Future Directions and Discipline Formation for ‘Dialogue Studies’: Reflections on Critically Analyzing ‘Dialogue’ in Theory and Practice

In considering the need for a newly formed research area, or emergent discipline, of ‘dialogue studies’ this paper will explore three interrelated themes: the concept of ‘dialogue studies’ and its parameters and framing as an emergent discipline; the potential benefits of such a discipline to practice and policy; and the importance of critically understanding the cultural and epistemological context of ‘dialogue’ and its role in living with not only diversity, but difference. Whilst recognizing that there is a clear practice-driven need for the development of an area of research under the banner of ‘dialogue studies’ and that there are existing bodies of research, which such a field can effectively build on, this paper argues that the development of dialogue studies as a field cannot simply bring together and augment existing discourses, but needs to create new perspectives by adopting a multidisciplinary approach. It is also postulated that there is a need to develop an internal critical discourse within ‘dialogue studies’ which builds reflexivity into future research development and that ultimately any research undertaken in this area has to be both beneficial and supportive of practice, whilst also clearly articulating its successes and failures.

The primary question posed by the editors of this journal for its first edition is to ask whether or not there is a real need for the emergence of a discipline under the banner of ‘dialogue studies’? It is laudable, and highly appropriate, that the process of developing ‘dialogue studies’ as a field of research should involve a form of dialogue from the outset. The primary dialogue that is needed however is not that between differing academic discourses (though this is indeed also necessary), but more importantly between the spheres of research, theory and practice. The perceived necessity of ‘dialogue studies’ is arguably driven predominantly by practice and not by scholarly need. It is driven by the need of practitioners, and the policy makers who fund such practice, to understand the true impact of their interventions in what are often highly complex, fragile or sensitive situations. If ‘dialogue studies’ is indeed a relevant field of research, or even as suggested an emergent discipline, then it is at its very heart an applied one. It is this intersection of scholarly discourse and practical need that this paper will reflect on. In responding to the editors’ questions, the concerns and propositions raised in this paper in part reflect my day-to-day concerns in previous practice based roles running large scale intercultural dialogue programmes and projects, and in part it is the concerns of an interested party who returned to academia because of a recognized need to develop adequate research into the role and effectiveness of dialogue in intercultural, cross community and interfaith dialogue. In order to ask what are the benefits, or potential pitfalls, developing a ‘dialogue studies’ approach and to explore avenues for potential research this paper will explore three interrelated themes: the concept of ‘dialogue studies’ and its parameters and framing as an emergent discipline; the top level benefits of such a discipline to practice and policy; and the importance of critically understanding the cultural and epistemological context of ‘dialogue’ and its role in living with not only diversity, but difference.

‘Dialogue studies’ as an Emergent Discipline

Before we even ask what we mean by ‘Dialogue Studies’ we need to ask whether there is a need for better understanding of how different community tensions or conflicts can be tackled, ameliorated or prevented. There has clearly been growing interest in – and perhaps most especially since 9/11 and 7/7 an increasing policy focus on – creating opportunities for intercultural or cross-community dialogue. Where once was a disparate group of organizations undertaking intercultural relations now we see a veritable industry of intercultural, or intergroup, dialogue in policy and practice (Stephan and Stephan 2013; Nss 2010). If we were to seek a defining paradigm for this area of work it would most likely be that there is a benefit in bringing groups or individuals who are currently in differing forms of ‘conflict’ together in order to build understanding and reduce prejudice between these groups. There is a growing and extensive body of work within social psychology – intergroup contact theory – that supports this model (for a good overview see Pettigrew 2008; Pettigrew et al. 2011).

However, whilst intergroup contact theory provides us with an excellent basis for some forms of dialogue practice it can only take us so far – it is after all primarily concerned with understanding the role of ‘contact’ in reducing prejudice. However, the political, societal and cultural backdrop to conflict or tensions between communities is not simply based on prejudicial understanding of the ‘other’. Living with pluralism and difference means that we don’t just need to reduce prejudice, we need to manage, engage with, negotiate between and understand multiple worldviews – some of which play a role in what is seemingly intractable conflict. Therefore whilst ‘dialogue studies’ will greatly benefit from incorporating the paradigm of intergroup contact research, it needs to move beyond it.

This column is a short excerpt from Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker’s article, ‘On Dialogue Studies’, published in the first issue of the Journal of Dialogue Studies.

For the full article, please refer to the first issue, or go to: https://www.dialoguesociety.org/publications/academia/829-journal-of-dialogue-studies.html

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker

Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Relations at Coventry University

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker is deputy director of the Centre for Social Relations at Coventry University. She has a diverse disciplinary background.

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