Dialogics

"Do not mail leaflets. Talk face-to-face!" These are Saul Alinsky's rules for mobilizing a community, the great Chicago activist knowing that people do not get involved with a cause just because it has a compelling, formal, leaflet-able logic; it's messier human connections which rouse human beings. Because of this, Alinsky shied away from the accolade of being called America's greatest "community organizer" a half century ago; he knew the results of talking face-to-face are rarely organized. He proved endlessly patient in the Chicago slums when people strayed into side issues; he was a good listener, knowing when to keep silent; he never tried to force discussions in which people spoke their true thoughts and feelings to end in clear-cut conclusions and agreements. He practiced a complex kind of communication.

"Dialogic" is the technical name for the way Alinsky worked. It's a term coined by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in the 1930s, meant to note how readers become engaged in a story due to sudden shifts of emphasis and stray intrusions, by riddles and absences, by endings that do not end tidily -- a process of literary engagement Bakhtin called "non-linear," borrowing a term from mathematicians he knew in Moscow.   Time's arrow does not shoot straight.

As the concept of dialogics passed from literature into the social sciences, it became articulated in three ways which bear on the issue of craft and skill.

First, an anthropologist or indeed anyone studying people up close has really to take seriously the fact that people often do not say what they mean; they talk badly. Equally banal, they may fear expressing a thought or emotion. The philosopher may dismiss such inarticulate people as not worth his or her time; the anthropologist or psychoanalyst or community organizer cannot. The inadequacy or inability to say what you mean is a fact to be explored, requiring listening skills of a certain sort. The good listener has to attend particularly to situations which are conflicted or troubling; her attention is focused on hearing cognitive dissonances. The skilled listener does not try to explain these conflicts away -- which may seem obvious, but frequently in training young researchers we have to throttle them when they are tempted to say "in other words, what Mrs. Schwarz means is that ...", then providing a clear, cleaned-up summary. The frictions of language, the gap between meaning and expression, demand instead a certain passive receptivity in the listener, a receptivity which takes time and experience to develop.

The second aspect of dialogics has to do with speaking rather than listening. This is the use of the subjunctive voice in order to open up communication. The declarative voice asserting "I believe X" or "X is right, Y is wrong" can invite only agreement or disagreement in response. Whereas the subjunctive voice offering "I would have thought" or "perhaps" admits a much wider range of responses: doubts and hesitations can be introduced and shared, as can diverging facts or opinions which do not rouse the original speaker to defend him or herself. The philosopher Bernard Williams speaks of the declarative voice as subject to the "fetish of assertion,"1an assertiveness which is usually aggressive. But however tinged psychologically, the essential thing about the declarative voice is that it privileges clarity of expression, whereas use of the subjunctive voice instead privileges ambiguity.

The dialogical idea is that the subjunctive voice is a more sociable way to speak than the declarative. People can be more open, exchanging more freely, feel less uptight, and behave less defensively; they are not fighting in their corner. Put in other terms, ambiguity invites collaborative exchange, clarity invites competitive exchange.2

What needs to be emphasized right away is that, like listening well, effective use of the subjunctive voice is a skill. Every professional negotiator, whether diplomat or union official, learns when and how to create an opening by receding from assertion, moving a negotiation forward by speaking more tentatively about what were presented first as clear demands. A kindred skill of negotiating is how most adults come to sustain intimate relations, rather than simply blurting out desires or opinions. The skill requires developing self-restraint, and deploying a certain, sociable cunning. When people say "perhaps" they may know full well what they think; "perhaps" issues the invitation to another to speak.

A third aspect of dialogics concerns the setting for listening and speaking. The setting is informal. The Googleplex, as we've seen, is one version of this setting -- but not really. The hidden agenda of the Googleplex's informal spaces is defined and designed in a very determinate way to stimulate production; if a group of Google employees suddenly discovered they really loved playing ping-pong together, and really invested time and effort, they would soon cease to be Google employees.   True informality is cast in other terms. A truly informal discussion has no hidden agenda, which means it can lead in many directions; some may prove ultimately productive, others not. The process is not controlled in advance.

Much work in the social psychology of dialogics entails finding out how much informality of this sort people can actually stand. Very good scientists and artists turn out to be able to stand a lot; they are comfortable with "loose parameters," that is, not knowing in advance where a project or an experience will lead. Informality of the loose parameter sort turns out to be a good gauge of people who are comfortable in their skins, according to some studies; people who want strict formal parameters suffer from anxiety and "ontological insecurity." Our interest is more physical: what effect do loosely programmed spaces have on informal behavior? Do such spaces make inhabitants more comfortable, and more adept in dwelling within "loose parameters?"

There's a lot of talk in design circles today about informal architecture in terms of the loose fit between form and function, about flexible spaces and the like, but little real understanding of how an informal space relates to informal behavior

  1. Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  2. For the reader of my previous work in the homo faber project, this is the insight animating my idea of cooperation; this note is about how this basic principle of dialogics takes a spatial as well as verbal form -- that is, there are dialogical spaces in the city whose ambiguity invites sociable exchange.
About the Author
Richard Sennett is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.