintermediate’ – i.e. cut out the middle man resulting in efficient, access to land records.
One of the most fascinating examples of a grounded theorising in CSC stems from the RTI movement in India. While the articulations of this theory has been in bits and pieces, it is clear that taken as a whole, it consists of a theory of knowledge, of processes and practice, structures and context that is as grounded as it can get. Specifically this theory articulates a pathway to understanding the role of ordinary people in demanding accountability and transparency through social action. One can argue that the Right to Information campaign in particular has helped many people to experience the real value of participation, access and empowerment in their lives. One of the strengths of these projects is that they have been based on ‘listening’ to, taking account of and responding to people's needs – a basic tenet in communication and social change that has often been neglected or at best half-heartedly embraced. The art of listening is of course the central theme in Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramiriez's (2009) book
Voice needs to be seen not simply in terms of the human capacity to create sounds but the right to speak in contexts in which that right is a privilege associated with the structures of domination undergirded by caste, class and gender. Taken in this sense, the spoken voice in the context of public hearings popularised by the RTI movement in India is an invitation to listen and dialogue. The empowerment that results from ‘naming’ corruption and non-accountability is an act of freedom precisely because that act connects self, and the obligations of self to the community thus strengthening the larger environment of a communicating public (see Thomas, 2011). The A
In other words the theorising of Voice as both a right and as a process is grounded in the local – a way in which memory, experiences, local knowledge were mobilised to effect processes that has clearly resulted in transformative change. The national impact of this movement has been varied. However, it has clearly demonstrated how theory and practice can be closely linked and in my way of thinking offers what the theorising of CSC can be based on. What makes the theorising of the RTI really interesting is that it is not based on a discrete theorising of information, but of how access to information as an enabling right can become the basis for other rights including food security and the right to employment.
The experience of the RTI clearly indicates that communication and development projects work best when local people articulate their own needs. In the case of the RTI, accountability and transparency struck an immediate chord and that led to a national movement. Local resources and practices such as the
Theorising in communications and development needs to keep up with changing contexts, technologies, trends and understandings. For theorising to be relevant, its frameworks need to respond to the five factors mentioned in this chapter: epistemology, structures, practices, context and power. The context of communication and development in India is very different from what it was thirty years ago. The mood of the people too has changed and it would also seem that the ‘ambivalent’ State is also open to listening to and responding to the voices of both people and civil society. The Right to Information movement is an example of what seems to be a new contract between the State and citizens. The example of the right to information movement in India and in particular the relationship between public hearings and ‘voice’ does suggest that CSC theory can be reinvigorated and revitalised through the exploration of interventions and innovations that are culturally relevant and local. The theorisation of Voice does contribute to understandings of ‘participation’ and social change. Most importantly, the example of the right to information movement does suggest that when local people are involved in articulating ‘needs’, there will be scope for the sustainability of the practice of communication and social change and opportunities to theorise from practice. While many imponderables are bound to remain, theorising simply has to keep up with the times, and respond to and account for local needs and categories in order to remain relevant.
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