“We need to move the capacity of theorising into the hands of subaltern communities.”

Mohan J. Dutta is Provost’s Chair Professor at the National University of Singapore, where he serves as Founding Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE). He also heads the Department of Communications and New Media. 

Development and participation: turning the tables

Professor Mohan Dutta

The dominant mode of development communication has been expert-led and top-down, treating disadvantaged communities as targets of interventions designed to alter the individual behavior of their members. Mohan J. Dutta is among researchers who challenge the effectiveness of such strategies, pointing out that they often fail to address more structural impediments to social justice. As a radical alternative, Dutta has developed what he calls the culture-centered approach. He has run several community-based projects working with historically marginalized groups and has also become one of the world’s most prolific scholars in health communication. He shared his ideas with Media Asia editor Cherian George.

CHERIAN GEORGE:

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed for the post-2015 agenda don’t mention media or communication as explicitly as many in our field hoped. Does this surprise or disappoint you?

MOHAN DUTTA:

It’s disappointing, for sure. But it is no surprise, because I think that in many ways communication is taken for granted, at least in the way the broader structures – such as the UN within this context – conceive of development. Communication is not clearly articulated and it is therefore really problematic, because this also erases the basic processes by which these decisions and goals are arrived at, as well as the processes of accountability that are tied to them.

CG:

Does that suggest that it is no accident that some of these issues are left out?

MD:

Exactly. Let me give you an example. When you look at the SDGs, there is quite a bit of mention of participation all across. It talks about being participatory, and having many stakeholders at the table. This was also the case with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But when I looked closely at the ways the agencies went about implementing, articulating or evaluating the MDGs, I could see that participation remained pretty abstract. Also, how participation is determined and conceived stays pretty much in the hands of the power structure. It feels the same way with the Sustainable Development Goals as well: communication concepts such as participation seem pretty empty.

CG:

But would you say that there has been some progress, at least since the early days of the MDGs, in that the value of informed participation in government processes is now taken for granted? The big international and multi-lateral agencies now have processes by which people sector inputs are gathered, in a way that wasn’t the case, say, 20 years ago?

MD:

In terms of the rhetoric, certainly there has been progress. My research is field-based research, working in very disenfranchised communities, and I find that the rhetoric certainly has moved, but how that has translated into opportunities for the very marginalised to actually participate – that remains the question. So, going back to your point, there is definitely a shift toward more participatory processes of decision-making. The real work that needs to be done is connecting that to what is actually happening on the ground.

CG:

You have distinguished your own approach from what’s broadly called participatory development. The common feature between participatory development and what you call the culture-centered approach is a dissatisfaction with top-down approaches, and a desire to see more participation by local communities. But you take it a step further, as you want to ensure that the participation and the dialogue include more structural impediments, and not just what individuals can do to improve their lot.

MD:

That’s beautifully put. Can I elucidate that with an example? Let’s take how participatory development is typically conceived of within the structures like the UN, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. Take the issue of mining in the context of India. There are a large number of participatory projects that are run by NGOs, which often have funding that comes from the mining companies. They are termed participatory because they engage communities in stakeholder decision-making processes. On paper, all of this looks as if participation is what is taking place and decisions are being arrived at through participatory processes. You see this happening across the eastern zone of India – Orissa, Chattisgarh, where there are large mineral deposits.

But what is actually happening is that participation becomes a strategy for co-opting, either in terms of forming very neutral-sounding projects like building a school or building water supplies, or more co-optive projects such as actually paying people off to say certain things at these so-called participatory meeting.

CG:

So, what you have seen at the grassroots is evidence of processes that look good on paper being gamed, being colonised, by those with the resources to, for example, pay spokesmen.

MD:

Exactly. I would go a step further and say that the language of participation is being used precisely to disenfranchise and marginalise those subaltern communities.

CG:

Could you cite a concrete example that you have seen first-hand?

MD:

Absolutely. Take the example of the protest of the Dongria Kondh tribal community in the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa. A large British transnational mining corporation, Vedanta, was coming in to build bauxite mines bauxite distillery outfits. According to the Constitution of India, particularly the Panchayats Act of the Indian Constitution that protects tribal land, consultative participation was a key element that was already built in.

