Sunday, January 15, 2017

The conservatism of behavior change: The limits of health communication as persuasion

The bulwark of health communication is built on the premise of communication as a tool of behavior change.

Since the invention of film, communication scholars, practitioners, and policy makers have been obsessed with the power of media technologies to transform behaviors of audiences that can be targeted through messages. Mass media as tools of propaganda are invested with miraculous powers of transformation.

The power of communication to bring about magical transformations in the behaviors of those it touches forms the mainspring of the lay obsession with magic bullet theories of the media. The media effects literature over the last four decades has robustly debunked the magic bullet ideology.

These magic bullet theories have been witnessing a catalytic return since the advent of social media in the form of the renewed interest in behavior change theories, now packaged in big data analytics, nudge, and behavioral insights. What these renewed fascinations with media technologies (in this case, with the latest version, digital media) often overlook is the empirical evidence that aptly captures the limited effects of communication technologies in bringing about behavioral transformations.

Why then this ongoing obsession with health communication as persuasion?

Amid the large scale global inequalities and the effects of these inequalities on human health, policy makers and academics in the status quo find in the premise of behavior change the hope for improving health while keeping the status quo intact. As long as communication technologies can nudge individuals to change their behaviors, large scale inequities and the structures that constitute these inequities can be left intact.

In other words, the system can be left to perpetuate itself, maintaining the status quo to the extent that health outcomes can be framed in the premises of behavior change. Hence, the growing interest in these age old communication-driven persuasive processes in economics and business schools.

Essential to the logic of behavior change is an overarching conservatism that reproduces the inequities in existing structural configurations. The moral question of inequalities in health outcomes is shaped by an emphasis on individual responsibility, placing the onus of health on the individual.

Behavior change reifies the neoliberal ideology of health, where policymakers and health communicators continue to see health as a product of individual behavior.

The neoliberal ideology of health communication fundamentally limits conversations with empirical evidence, with the body of work on media effects that is humbling in terms of the degree of faith we ought to put on the promises of behavior change. Economists and business researchers jumping into behavioral insights and nudge theories with gusto would do well to begin with the vast body of media effects literature instead of clinging to the seductions of an ideology that has largely proven detrimental to human health and wellbeing.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

No, I can't just roll over and lend you my solidarity.

We need all the solidarity we can have,
you say,
Now is the time
to stand up
Brown, black, yellow, White
All together
Voices raised together.

You say,
Now is not the
Time for critique Within
As the power must be checked
We need all the solidarity
We can have.

But solidarity
Can't be dictated you see.
I don't trust you.
Don't trust
your brand of imperialism
that stinks of
its colonial overtones
and undertones.

Your solidarity
doesn't stand by me
I remember
In your liberal glory
I become
another victim,
a relic of incivility.
But now,
You want my solidarity?

No, I just can't roll over
and lend you
my solidarity.
For solidarity
is won
shoulder to shoulder
through struggles fought
and bodies on the line.

The parochialism of the White liberal

The White liberal is in essence an interventionist that fundamentally believes in the God-ordained American right to intervene in the World to spread the message of democracy.

She comes in many colors, White, Brown, Black, Yellow. But in her heart, she is White.

Her Whiteness is epitomized in her unshakeable faith in her American values of democracy that must be spread the world over.

She is the defender of democracy. Spreading democracy is her moral responsibility.

The dazzling glare of Whiteness leaves no room for critique or reflection.

For the White liberal, the colonial nature of Whiteness must be erased as it is an inconvenient truth. Any conversation on democracy and the imperial mission is a distraction, we are told.

To retain the hegemony of Whiteness therefore is to place your unquestioned faith in the pillars of White liberalism and its uplifting message that saves dark souls. The parochialism of Whiteness is in essence the tool that perpetuates the hegemony of Whiteness.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Elitism and the gutting of the human soul

Elitism guts human soul.

As a way of dis-engaging from the world of the people, elitism defines the beings of experts, who, sitting from their elitist positions, make evaluative judgments and decisions about the "people," the population.

Essential to these judgments are value positions that accord legitimacy to elite expertise.

The elite class knows best.

The elite must decide policies and programs.

These decisions must be removed from the people to give them the legitimacy of expert knowledge. The elite vantage point is one of distance, cultivated through strategies that put up walls, distinguishing expert knowledge from populism, the way of the people.

The first step to elitism is the exhumation of the human-ness of connecting to people.

To become an elite, one must first be disconnected.

To be an elite is to stand out, to be different, to climb the established ladder of hierarchy to the desired position of power.

Essential to this climbing to a position of power is the erasure of human soul, the ability to connect with the people. Detaching from people is a cultivated strategy infused in schools of training and professionalization.

This turning away from people is the first step toward becoming an elite.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Culturally centering dialogue: When conversing across differences is the only way out

I have been struck by how often we call for dialogue only to silence difference.

The call to dialogue is usually from power. Dialogue, or the performance of it, thus is a strategic tool for the powerful in such instances.

