Listening and Learning - The Benefit of Collaborative Community Media for Research and Public Engagement

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After a productive weekend discussing how community radio practitioners and university researchers can effectively work together, to support richer forms of public engagement, I’ve processed a few thoughts that I feel might form the basis of an effective model of engagement. The listening and learning event took place at Dartington Hall, and was hosted by Lucinda Guy and Alice Arnold of Stellaria Media at the Soundart Radio studios, and was funded with support from the University of Bath Public Engagement team.

The idea was to spend a day discussing and practising the benefit of deliberation and conversational forms of engagement between community radio practitioners and academic researchers. We set up in one of the Dartington Space studios, where we held conversations about what each of us are motivated by, either in the way we undertake research, or in producing and taking part in radio programmes that use a community media approach.

The community media approach can be characterised by three main principles:

  1. It is DIY and uses any forms of media that are relevant to sharing ideas and topics in a discussion.
  2. It is asset-based, so it draws on the skills and capabilities that each community has.
  3. It is developmental, and encourages learning through reciprocal discussion.

The focus of the activities in the workshop was how to foster and nurture trusting conversations, in which researchers and community media practitioners could come together to find common ground, and share their insights. After an introductory discussion each group was given a Tascam recorder and asked to go for a walk in the Dartington Hall gardens, to record a conversation where they learnt something about each person in the group. These conversations were unstructured and allowed to emerge from the interaction of the different participants.

After lunch, the conversation was focussed on thinking about what next steps could be taken in order to facilitate a more deliberative model of collaboration between community media volunteers and academic researchers. The conversation focussed on enabling a deeper understanding of the collaborative approach and what it’s merits are for improved support for the public engagement merits of universities. The challenge will require, therefore, a shift in thinking by all involved, away from performance indicators and targets, towards the rich and enduring relationships that support participation in a community-focussed communications process, which fosters mutual understanding, not just of the topics covered, but also the process by which these topics are developed, and the process by which they are socially shared.

Joseph Henrich describes how the process of cultural evolution has given advantages to humans that are not available to other animals, and that our collective, inter-generational and social approach to learning from one another, helps us to develop knowledge that surpasses anything that an individual acting by themselves can consider and act on. As Henrich suggests

“Our collective brains depend heavily on the packages of social norms and institutions that weave together our communities, create interdependence, foster solidarity, and subdivide our cultural information and labour. These social norms, which were gradually selected by intergroup competition over eons, have domesticated us to be better rule followers, as well as more attentive parents, loyal mates, good friends (reciprocators), and upstanding community members” (Henrich, 2016, p. 318).

We are social animals, and we are supported both individually and collectively by our symbolic interactions and the common culture that this represents. How we foster and maintain this culture is through layers and layers of social learning, which creates and propagates knowledge that is suited to our circumstances.

We are social learners first and foremost, and as social learners we are able to incorporate rituals and practices that work to sustain our communities, which may help us to deal with change if they are open enough. As we, as a species, face the demands of systems change once again, with the immediate and challenging effects of climate crisis, globalisation, inequality, and so on (the Great Disruption), then we have to be open to thinking and acting in ways that are both deliberative and curious. If we stick too rigidly to our social norms and don’t allow members of our communities to explore and learn through interaction with others, from different cultures and different traditions, then we are likely to regress both socially and materially.

Social interaction, however, needs to be managed, and needs to be understood in a way that allows people to function reciprocally, rather than by polarising people and their communities. Theoretical physicist David Bohm proposed a model of deliberative dialogue that focussed on mutual and reciprocal understanding. Bohm noted that we must acknowledge that “we have all sorts of assumptions, not only about politics or economics or religion, but also about what we think an individual should do, or what life is all about, and so forth” (Bohm, 1996). For Bohm this means that we need to invest in finding ways to overcome those differences through learning and shared problem-solving.

Finding those points of interaction, according to Bohm, means locating the points where mutual and reciprocal understanding can be grasped. This can’t be left to a competitive dynamic, such as those offered in gaming or markets, with their warped and partial views of human nature. Instead, we must seek the points of productive collaboration where we are able to hold and maintain a multi-level view that recognises the different threads, traditions and levels of our thinking and engagement. The sign of our collective intelligence is not the number of facts that we can amass, but the way that we can develop meta-systems of thinking that incorporate and account for legacy forms of thinking that are nested within our emergent forms of thinking. We won’t engender trust in this process if we are forced to make choices, rather we build social trust by demonstrating that we are able to hear one another’s concerns, and to incorporate those concerns into a common – human and social – grounding.

We live at a time when community development is often presented as a zero-sum game. Where the models of intervention that establishes and builds communities are said to work because they recognise incentives based on function and utility. However, as Peter Westoby and Anthony Kelly point out, genuine community development practice goes against the managerialist and process-focussed domains of information systems management. Kelly and Westoby suggest that these functional approaches tend to miss what makes community life meaningful and symbolically resonant (Kelly & Westoby, 2018). What does it mean to commune with one another? What does it mean to belong? How can we benefit from a shared sense of trust? These are questions that the process or positivist model of social interaction can’t answer, but are what we tend to live our lives by in practice.

There are creative and cultural impulses that we must be attuned to if we are to successfully develop and foster a robust and sustainable model of social interaction and public learning. We grow as we learn. We grow as our learning challenges us to shift our perspectives. We grow when we recognise that others have a shared impulse to overcome obstacles in a free interchange of ideas, free from dogmatism or culturally prescriptive approaches to identity and expression. Social learning evolves and shapes people at all levels of society, for which we must all learn to play a role in the ongoing learning process that forms our common stock of knowledge.

The relationship, then, between researchers and community media participants, while fragile, is going to be essential to the opening-up of the knowledge creation process. This opening-up is socially democratic in practice, it is inclusive and participatory as a communal enterprise. If we are to deal with the pressing problems of the Great Disruption, then we must think beyond the narrow confines of the managerialist and technocratic view of culture-building, and foster a widespread and continual learning model that includes as many people as is practically possible. This means using our media as a social learning resource where the benefits are clearly collaborative, and the imperatives of individual accumulation of knowledge or expertise are minimised.

We are social learners, and so we must learn to expand our social capacity for learning using the media systems, platforms and tools that we now have available to us.

Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. Routledge.

Henrich, J. (2016). The Secret of Our Success. Princeton University Press.

Kelly, A., & Westoby, P. (2018). Participatory Development Practice – Using Traditional and Contemporary Frameworks. Practical Action Publishing.