But when the company, working with the local government, carried out these participatory forums, it did a few things. For instance, the forums were held at sites quite far away from the actual communities where the Dongria Kondh reside. The announcement for the meetings was not distributed in the communities; rather, the announcement was published in the English-language newspapers that were circulated only in Bhubaneswar. The time between the announcement and the actual meeting was very short. The Dongria Kondh did not have prior knowledge about the meetings.

So here you have an example where communication is used precisely to disenfranchise a community. As a result, you didn’t really have the Dongria Kondh participating in the consultative meetings that were being held in far away spaces. Moreover, you have instances of community members who would talk about being bribed directly by the company or its CSR (corporate social responsibility) people, or being given various offers, such as being educated in a city, as ways to buy off or purchase participation.

CG:

So your response is the culture-centered approach. Could you describe this?

MD:

The culture-centered approach (CCA) argues for three things. First, participation of course is important and vital, but for participation to play an important role in listening to the voices of community, we need to think about the structures within which participation is situated. So, say, when I sit at the UN and set up a consultative forum, or when I am an NGO issuing a call for participation, that means something that is completely different from when, say, the Dongria Kondh organically come together to say that we don’t want this mining company in our community. This notion of the grassroots has to be understood in relation to the dominant structure.

The second point is, not only do we need to look at marginalised communities as participants in order to solve the problems that we think are important, but also we need to turn the table and create spaces for them to identify what the key problems are, and then to develop solutions to these problems. Often, we retain the language of theorising within our own elite clubs, as academics or as NGOs or as large organisations. What the CCA suggests is that we need to move the capacity of theorising into the hands of subaltern communities, and recognise that communities that are disenfranchised already have theories that they build to understand the problems that they face and to develop solutions to these problems. So the question is not even one of empowering, because the notion that I would come from outside and give them power also is arrogant. The notion rather is acknowledging the capacity of communities to participate in meaning-making. Every community, every human being, is capable of making meaning, and developing their own theories and sets of understandings.

The third point is the idea of reflexivity. It is one thing to say, let’s listen to these communities so we can solve these problems together; it is another thing to actually pay attention to what they’re saying and to be open to transformation. In my own work, at least, I try to use these opportunities of listening as ways of changing myself, my own biases, my privileges – as Gayatri Spivak would say, recognising our privileges as loss – and beginning from that space of humility. Part of this idea also then is that we will not always recognize our own privileges and the limits to knowing. So the stance is always one of uncertainty and humility at the limits of knowing.

CG:

You’ve applied this approach in a number of contexts and causes, in the United States, in India, and elsewhere. Could you give us an example that you think would illustrate the effectiveness of this method?

MD:

Let’s go to the context of Singapore. We have an ongoing project with the foreign domestic workers in Singapore. Now, this project with foreign domestic workers engages them, first and foremost in listening to their stories of struggle and the ways in which they understand their everyday lived experiences. We worked with them over the last two years, forming an advisory board of foreign domestic workers who were housed at HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics). These are a small subsection of foreign domestic workers who end in some kind of trouble. For them, the problem, put broadly, was simple: they wanted to be treated as human beings and with respect when they worked in these households. That therefore became the basis for the campaign that they developed, called “Respect our Rights”, in collaboration with HOME. The idea was that foreign domestic workers have rights. They have rights as human beings, but they also have rights as workers – which also shifts the notion of domestic work as being a space that needs to be recognised as a legitimate space of work.

CG:

How does your approach differ from more conventional methods, which might include starting out with a focus group to find out what the real needs are, before a more systematic top-down campaign is tried?

MD:

A traditional method will of course do a lot of formative research. They would go about doing focus groups, doing audience analyses, and maybe doing a survey to figure out the best way to segment the population, and then target the population. The CCA says that this entire way of segmentation and targeting – that still treats communities as a “target”, as if they have to receive something that we have to give them – is fundamentally a paradigm that needs to be challenged.

