Archive for July, 2010


The idea is catching on: using our capacities for language, conversation, talking, engaging with each other . . . might actually make a difference. Legal anthropologist Simon Roberts referred years ago to the choices we have between fighting and talking (in Order & Dispute, Penguin, 1979). And everywhere we turn there seems to be a recognition that what we have – and what we may risk losing – is the talent for dealing with things through talking. Just do a quick Google check on “conversation” and see how many hits that produces – and, perhaps more to the point, how many new titles of books and articles it throws up.

This is all good. And it’s also a significant development of the specifically dispute-oriented tools such as mediation that we now talk more widely of dialogues and conversations. For one effective recent example of this, see the work of the Meta-Culture working group, that is part of the Public Conversations Project. Specifically, have a look at the Meta-Culture project on developing dialogue for conflict resolution in India.

Two things are worth noting at this stage about this kind of development:

  1. first, the specific weaving of dialogue, conversation, and mediation and dispute resolution tools; and
  2. second, the recognition that, while all these terms will be widely understood, the “culture” of dialogue is fairly new – at least in the sense of a conversation of equal parties.

That second point is interesting in the context of this blog, simply as a reminder that the words don’t come out with the same meaning or the same set of understandings. So at the outset of any process, it’s going to be necessary to gain mutual understanding on just what is meant by, for example, mediation or dialogue.

At it’s simplest, it is likely to be the case that in more traditional and hierarchical societies, dialogues are not intended as genuinely two-way decision-making processes, but are rather a form of information sharing (it’s not unlike my recent discovery that “corporate communication” tends to be seen more in terms of the world of advertising and marketing than the requirements of effective communication in corporate and employment contexts).

In his story The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lady, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tells of a snake, luminescent through having swallowed gold pieces, is asked by the Golden King what is more glorious than gold. The snake replies, “light”. The King then asks, “What is more refreshing than light?” The snake replies, “conversation.”[1] Equally, Jerome Bruner refers to our “narrative gift” as “one of the principal forms of peace keeping”[2]. And yet it seems that this is something that is at risk[3], and a social resource that we need to remind ourselves of.

[1] JW Von Goethe, The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lady, trans. Donald Maclean, Grand Rapids, MI, Phanes Press, 1996, p.16. It’s interesting to note that Thomas Carlyle’s 1832 translation renders the original “das Gespräch” simply as “speech”, as the capacity to talk. See http://wn.rsarchive.org/RelAuthors/GoetheJW/GreenSnake.html and for the original text: http://www.digbib.org/Johann_Wolfgang_von_Goethe_1749/Das_Maerchen

[2] Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP, 1990, p.95

[3] ABC Radio – 2007-01-06 “Conversation: is it a dying art?” (Lingua Franca podcast – no longer available on iTunes)


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