Communication for Social Change (CSC) is a field shaped by a variety of theories drawn from different intellectual disciplines and aimed at leveraging communication, media and information in the pursuit of social change. The role of CSC to prioritise change from a people-centred perspective is the basis of its popularity among governments, global development agencies, international and local NGOs and foundations.
However, in recent years, increasing challenges at the level of local communication and development, transformations in communication and media environments, the re-emergence of new forms of civil mobilisation, problems of freedom of speech in the world of religious pluralism, and the challenges of privacy and security have had profound effects on how CSC is theorised and practised.
In addition, there seems to be a lacuna between the noble aspirations of CSC and those of the domain of communication rights – the latter having stagnated somewhat since the heady days of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS):
“CSC today is primarily communication for development and while its language includes frequent homage to the power of empowerment and participation, for the most part these words have been adapted to contexts that are not supportive of people-based, meaningful long-term change… Communication rights, on the other hand, is clearly based on the belief that CSC practices should advance the right of people to have their Voices heard and to use communication in the pursuit of goals and objectives that they have been involved in articulating.”1
This issue of Media Development seeks to provide new thinking on how the CSC discipline can be better shaped by – and aligned with – these challenges. Specifically, the issue encompasses critical questions about the theories and practices of CSC beyond its traditional boundaries in order to bring to light new ways that communication, media and information can contribute to creating a better world.
Recently, one expert in the field stated that “communications and development theory consists in the main of principles that become the basis for pathways to practice.” He identified five distinct levels:
A theory of knowledge – an epistemological understanding of why and how a communications intervention will result in the required change.
A specific understanding of process that feeds into practice – based on an epistemology of process.
A knowledge of structures – meaning the institutions and power flows that play a role in the structuring processes, interventions and access to resources.
A specific understanding of context – meaning the environment and community that is the location for the intervention, especially the complexities inherent in any locality: traditions, hierarchies, culture, norms, divisions, power flows, and politics.
A grappling with the flows of power, including the influence of a variety of different stake-holders.2
In this respect, communication for social change can be seen as standing on the bedrock of communication rights, which set out to challenge the political, economic, and cultural structures that obstruct greater equality – meaning (in Cees Hamelink’s plausible definition) “equal entitlement to the social conditions that are essential to emancipation and self-development.”3 Here, communication rights underlie any initiative aimed at creating an enabling environment in which people can improve their lives and livelihoods.
The trick, then, is to harness communication rights – defined as enabling people to express themselves individually and collectively by all means of communication – to achieving genuinely sustainable development. But, as with any theory of change, there tend to be gaps between the various building blocks intended to bring about a particular long-term goal: as with particle physics, the two fields lack a grand unified theory that adequately expresses the single force implicit in communication for social change.
The Global Information Society Watch 2013 Special Report posits a people-centred information and knowledge environment as crucial to policy gains, despite the fact that such gains do not necessarily translate into real-world results.4
Alarmingly, however, the report says that in the context of the fragmentation of the communications rights movement, “people-centred” change has become difficult, especially when the information and communications technology industries tend to be in cahoots with government.
One task for proponents of communication for social change is to theorise and provide evidence of how communication rights are inextricably linked to genuine development. Rather than leaving the debate to communication activists and practitioners, it is for development specialists to make the running and to bring communication rights in from the cold.
The editor thanks the staff and students of the Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, especially Pradip Thomas, Elske van de Fliert, Steven Sam, and Ullah Sahid for facilitating this issue.
1. “Communication Rights and Social Change” in Interrogating the Theory and Practice of CSC” The Basis for a Renewal by Pradip Ninan Thomas and Elske van de Fliert. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 146.
2. “Communication for Social Change, Making Theory Count” by Pradip Ninan Thomas. In Beyond the Impasse: Exploring new thinking in communication for social change. Nordicom Review Vol. 36, Special Issue, April 2015, pp. 74-75.
3. “Human Rights and Communication: Reflections on a Challenging Relationship” by Cees J. Hamelink. In Communication Theories in a Multicultural World, ed. by Clifford Christians and Kaarle Nordenstreng. Peter Lang, 2014, p. 235.
4. Communication rights ten years after the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS): Civil society perceptions. April 2013. Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos). https://www.apc.org/en/pubs/communication-rights-ten-years-after-world-summit