When disenfranchised communities sit at the table rather than becoming targets, they become the decision makers. In terms of determining the agenda for strategies and tactics, in terms of setting up objectives and evaluating them, all of that pretty much is done by, in this case, the foreign domestic workers.

When the foreign domestic workers came together, they didn’t design a campaign that said, now that we know what are the problems faced by foreign domestic workers, let’s figure out a way to educate them. That would be the traditional way in which we would go about running a campaign, at least in my understanding and training in communication. They said, instead, let’s change the idea of who the audience is. For them, the audience became the everyday middle class and upper middle class Singaporeans and expats that hired foreign domestic workers in their homes. In that sense, it’s the return of the gaze, if you will.

The target audience becomes someone with privilege. So the messaging, the segmentation and targeting was directed at this population that employed foreign domestic workers with the idea of generating empathy and shifting attitudes. So it’s also a way of talking back to the structures.

CG:

Whereas in conventional approaches such decisions in a sense would be prejudged, by the nature of organisation involved and so on?

MD:

Right. It would be prejudged as therefore the content, the campaign’s objectives, how it would be evaluated, would also be different. Traditionally, we would target those marginalised community as targets of our intervention, as opposed to targeting policy makers or people in the middle or upper middle classes.

CG:

In the CCA, the role of the mediator is still central. You are not claiming that disadvantaged communities or subalterns are able to discover the entry-points into policy-making structures by themselves. There is still a role for experts like you to organise the conversation and so on. Is that correct?

MD:

Yes. This is both theoretically and empirically a very powerful point. Because as researchers, we continue to retain our expertise in the process of conducting research. So part of the overall goal is to create relationships in these communities such that, over the long term, community members become the ones that take up the roles. Let me give you a couple of examples where that has happened. We have a project in the African American community in Gary, Indiana. There, we started a project on heart health, given that African Americans face tremendous disparities when it comes to health outcomes. Now what has happened within that context is that the community organisers and the advisory board members within that community have started taking on those roles, identifying the issues and starting to find ways in which resources could be secured to address the issues.

We have similar examples in some Santali communities in West Bengal. They are able to come together and say, we want to work on these projects, we want to build this, and what are the kinds of things we need to do. The relationship of the researcher with these communities doesn’t really end. These are sustainable, long-term relationships. But in terms of the power sharing, much of the work that is being done is more and more in the hands of the community.

CG:

So the expert researcher gradually becomes redundant as the community representatives learn how to navigate the corridors of power?

MD:

Yes. Part of this process when I go in with my own privileges, is also recognising that these are privileges that one cannot wish away. These privileges are structured in power and in centuries of relationships between the middle and upper middle classes and the marginalised, especially when you take the context of India, where there is so much history of class, of caste. I don’t think that I can come in and somehow pretend that we are now equal, sitting at the table. So the process of learning, I also hope, also includes the community recognising, by working through me or through the researchers in these conversations, how the minds of these elites operate. They can use that knowledge strategically when needed in achieving their goals.

CG:

Including learning the language of power and so on.

MD:

Yes.

CG:

Your own background and training, in an Indian Institute of Technology, followed by graduate study in the US, is as privileged and as elite as they come.

MD:

Absolutely.

CG:

So how did you personally get convinced about the capacity of the grassroots to articulate their own needs? Was there a particular eureka moment?

MD:

I would say there are two parts two it. One part is stories of growing up. My father was a trade union organiser for the longest time. I’ve seen him working in villages and had an opportunity of spending time with him in the grassroots, and getting involved with it as I grew older, through street theatre and community theatre. Those sensibilities, I was lucky enough to have exposure to early on.

Having said that, I think my IIT education and then the education in the US – you would be amazed at how education sometimes works to put you out of touch with the lessons you might have learnt as a child! When I started working as a fresh PhD with many of these communities, running interventions on things like promoting safe drinking water and promoting immunisation, the part that was most humbling was recognising how ineffective I was as a researcher. That was a big threat to the sense of ego one builds up through grad school and thinking that we can solve some of these fundamental human problems.

