Studying Dialogue – Some Reflections

The idea of establishing ‘dialogue studies’ as a distinct field of enquiry, and a new journal to provide a forum for scholarship on dialogue, raises some interesting questions. One of the aims for this journal, as stated on its website, is to ‘bring together a body of original scholarship on the theory and practice of dialogue that can be critically appraised and debated’. Is there a tension in this statement between the intended subject – dialogue – and the suggested style of communication – debate?

Debate does tend to be the default form of exchange for academic journals, and arguably for academia more generally. We talk about ‘academic debates’, not ‘academic dialogues’. At the same time, one of the most common ways of teasing out what we mean by dialogue is to contrast it with debate – and dialogue tends to emerge from these comparisons as a style of communication that is constructive, reflective, and oriented towards fostering understanding and building relationships, while debate is characterised as combative, unreflective, and oriented towards winning an argument rather than deepening understanding (for examples, see Escobar 2011, Herzig and Chasin 2006, Kelly and Cumming 2010, Yankelovich 2001). The claim in these comparisons is not that dialogue avoids disagreement while debate relishes it. Indeed, many people are attracted to dialogue not because they want to escape disagreement but because they are hoping for a more meaningful way of exploring differences. These comparisons do, however, suggest that debate is problematic if the aim is to reach enhanced understanding, both of why we ourselves think and feel in certain ways, and of why others may hold different perspectives.

Despite these observations, dialogue is challenging and perhaps even countercultural to many in academia. Many students and staff, consciously or not, still tend to assume that academic study involves a neutral or objective vantage point, that personal details are irrelevant, and that rational argumentation backed up by evidence, rather than story-telling based on personal experience, is the most appropriate form of communication aimed at increasing knowledge. Moreover, the assumption that ‘the best way to demonstrate intellectual prowess is to criticize, find fault, and attack’ (Tannen 2000) is widespread if not necessarily articulated as such.

My suggestion here is neither that there is no role for critical debate, nor that there are no alternatives to it – academic study does encourage a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches. What I would like to reflect on, however, is what it might mean to take more dialogic forms of communication seriously not just as a subject of study but as a means of interaction between academics, students and practitioners.

Trying to unpack and understand what lies beneath apparently rational argumentation reveals ‘how judgment occurs on several registers, and how much more there is to thinking than argument’ (Connolly 1999, 148). I would suggest that to the extent that engaging in dialogue can help to open up more of these registers to understanding and reflection, it is more likely to enhance the capacity for critical analysis than to diminish it – and as Tannen (2000) suggests, it could also counteract those academic tendencies that are ‘corrosive to the human spirit’.

This suggestion is not new: There is a wealth of existing thought and experiments that are trying to foster more dialogic modes of education and scholarship, and that can offer both inspiration and the opportunity to learn from experience. Ideas and practices of ‘integrative education’, for example, encourage both students and academic staff to view themselves and each other as whole human beings, to see education as a multidimensional experience that also engages personal experiences, emotions and values, and to cultivate communities of inquiry and spaces for conversation that allow for the expression and exploration of uncertainty, confusion and genuine disagreement (Palmer and Zajonc 2010). And as Barnett (1997) makes clear, an academic culture that integrates different dimensions of what it means to be human is not about abandoning rigour, but about enabling meaningful and committed critical engagement with knowledge, self and world. The reason these arguments need to continue to be made, however, is that mainstream academic institutions and structures remain far less conducive to dialogic forms of exchange and practice than they could be. Against this background, it would be interesting to explore whether, or how, the Journal of Dialogue Studies could experiment with more dialogic ways of being a journal. Rather than defaulting to debate, the journal might try to encourage a more dialogic style of communication. It could, for example, feature dialogic exchanges between theorists and practitioners on a particular theme. The question of what it takes for such exchanges to have dialogic qualities itself needs further reflection. Contributors could, for example, be encouraged to talk about their own assumptions and values before critically unpacking those of others (Yankelovich 2001), and to get away from ‘a formula that requires scholars to frame their work in opposition to their predecessors’’ (Tannen 2002, 1667). More broadly, allowing space for more reflective forms of writing, even if they don’t conform to conventional academic formats, might also help to encourage this ethos.

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

Dr Ute Kelly

Dr Ute Kelly

Lecturer in Peace Studies, University of Bradford

Ute Kelly (formerly B'hler) is interested in the theory and practice of participation, deliberation and dialogue. Within this broad field, she has a particular interest in the potential of participatory/deliberative approaches in situations of conflict, diversity and inequality, and in the roles of both reason and emotion in shaping people's engagement with each other.

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