Intergroup Dialogue: a Theoretical Positioning

It has been premised that group based dialogue may be viewed in terms of face-to-face facilitated conversation between members of two or more social identity groups for the purpose of new levels of understanding, relating, and action (Zuniga 2003). Such an orientation, which reproduces standard understandings of dialogue, nevertheless presents two conceptual problems.

The first area concerns the manner in which we define a ‘group’. It is acknowledged that labels based on religion, sexuality, ethnicity or profession are convenient identity markers. Beyond the confines of clear social division however such terms can come under challenge. Not only are the boundaries difficult to define; they are also frequently crossed amongst the plurality of contemporary multicultural society. The second challenge lies in defining what is meant by ‘new levels of understanding’. Whose understandings are valued and how such understandings are defined are two immediate areas of inquiry.

These conceptual challenges are not simply academic. From a practical perspective, the one term ie intergroup dialogue, can mean very different things in diffferent contexts. This in turn can lead to a double edged confusion as people not only use key terms differently but do so with a lack of awareness of such difference. If we are to make progress on facilitating group based dialogue we need to be consistent with the terms that we are using or at the very least be cognizant of the positions from which terminology may be used.

Unpacking Intergroup Dialogue

Two examples from the literature can illustrate the aforementioned challenges. These examples are chosen as they represent both different undertandings of intergroup dialogue alongside different levels of clarification of these positionings. The two examples are taken from (1) Nagda et al.’s (2009) siting of intergroup dialogue within a college setting between members of a college’s white and black communities and (2) Fraser et al.’s (2011) description of a self-identified dialogue project which specifically looks at development from the perspective of Masai women.

Nagda et al.immediately set the scene in terms of locating intergroup dialogue. As they note:

This model of intergroup dialogue, by combining both the critical and dialogic elements, differs from those that are focused more on deliberating about policy issues without in-depth relationship building and without informed structural analysis of inequalities.

The quote highlights the understanding that dialogue can mean different things from different perspectives leading on to the important need of clarifying ones position on both dialogue and a group.

Nagda et al. (2009) state their reliance on Buber and Bakhtin for their understanding of dialogue. They also refer to Freire’s critical consciousness as influential in the formation of what Nagda et al. (2009) term a critical-dialogic model of dialogue. Nagda et al.’s approach to identifying a group is similarly critically defined. In this particular study a group was contextualised by differences in the manner in which self-identified members of different groups have or are denied access to power in society due to their race.

Fraser et al.’s (2011) paper on the other hand, raises a number of conceptual issues. Their understanding of dialogue originates from two main sources. One is identified as Dutta and Pal’s dialogue theory (2010) and the other as Baraldi’s theory of intercultural dialogue (2006). Dutta and Pal in turn draw selectively only on one source (Hammond, Anderson and Cissna; 2003) largely reducing dialogue to a concept of ‘listening to the other’ (369) in the context of marginalised groups. Fraser et al.’s other main source, Baraldi (2006) is similarly devoid of broader dialogical concerns. Baraldi’s understanding of dialogue presents rather as an aspect of cultural fusion aligned with the notion of dialogue as ‘a creative, co-constructed form of communication’ (2006, 62). Despite this constructivist orientation to dialogue, missing from Fraser et al.’s formulation are discussions on broader scholarly concepts such as criticality, rationality, ethics and mutuality.

Furthermore Baraldi draws on positivistic formulations of a group to round off his basic theoretical framework; a postion which appears less than adequate in terms of providing a conceptual framework for the project. Fraser et al.’s concept of a group is, for example, an issue. One concern is that it presents the six rural Masai women participants as representatives of Masai women in general, a positivist portrayal which is not met in reality. The other concern is the neat division of the two groups into a research team and Masai women. The former is scarcely represented in the research report, undermining the central feature of IGD, that it involves at least members of two groups. Neither is little mention madeof the long term involvement of members of the research team in the lives of the participants beforehand, nor of the inclusion of Masai members in the research team thus blurring the neat division of group membership. This blurring of the two groups introduces a level of unmentioned complexity and suggests that dialogue may be a result of an ongoing cultural fusion rather than simply the research project itself. For this reason perhaps, the project appears to concern itself more with voice than with dialogue. It outlines a mechanism for those on the social margins to express their views and their world. We get little understanding of the motivations of the Masai women participants for taking this step, however,a dialogical practice, beyond their involvement in a research project.

Portraying this particular research project as a form of dialogue needs to be, at the very least, circumscribed by a more definitive framework of how such dialogue is defined and how we may view a group. This is not to question the value of the findings of this particular research project, nor their representation of an under voiced reality. Rather it points to the need to be definitive about definitions and unpack the meanings that are used.


All understandings of IGD are epistemologically differentiated and can draw on a number of influences in their formulation. Unless we, as scholars, are clear in how we arrive at our definitions of IGD, particularly in how we see both ‘dialogue’ and the ‘group’, confusion over the meaning of IGD is likely to continue. This is a cause for concern. IGD represents an important mechanism for bringing people together and building understanding. It becomes vital that at the very least we understand and can state our own position so that others may learn from both our successes and failures with regards to the ongoing project that is intergroup dialogue.

This column is an excerpt from an article published in the Journal of Dialogue Studies. For the complete article, please go to:

Michael Atkinson

Michael Atkinson

Deakin University

Michael Atkinson is a PhD student with the department of Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Australia.

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