I think that was a starting point, just realising how much the work I was doing was not really working, was not really making much difference. I remember working for a while on two projects, on family planning and safe drinking water. We did the work, did the formative research, ran some messages. And then the effect sizes were so small or almost negligible. The amazing part is that I never thought of talking to the community and asking them, did they think this way of framing the problem would work. It was only much later that, talking to community members, they said, you talk about family planning, but have you considered that having many children in our kinds of family setting is actually what helps us deal with poverty, and gives us more bodies to work on the field, or to earn some money so that the family can actually have more. So I was being introduced to alternative logics that I had no idea about – but even saying that, I kind of feel ashamed, because if I had paid attention to what I had learnt early on in life, I should have known. But I forgot those things.

CG:

Maybe it’s only on hindsight that one’s biography make sense in the form of a smooth narrative. In the moment, you tend to forget where you come from, the lessons of childhood.

MD:

Exactly. It was the same with my education at IIT, where I was trained as an agricultural engineer. I was trained on all these stories about the effectiveness of biotechnology and the green revolution, and believing that that kind of technological determinism would solve problems of poverty or problems of hunger – again, not realising how removed that was from the everyday experience of farming, or the long history of indigenous knowledge in farming and agriculture that exists in the life system of India.

CG:

Staying on this more personal plane, the outlets for your intellectual work are more diverse than the average scholar. You are involved in theatre for social change, for example. You are a dancer, a choreographer. It fits the profile of the Renaissance Man, but I don’t want to call you that because it may be too Western a label! How would you characterise what by modern standards is a very odd compilation of interests and skills?

MD:

I want to thank you for making this observation. The reason I came to communication from agriculture is because I felt that I didn’t have the answers that I was seeking. And of course it’s the same way with the study of communication – you don’t have all the answers that you seek. Working with various platforms, various kinds of media and various forms of expression – that’s really how I would put – is about finding many outlets for seeking answers within the important questions of social justice and social change. It’s a humbling moment when one recognises that any of this on its own is pretty incomplete or pretty fragmented. When I think about what I do in the field: I would certainly come back and spend time to write it up for an academic journal. But I find that to be increasingly non-gratifying. Even though that’s an impactful way for sharing one’s work and it needs to happen, but really the impact of this work is in going back to these communities. We are experimenting with a project right now with folk media such as puppetry. So really, finding whatever kinds of communication and expression will work within a particular context and make an impact.

CG:

This way of thinking about the scholarly life seems to fit well with the idea of the culture-centered approach, since the CCA depends on a sensitivity to different ways of knowing, a respect for different standards of evidence and argumentation and so on. So, being in touch with the aesthetic and emotional, as well as the hyper rational, might be part of the necessary training for a good researcher in this field.

MD:

I think so. It is about recognising how small we all are. That’s a great moment, because it is also the recognition of all the learning that one needs to go through. It is a life long journey. So working with theatre activists, for instance, is a great way of learning techniques and processes and ways of thought and ways of expression that I otherwise I am not trained to work in. In that sense, one is always a student. It is a personal journey that is very fulfilling as a human being.

CG:

Do you demand that your PhD student and post-docs are similarly rounded in their development? Or are you basically a slave driver telling them to focus on their dissertations?

MD:

We have to try to negotiate both of these! On the one hand, my students and post-docs need to find jobs and need to be employed. Just as with me, I haven’t given up academic publishing and gone all the way into the field, although sometimes I feel the pull, as that’s what I want to do. I also need to make a living. So I think it would be unethical of me to demand that of them. But at the same time I try to at least converse with them about the value of the journey with the field, and the notion that one needs to go back into the community, that one needs to be committed to making a difference in the community.

