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Making connections – creating interpretative communities by sharing horizons

There is much talk about the benefits of communications technologies to empower communities, but technologies can just as easily be used to impose power on community.

The social theorist Gerard Delanty refers to the process of citizenship as one that involves acquiring,

“the power to name, create meaning, construct personal biographies and narratives by gaining control over the flow of information, goods and cultural processes …”

(from How Divisive is Culture? Citizenship Learning Processes and the Search for Common Ground against Xenophobia in Europe. Paper presented at the Symposium on Structural Discrimination Stockholm 7-8 December 2001)

What does this mean, and how can it work when there are many groups wanting to control the information flows and the power to name and frame?

Ellen Herda, a social theorist who specialises in international development, developed a useful participatory methodology based on an inclusive form of “hermeneutics” or interpretation. This methodology entails the co-creation of a community text which, if it is a truly inclusive process, can help greatly to overcome the problem of who has or who lacks the power to name and frame and to enable a genuinely shared understanding and opening of new possibilities.

Herda considers it necessary in doing social science research projects to have a shared reflexive process where those involved (including researchers themselves) explicitly acknowledge the prejudgments that they bring to the project. The point of this exercise is to widen the shared horizons of possibility.

She draws on the German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, who holds that it is not possible to be fully unprejudiced, because we always bring various, commonly unstated, pre-judgments to situations and we always see from a particular vantage point, or horizon.

Herda’s methodology has been devised in a context of participants from different cultures. Her concern is that cultures can very often be critical of one another in the absence of an appreciative understanding of their different worlds and horizons of understanding – including, from these horizons, appreciating what each might be able to offer.

Ross Nepia Himona illustrates how misunderstanding can arise between two different cultures in his paper to the First Global Congress on Community Networking (2000) – Track 1: Strengthening regional voices in the global dialogue: a new geography The Recolonisation of Indigenous Oceania.

Himona points out the huge pressures on a people and a culture when their sense of reality is denied by powerful others who arrive with much power to, in effect, name and frame reality. Referring to the Pacific region (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia) he shows how a Western preoccupation with landmass means they often neglected to see that for the Pacific peoples, “the oceans are as much a part of the landscape as the islands … the ocean is the food basket, and also an infrastructure, a network of pathways …”

As Kenneth Boulding pointed out, and many now realise, “The World is a very complex system. It is easy to have too simple a view of it, and it is easy to do harm and to make things worse under the impulse to do good and make things better.”

Perhaps now is the time for an explicit sharing of presuppositions, such as how we perceive the ocean. This could help to open up new shareable ecological, economic, socio-cultural issues and enable the co-construction of new and rich stories about who “we” are and who we can be.

It can be a very illuminating and useful exercise to ask a group to come up with some words that they might use to describe the sea, a mountain, a village, and then share the various perspectives that emerge.

People often feel themselves to be mis-understood or mis-interpreted. It can be a very useful social scientific practice to start, following the seminal German hermeneutic theorist Friedrich Schleiermacher with the idea that in human communication misunderstanding is the norm rather than understanding. Therefore, in order to avoid misunderstanding, there is value in social scientists checking back with research participants or clients to ensure that real understanding has taken place.

Might it also be useful to bring this communicative approach more into our everyday communication, especially when difficulties arise or we engage together in shared projects?

Do you think it is helpful to start, as with Schleiermacher, with the presumption that in human communication, misunderstanding is the norm? Can new “interpretative communities” be created in localities based on the norm that diverse members communicate well by the effective sharing of their various horizons (or perceptions) of understanding?

What do you think? What is your perception of the ocean? Have you experienced or read of examples of misinterpretation that you would like to share?

The picture which accompanies this Blog is titled D8 Koru Surf – Village-connections thanks Rebecca Osborne for giving her permission to use this image.

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