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Dissemination vs. Dialogue: A False Dichotomy

Arvind Singhal, Ph.D., is a professor and presidential research scholar at the School of Communication Studies, Ohio University, where he teaches and conducts research in diffusion of innovations, mobilising for change, design and implementation of strategic communication, and entertainment-education communication. Singhal argues here that dissemination of information and dialogue are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can complement each other effectively when it comes to bringing about sustainable social change. Author of eight books, his latest work is Organizing for Social Change (Sage, 2006).

What is the role of information dissemination in social change?  What is the role of dialogue in social change?  Is dialogue superior to dissemination? Or is dissemination superior to dialogue? 

This either/or binary discussion of dissemination versus dialogue is neither useful nor productive.  This essay argues that, for social change to occur, both dissemination and dialogue must dynamically co-exist, each shaping the other. 

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Some 300,000 people heard the speech in person.  Tens of millions saw it live on television, and hundreds of millions have since seen it on television, heard it on radio, or read the speech in a book.

In describing his dream of a nation where a person "would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character," Dr. King's speech mobilised millions of supporters for desegregation in the United States, prompting the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  The same year, at age 34, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

An examination of the "I Have a Dream" phenomenon shows the inter-relationships that exist between dissemination and dialogue.  King's speech represents an example of mass dissemination; it spread the word on racial equality widely"both in the United States and overseas. 

However, King developed this speech over years of intense dialogue"with Southern church leaders, civil rights activists, and friends and family members.  Through these conversations, King understood the nature, scope and brutality of indignities suffered by blacks and honed his strategy of non-violent civil disobedience.  Portions of the "I Have a Dream" speech were presented in various other venues, sparking dialogue with audience members, who, in turn, further informed King's ideas.

In essence, dialogue was an integral component in the development of the speech eventually delivered in Washington, D.C., in 1963. 

Once disseminated by the mass media, the speech inspired further dialogue among millions of people"black people and white people, Christians and non-Christians and US citizens and non-US citizens.  These dialogues shaped the public, mass media and policy discourses on the civil rights debate about freedom and equality, prejudice and discrimination, privilege and opportunity.  The dialogue shaped conversations in families, schools, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues.  Many individuals were inspired by King to practice racial tolerance.  Many others participated in, or helped organize, civil rights campaigns for racial equality.

The real power of this widely disseminated speech lies in the dialogue it has sparked worldwide over four decades.  "I Have a Dream" illustrates that dialogue shapes dissemination"and that dissemination prompts dialogue. 

Key Differences Between Dissemination and Dialogue

Dissemination is an intentional process of information transmission from a source to one or many individuals (Papa, Singhal, & Papa, 2006).  In this sense, dissemination involves telling: The message doesn't change, and there is limited, if any, role for feedback.  Mass-media messages are thus mostly dissemination.

Interpersonal messages also involve dissemination.  A farmer who shares his experience with other farmers, say about a certain weeding or tilling practice, for instance, engages in dissemination.  While dissemination may mean uniformity of transmission, in does not imply uniformity in reception.  In fact, there is usually quite a bit of diversity in reception.  Interestingly, in the economics of communication, messages are worth more in dissemination than they are in reception (Peters, 1999).  Teachers are paid to teach.  Students spend to learn. In essence, society places a high economic value on expert-centered transmission.

Dialogue involves mutuality and reciprocity in information exchange between two or more individuals.  In this sense, dialogue involves not only a channel of information exchange but also is embodied in the relationship between participants.  Dialogue, by nature, is recurring and iterative.  Through dialogue, human relationships are co-created, co-regulated and co-modified.  That is, something new is created in the interaction.  Also, unlike mass-mediated dissemination messages, dialogue is oral, live, immediate and bound to a physical context (Peters, 1999).

Peters (1999) distinguished between dissemination and dialogue by invoking Jesus and Socrates, two great teachers, both of whom questioned past practices and, as a result, were martyrs.  While Jesus represented an example of dissemination, spreading his parables among his followers across geographically dispersed audiences, Socrates practiced dialogue"face-to-face, in the here and the now.  Jesus disseminated his message to audiences ranging from a few people to a few thousand"for example, the Sermon on the Mount, while Socrates mostly dialogued one-on-one with his pupils and fellow citizens.

We argue that dissemination and dialogue are dialectically intertwined, and the tension between them is a vital ingredient in organizing for social change.

Dissemination and dialogue are not separable, and one is not holier than the other.  Peters (1999) questions the "holy" status bestowed on dialogue, noting that uncritical celebration of dialogue is as nave as is the uncritical criticism of dissemination.  Dialogue can be tyrannical, and dissemination can be just.  Peters finds dialogic reciprocity as a moral ideal to be insufficient, asking why should there be implied lack of "holiness" in information transmission.  In social change processes, dissemination and dialogue must co-exist.

This dissemination-dialogue dialectic in a mass-mediated context is illustrated in the radio farm forum experiments.  In 1956, India was the site of the famous Pune Radio Farm Forum Project, a field experiment to evaluate the effects of radio farm forums, each comprising several dozen villagers who gathered weekly to listen to a half-hour radio program broadcast by All India Radio and then discussed its contents (Kivlin, Roy, Fliegel, & Sen, 1968).  The theme of the radio forums was "Listen, Discuss, Act!"  One of the radio broadcasts, for example, might deal with the problem of rodents.  After discussion of this topic in a radio forum, villagers would mount a community rat-control campaign.

The research evaluation showed that the Pune radio farm forums helped to "unify villagers around common decisions and common actions," widening "the influence of the gram panchayat, i.e., village government, and broadening the scope of its action" (Mathur & Neurath, 1959, p. 101).  The farm forums spurred discussions among villagers, leading to decisions about digging wells, adopting purebred bulls and Leghorn chickens, and establishing balwadis"children's enrichment centres (Singhal & Rogers, 2001).  At the village level, the radio forums acted like voluntary organizations "whose members were neither appointed by authority nor elected to represent specific group interests."  Thus, the forums signified "an important experiment in village democracy (Mathur & Neurath, 1959, p. 101).  Members voluntarily engaged in village clean-up drives, planting papaya trees and building pit latrines.

The main purpose of the radio farm forums was to disseminate information on new agricultural practices to rural farmers in India.  Radio broadcasting allowed information to be disseminated widely to tens of millions of farmers, residing in tens of thousands of Indian villages.  As dozens of farmers gathered around the radio set and heard these messages, both dissemination and dialogue simultaneously unfolded on the ground.  Farmers, who were opinion leaders, disseminated their ideas among fellow farmers on how to incorporate new agricultural practices.  Meanwhile, discussion and dialogue among participating farmers shaped the decisions and actions about agricultural and community organizing initiatives.

Both Vital Ingredients

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970), a champion of dialogic action, acknowledges the role of dissemination (Singhal & Rogers, 2003).  The teacher, the facilitator, often an outsider, brings new skills and ideas to oppressed communities; even if it is the skill of facilitating dialogue, self-reflection and self-actualisation by people who had been disempowered. 

In a similar vein, dissemination of the parables stimulates dialogue in millions of churches, homes and public forums.  This dialogue, in turn, influences further dissemination of Jesus'  message. 

Too often, there is a tendency to dichotomise the dissemination and dialogue.  Clearly, though, both are vital ingredients in organizing for social change for the co-participants.

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