We take stories from these communities, and then what do we do with these stories? If we are simply going to take the stories and write them up in journals, that can be seen as unethical from the worldview of the community. That’s why many communities who are very marginalised and who have been over-researched are suspicious of researchers. So if someone says to you, I am in the midst of this struggle, how are we going to take the next step and try to address it? Which, of course, for a PhD student or a post-doc, is a lot to demand out of them, because that means they have to have an activist orientation and spend a substantial amount of time doing that kind of activism. So I recognise that this kind of model is maybe not sustainable for, say, a PhD who comes to work with me thinking that after they are done in three or four years, they need this number of publications that will get them a decent job in a tier one research institution.

CG:

So it’s possibly something that needs to be done later in one’s career, or perhaps more collaboratively.

MD:

Yes.

CG:

Going back to this notion of radicalising the grassroots. You say that if we open up the dialogue, we will create a space to contemplate structural inequalities and produce social change. Now it’s obvious to me that if we create a more open and equal dialogue, there will be a more authentic discourse. But my question is whether this more authentic grassroots voice is always a radically democratic voice. I mean, isn’t it sometimes the case that the marginalised want solutions that preserve the status quo? Perhaps because of tradition, or because of the very practical reason that it is better to get palliative aid today than structural change over the long term? Have you encountered such resistance from the grassroots to your own recipes for resistance and social change?

MD:

What a great point. The objectives as well as the desires of the grassroots can vary dramatically. So in, say, a community in rural Bengal, it may be a matter of building a village playground or a community centre, and that’s what they think is the way to improve their health. You go from something like that to projects where the community comes together saying, let’s build a community clinic or a community hospital, and part of structural awareness may be realising that the state mandates the delivery of decent healthcare for the poor, and doing activist work to make sure that that becomes available: filing right to information requests, signing petitions and giving them to local and state bodies.

Then, there is the other kind of resistance, as in the example of Dongria Kondh. That’s where the role of the CCA researcher is much more limited, where a community is so organised against what they see as structural violence that they take to activism and mobilisation. It becomes much more like a social movement. One’s role as a researcher then is simply in documenting the work and supporting the community in the resistance activities that follow, be it through direct action or legal and juridical processes. So there are a range of CCA projects.

CG:

Have you ever been disappointed by the lack of radical sensibility on the ground? Have you have been tempted to dismiss it as false consciousness and wish they would wake up to their true plight?

MD:

The CCA sensibility is to recognise that every community has its own sense of meaning-making and understanding, and even within the most status-quo kind of solution, one sees possibilities of structural transformation. When we say it is a subaltern community, I mean, what is really a community? What you find is that a community is not a monolithic thing, and a community is not always “pure”. As you rightly point out, communities can, might, do have traditional agendas; communities have existing power structures within them. There are community settings where only men participate. One ought to ask, what happens to the voices of women and the participatory opportunities for the women? I think those are the kinds of things one consistently needs to work through.

Having said that, this idea of recognising the structures, being able to identify them, being able to talk about them in transformative ways – you see that in the life world of many communities. So the question is, are we really listening to recognise these forms of speech and these forms of articulation. James Scott talks about the various micro practices of resistance. It is amazing, when you really start attending to these micro practices of resistance within communities and the ways in which they are not only working through the structures but also challenging them, resisting them, and in other instances seeking to transform them.

CG:

Your work has received substantial funding from various reputable agencies. There’s a paradox there, because you do not shy away from accusing the neoliberal status quo for the inequalities that surround us. It’s a highly critical approach. And yet you are well funded by the status quo. How is that possible? How are you able to get such support?

MD:

The National Institutes of Health and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the US, which takes as an agenda addressing health disparities – that is a different kind of entity in my mind, as opposed to, say, a foundation like the Clinton Foundation, Gates Foundation, or the Global Fund. In the same way, taking funding from the National University of Singapore or the Ministry of Education in Singapore has different meaning than taking funding from, say, Vedanta (a mining corporation) or a ministry of defence. Having said that, I’m very aware that the entire structure of funding impacts the agenda of the work you are doing, as well as the structure, the fabric, the nuance of the work. As a result, when one is working with a national institute of health on a project, one has to be sensitive to this idea that you are going to gather certain kinds of data in order to complete a report that meets the goals of that particular funding agency.

