On Dialogue Studies

Dialogue has become a powerful term and form of action in many academic, linguistic, and cultural communities. Over the past few years, several conferences have been convened to examine dialogue, intercultural dialogue, dialogic communication, or dialogic approaches to inquiry. Examples of these groupings are many including the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and the Dialogue Society, as are the conferences convened in the past decade by the European Union, the International Communication Association, and so on. All invite us to reflect upon and develop our notions of ‘Dialogue’ or ‘Intercultural Dialogue.’ As a key term ‘dialogue’ has assumed a prevalence, prominence, and potency in its meanings, and in its frequent declaration as a preferred form for human action.

So, we can ask: what indeed is Dialogue, exactly, as a form of action? What motives for such action are at play? What meanings does it activate? We ask further, how might this be studied? And what good might come of it?

Uses of Dialogue Studies

There is a rich range of studies which may be brought together in the study of dialogue. A variety of academic disciplines can and should be involved in our efforts including anthropology, communication, linguistics, literature, as well as professional studies in education, law, medicine, religion. Many theoretical perspectives can contribute to our efforts including Conversation Analysis, Discourse Analysis, Historiography, Narrative Studies, and so on. There are key features however, across such disciplines and perspectives, which make studies dialogic. These involve the focus fundamentally on social interactional dynamics, multiple means of expression, motives presumably in that action, meanings being presumed by participants in those actions or practices. Following the findings summarized above, we might anticipate in actions called ‘dialogue,’ co-participation, common goals, an ethos of mutuality, and so on. Some configuration of these features offers an entry into, or limited scope to dialogue studies.

What good would such studies do? My first thought on this matter would be: how can we do without them? I will mention here only four diverse applications of such work knowing there are hundreds of others that could be mentioned. Following the lead of Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva designed a dialogic procedure for understanding ‘security needs’ in local communities. The procedure was called the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (or SNAP). This general approach included listening to local participants to understand their meanings about such matters, then working with an understanding of those ways in moving forward to enhance their security.1 2

A second use of such studies involved the study of Native People and non-Native people who inhabited the eastern Rocky Mountain front of Montana. While living in the same geographic location together, these people made sense of their landscape in deeply different ways. By exploring dialogic acts of place-naming and storytelling, and putting these in dialogue with each other, we were able to make visible differences in where people thought they were, the moral guidance they assumed for living there, the affective charge of the landscape to them, and the consequences of the one largely ignoring the other. Studies as these introduce new ways of designing policy and practices so to achieve mutuality in future practices.3

A third use is perhaps less morally laden but illustrative of a rather unique application. It involves the study of the ways humans interface with machines (e.g., cell phones, computers), exploring the culturally diverse ways people conceive of and use their automobiles. In this case, with colleague Ute Winter from General Motors, we explored diverse cultural ways people interact with their cars including their ideas of what would be the best ways for the ‘dialogic flow’ in the car to be designed, and if it was deemed a flaw, how it could be corrected.

A fourth use illustrates the value in understanding cultural foundations of education, or knowledge, in human dialogic practice. Where some might see in educational practices traditional knowledge, others can see their cultural identity and tradition being supplanted or even subjugated to imperialist powers. Certainly such dynamics as these, sometimes advanced in the name of ‘higher education’ need our utmost attention and scrutiny.4 5 6

In these ways, and in many others, in all sorts of human institutions including education, government, law, medicine and religion, our dialogic studies can help develop better practices and policies because this type of knowledge builds on the bases of interactional dynamics, an ethos of mutuality, and an understanding of cultural variability in the world today. A one-size fits all, or a general mono-design simply will not do.


[1] Miller, D. and Rudnick, L. (2008) The security needs assessment protocol: Improving operational effectiveness through community security, New York and Geneva: United Nations Publications.

[2] Miller, D. B. and Rudnick, L. (2010) ‘A case for situated theory in modern peacebuilding practice’, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 5, 62-74.

[3] Carbaugh, D. and Rudnick, L. (2006) ‘Which place, what story? Cultural discourses at the border of the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier National park’, Great Plains Quarterly, 26, 167-184.

[4] Carbaugh, D. (2005a) Cultures in conversation, New York and London: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, Taylor and Francis Group.

[5] Covarrubias, P. O. (2008) ‘Masked silence sequences: Hearing discrimination in the college classroom’, Communication, Culture & Critique, 1 (3), 227-252.

[6] Witteborn, S. (2010) ‘The role of transnational NGOs in promoting global citizenship and globalizing communication practices’, Language and intercultural communication, 10 (4), 358-372.

This column is a short excerpt from Dr Carbaugh’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

Prof Donal Carbaugh

Prof Donal Carbaugh

University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

Donal Carbaugh is Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and recipient of the university's Samuel F. Conti Faculty Research Fellowship.

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