As a strategic tool, dialogue is inherently un-dialogic.

It is un-dialogic because it is strategic.

Cultural centering of dialogue is a radical departure from this strategic notion of dialogue as a tool of the status quo.

To culturally center dialogue is to open to the idea of dialogue as difference.

Dialogue as difference is articulated "from" or "with" the margins, recognizing the human agency of those at the margins as participants in production of truth.

The recognition of margins as legitimate sources of producing truth claims inherently turns dialogue as a site of difference.

Rather than serving as an instrument of the status quo to reproduce truth claims as seen from the vantage point of those in power, culture-centered dialogue begins with conversations at the margins of social systems.

To dialogue in the spirit of the CCA then is to open up to conversations across differences.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Of Safety Pins and Solidarities

In the post-Trump U.S., following from post-Brexit U.K., the safety pin has emerged as a symbolic declaration of solidarity, the declaration of a safe space.

In the face of the rise of bigotry and hatred in public discourse, the safety pin signals a clarion call to stand by those in U.S. society feeling the brunt of the climate of intolerance. We could certainly use more solidarity at this juncture of U.S. history.

Wearing a safety pin is also a material marker of standing by the marginalized in public spaces, where bigotry has been making its appearance.

As much as the symbolic show of safety pins points toward an entry point for solidarity, it is important interrogate the symbolic nature of solidarity.

The sudden expression of solidarity marked by an event (election of a bigot as the President of the U.S. whose campaign has anchored itself in a narrative of hate) declares that event as the moment of crisis. The marking of the election as a crisis moment obfuscates the histories of on-going racism experienced by people of colour.

The narration of the election as the moment of crisis does violence to the lived experiences of the many communities of colour who have lived with the violence of racism in the U.S. on a daily basis.

The safety pin as a liberal marker of solidarity also obfuscates the very racism that underlies liberalism and liberal notions of multiculturalism.

The liberal White feminist whose heart is bleeding for the brown Muslim man today is also the one that four years back looked at the Muslim man and branded him as chauvinist.

The show of solidarity in such instances does not really perform the difficult act of solidarity, of "being with," instead working quickly as another marker of identity politics, as a self-affirming branding tool like the "Pink Ribbon."

If solidarity were to truly work, if my White friends who feel so angry about the racist U.S. were to truly feel an opening for the racisms that people of colour witness, they might begin by simply listening to the many marginalized voices that express scepticism toward the displays of solidarity.

To feel solidarity is to first and foremost sit back and listen, to allow oneself to experience the pain and suffering that mark the lives of the underprivileged. To find solidarity is to begin with patience, patience with being challenged, patience with one's privilege being critically interrogated.

To articulate solidarity is to fundamentally recognize the impossibilities of solidarity amidst inequality that marks everyday life.

Unless you want your safety pin to simply be your self-branding tool, listen.

Listen to the voices of the margins that stand witness. Listen to the voices of the margins that express scepticism at your white liberal performance of solidarity.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Notes from fieldwork: Who is the bureaucrat accountable to?

In conducting fieldwork with communities living in poverty, I have often had to interact with bureaucrats in a variety of countries.

Although these interactions are contextual and culturally constituted, one feature that tends to resonate across the interactions is the impermeability of the bureaucrat.

For most community members, the bureaucrat is intimidating.

Usually selected through some kind of a grade-based/exam-based system, in a number of these countries, the bureaucrat is identified by his/her pedigree.

Strong academic performance. Strong performance on entrance exams.

While these qualities prepare the bureaucrat well in analytical thinking, they alone are not sufficient.

Without humility and compassion, the bureaucrat becomes the impermeable face of the State, disconnected from everyday people, their lived experiences, and their struggles with making a living.

Without the exposure to the reality of the everyday struggles of the people, the bureaucrat becomes a far removed instrument of the state structure, perfecting the rote-learned mechanisms of the bureaucracy. Too busy saving his/her job, the bureaucrat is mostly incompetent, too quick to discard grievances from communities, and too far removed from community life to understand the challenges community members, particularly the poor, face.

Thus, one of the striking features in the interaction of bureaucrats with the poor is often the dismissal of the lived experiences of the poor.

A well performed bureaucratic veneer is both impermeable and inaccessible to the poor.

In our culture-centered work then, one of the early lessons we learn in working together with communities at the margins is this: in a state-driven system, the bureaucrat is just the servant of the state. Here to serve. Paid by tax payers. The strengthening of state structures and public services can only be accomplished when the bureaucrat is held accountable.

Once this point is well ingrained in community life, community members know to hold the bureaucrat accountable to them, as a servant of the public. Their relationship with the bureaucrat thus changes, as one of expecting the bureaucrat to be responsive to their challenges, and to be driven by the fundamental mission of serving them.

The culture-centered approach inverts the traditional top-down logic of bureaucracy by making open spaces that are held accountable to the participation of everyday citizens.