So that tension is always there, but that tension is similar to what one has to negotiate as an academic, trying to publish his work in journals. As a CCA scholar, I need to really look carefully at the organisation I’m drawing funding from. The World Bank, for example, has a number of projects on participatory development and participatory communication. At an ideological level, I don’t see how a CCA project can work within the purview of a World Bank funded project, because it will fundamentally be antithetical to the way in which you would go about doing a CCA project. One would have to think about the outcomes, the objectives, and are we really listening to the community. That kind of reflexivity would have to be there.

I do recognise that a structure like the Bank or the UN is powerful, and if one is really trying to have an impact at the policy level and create spaces for these voices within policy platforms, one has to engage that discourse. So if there opportunities for shaping the Bank discourse, the WHO discourse or the World Economic Forum discourse, I would entertain that as a dialogic possibility. That notion of reflexivity is really important when thinking through these relationships. And one also needs to consider the ways in which he or she is being co-opted. For this critical reviewer of evaluation, I find it useful to draw from networks of solidarity, with friends, colleagues, activists, and community members holding me accountable, asking the tough questions.

In terms of the everyday practice of research and how I am able to do that, I think I speak in two languages – speaking in the language of the community, bringing forth these ideas, but also speaking in the language of these funding agencies and these structures. I think that’s why I am able to even publish some of this work in outlets that one may think would not be open to these kinds of argument. Take a journal like Communication Theory. For our field, that’s a space that needs to be engaged in dialogue, because that’s where your campaign planners and your theorists who are doing development communication work are going to come. I don’t think it’s meaningful to walk away from that. To do so, I have to speak two languages and I think I do that in my work.

CG:

Your experience is encouraging because it contradicts that the cynical view that radical work would never be supported by establishment agencies or journals. There may be ways to have your cake and eat it too. I suppose it depends on self-critique and reflexivity to make sure you are not consumed by the values of these larger structures.

MD:

Yes. I should also add that I’m heading a department of communication, and when I was at Purdue I was an associate dean for research. So even in these roles one gets to play out particular ways of evaluating knowledge. It’s a constant tension that I negotiate: how can I be critiquing neoliberalism and neoliberalisation of academia and then turning around and talking about impact factors and journal articles and these metrics, which in some ways might not make a whole of sense in the worldview I’m wanting to engage with.

CG:

Going back to the post-2015 agenda. I wonder if your approach is ultimately more at home in the margins, and if it would be transformed beyond the recognition and lose its radical edge if you actually succeeded in being embraced by the mainstream?

MD:

Let me share a couple of examples to engage with this question. Recently, I was invited to the World Economic Forum to share this idea of the culture-centered approach. There was quite a bit of dialogue and openness. I’ve also been invited to the World Health Organization to talk about the cultural determinants of health in shaping the WHO agenda on culture. The question that you ask is exactly the question I personally grapple with, and that anyone who wants to work with the culture-centered approach ought to be grappling with, which is, is this kind of work better off at the margins, or does it need to sit at the table within these structures as these structures are seeking to adopt them to achieve their own ends?

A great example of this is Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities. It’s really amazing, inspiring and brilliant scholarship on capabilities, in which he shows us, for instance, that hunger is a problem of social distribution. But the notion of capabilities when it gets incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals really becomes a part of the neoliberal agenda. In the same way, then, the culture-centered approach has to consider the possibility that, as it engages with these dominant structures, it gets co-opted within these structures. So it has to come back to the reflexive stance to see how it keeps alive its resistant messages. I’ve in many instances found that these kinds of structures might be very open to the performance of this work as critical and radical–almost to the point where it seems like this kind of critical and radical angle offers an anchor to this whole multicultural, diverse narrative that they want to construct. In that kind of scenario, one needs to work hard to try to be aware of what the agendas are – and also how these agendas can be co-opted the other way round, to serve the needs of the marginalised and the disenfranchised.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MEDIA ASIA AS

George, Cherian (2015). “Development and participation: turning the tables”, Interview with Mohan J. Dutta, Media Asia 41 (4).

PHOTO BY JULIO ETCHART