Theorising Dialogue for Community Development Practice

The article consists of a systematic exploration of some of the crucial work on dialogue that the author has concluded is relevant for community development theory and practice. The perspective taken draws on the work of leading thinkers from different places and disciplines, including Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Buber, David Bohm, Paulo Freire and Mikhail Bakhtin. Each contributes insights that enhance an approach to community development that centres dialogue within its theory and practice.

Both dialogue studies and the field of community development are reasonably well developed ‘communities of practice’, however, there has been little direct interplay between the two whereby a theory of dialogue for community development is articulated. This article then attempts to break new ground, setting up a ‘dialogue’, so to speak, between dialogue studies and community development theory and practice.

Having said this, and for people less familiar with the field of community development, whilst acknowledging there are various traditions and frameworks of community development (Campfens 1997), there are numerous agreed upon orthodoxies (Ife 2002). For example, the set of skills and knowledge commonly associated with community development, which can be construed as a mix of propositional and procedural knowledge, usually portray a set of social practices through which community development workers assist, enable, and facilitate groups of people or community members to build relationships, develop analyses and work together to address issues impacting on their lives. This often requires some change in societal structures. In a sense then, community development is a social practice that works collectively with small groups of people to bring about social change. Whilst dialogue is implicit within most community development practice, as there are important communicative processes at play, this article attempts to make the dialogue theory and practice more explicit.

In doing this, I focus on what is understood as a normative perspective on dialogue. I say perspective to simply signpost that there are many ways through which dialogue can be seen, each focusing on different aspects and implications of this multi-dimensional, dynamic and subtle concept. For example, other ways of thinking about dialogue could be through linguistic-structural, phenomenological, dramaturgical and deconstructive perspectives (Flecha, Gomez and Puigvert 2003). The linguistic-structural perspective would focus on understanding dialogue in relation to another idea – something considered non-dialogical. Dialogue, as a linguistic device, is thereby considered meaningless outside of the structural relationship of another idea. From a phenomenological perspective dialogue is understood as an ‘ideal type’ of practice, that is, practice given meaning through practitioner consciousness and their making it conscious in conversation with others. Some of the theorist’s views of dialogue explored below are clearly phenomenological. A dramaturgical perspective would focus on the performance of dialogue – how practitioners embody dialogue in particular settings and contexts, also with awareness of settings and contexts whereby such dialogical performance is probably difficult, if not impossible. Finally, a deconstructive perspective would ask: what does the word dialogue do? Within this frame there is no metaphysical presence of meaning to the word dialogue; it is the language itself that creates the presence of dialogue. Such a deconstructive ‘reading’ of dialogue within community development would also look for cracks in what is inevitably set up as a binary of dialogical versus non-dialogical. It would ask about the silences within the article – the tough stuff, or grey areas usually overlooked.

However, returning to the primary perspectives applied in this article, the notion of normative is used to discuss how some theorists argue dialogue ‘should be’ – their perspective of an ethical imperative. Yet even my understanding of this is informed by a decision about whether to subscribe to what could be called a shallow as opposed to deep normativity. Shallow normativity is a way of thinking about dialogue and community development in terms of a limited normative set of principles or orthodoxies. The discourse of such approaches would be something like: ‘dialogue is always….’. Within this approach the norms and customs, that is, normativity, of such dialogue thinking-practice, is considered shallow because there is no discussion of where these norms come from. They are discussed as being self-evident and are usually framed a-historically.

Alternatively, deep normativity is a way of rethinking dialogue and community development in terms of diverse sets of norms and customs that are situated within diverse cultural, literary or historical traditions – hence my use of the language of ‘tradition’ when thinking of community development. The norms and customs of practice, also potentially discussed in terms of principles, ethics and orthodoxies, do not claim to determine what dialogue or community development is but rather to describe what a particular tradition or genre of dialogue and community development is. There is depth to the norms, because they are grounded in historical and other dimensions that are particular and that have stood the test of time. For this reason I am careful to identify the author/theorist informing the discussion, also locating their discipline of thought and the geographical ‘home’ that I contend infuses and informs their way of understanding dialogue.

This is an excerpt of the original article published in the Journal of Dialogue Studies. To view the original, please refer to the Vol. 2 No. 1 of the Journal of Dialogue Studies, which you can access here:

Dr Peter Westoby

Dr Peter Westoby

Senior Lecturer in Community Development at the School of Social Science, The University of Queensland

Dr Peter Westoby is a Senior Lecturer in Community Development at the School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, Australia and a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Support, University of the Free State, South Africa.

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