A perspective lecture in seminar "Culture, Communication
Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi & Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences
21-23 April 1997. (See report in French)
I shall first define my vocabulary and perspective, in reference to social activities undertaken by voluntary organisations in general, with two analytical constructs, viz., 'social work' and 'social action', opposed to one another as methodological archetypes for the sake of conceptual clarity.
A model of subaltern participation
A model of democratic cooperation
Profile of the agent
|A social worker||An animator or catalyst|
|Officially graduate in Social Service||Usually no educational credentials|
|Formally trained for specific tasks||Personal conviction and analytical skill|
|Works on assignment||Acts on his own, out of commitment|
|Draws a salary as a social servant||A casual honorarium may be found|
|Employee of an alien institution||Volunteer from within a given population|
Nature of tasks
|Developmental, welfare: specific project||Awareness and study of collective issues|
|Focus on solving particular problems||Deals with systemic socio-cultural causes|
|Defined and planned after survey||Start from needs as articulated by people|
|Mainly material, specific, measurable targets||Focus on persons, pedagogical emphasis|
Relation to community
|Launching of programme from outside||Initiative and decision in the local group|
|Direction and management by alien experts||Relying on people's initiative, capabilities|
|Privileged rapports with local leaders||Collective involvement of those concerned|
|Relations restricted to selected beneficiaries||Focus on the prevailing relational patterns|
Perspective of the approach
|Welfare, growth, economic achievement||Social, cultural, educational awakening|
|Modern rationality substituted to traditions||Self-analysis, reappraisal of one's past|
|Transfer of knowledge, skills and values||Drawing upon one's own potentialities|
|Help to particular individuals or sections||Organisation of the deprived of any group|
|Sectorial as per institutional objectives||Besides issues, global, structural goals|
|Getting needy people responding to and effectively involved in, the implementation of schemes designed for their betterment||Empowerment, organization of the marginalised jointly fighting causes of deprivation and emancipating themselves from want|
With these two archetypes as referential yardsticks I want to stress, with their implications and sets of queries, four constitutive features of any process of communication whether traditional or modern. They hold good much beyond social projects of voluntary associations, whether we deal with public schemes of development, public or private channels of information exchange, patterns of social or political intervention, processes of cultural action, procedures and methods of research management, definition of educational syllabuses, editing documents of audio-visual anthropology, feature film industries, etc.
But first a few remarks on the propriety of the two catchwords "subaltern participation" and "democratic cooperation". They are prompted by three considerations.
The present communication technologies give democracy unprecedented chances provided we do not mistake democratic behaviour for acquaintance with and participation in, any of its formal environmental conditions such as universal franchise, domestic electronic machines, access to world-wide information networks, home video editing, profusion of satellite channels, etc.  Democracy may be the main casualty. Captive audiences of gullible customers of mass communication techniques are rendered passive political subjects, silent and ineffectually critical, pliant consumers of values and cultural goods brought home to them under the control of huge commercial interests. The greater the participation, the smaller the cooperative democratic involvement. What differentiates participation from brainwashing? Communication issues should be addressed as socio-political stakes.
A frustration with what actually goes on in India by the names of participatory methods and participatory research  with regard to development concepts and strategies explains for our alternatively using 'cooperation' to avoid being at cross purposes. As a rule, participatory method /action /research seems weighed down by the same internal contradictions as proved to be the former academic discourse on 'participant observation'.  There is no point as far as our debates are concerned to reopen the old theoretical debate on issues of research methodology. Still concerned as we are with issues of social communication and their overt or covert power connotations we can not avoid being also concerned with the communication patterns of research procedures and research strategies in general, whether one is engaged in pure research, applied research or action-research, and not only in social sciences  but also particularly in sciences which deal with environment, biology, energy, etc.
In respect of development methodology, projects often happen to be launched by voluntary or public agencies the members of which belong to higher educated dominant urban classes. The latter more often than not conceive of themselves as called to carry forward to a new page of national history the 'mainstream' of progress and civilisation that they have inherited, unless they resort to social work in the main as a means to maintain a former social and cultural leadership status.
Whatever might be the variety of motivations, development designs are built up on the basis of socio-cultural assumptions similar to those of the former colonialist intelligentsia of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries  which blend with those of the triumphant ideology of development devised in the fifties for the same though now independent and "under-developed" countries.  The hegemonic nature of the approach is disguised by its presentation as politically innocent, merely scientific, modern and value free -but for the obvious aim of spreading Western rationality and categories to those 'others', an underdeveloped, unknowing and passive populace.
That approach is agentive; that is, it depicts a state of affairs in the countryside or among 'the poor' which morally requires and legitimises in their own eyes an active involvement of modern secular missionaries. That depiction often though not explicitly constructs 'the backward' as superstitious, unwilling to respond and simply victims of their own defects, mainly a reluctance to learn and change obsolete traditions. Obtaining the beneficiaries' participation is naturally a main concern if not a headache for agents who coming from outside with their schemes need a local positive response to succeed in an alien socio-cultural environment. They naturally view the latter as a field to be forcefully informed with their updated modern ethos and progressive world-view, 'evolution' or 'change' being the key words.
We may recognise on the small scale of voluntary agencies the same basic elements of dependency and passive subordination that knowingly or unknowingly are induced on a large scale and with tremendous effectiveness through mass communication techniques on the same assumptions of development and technical progress.
Concepts of 'community action', 'community organisation', 'community development' spread since the sixties  from North America and Canada over Europe and other countries and basically 'inform' agencies of social work, institutes and departments of social service. They give the social worker in a community the role of agent of a collective change to be obtained through all participating in the self-management of the internal problems and development of the collectively. 'Community' is defined by its territory, as a locality with a given population and never by the systems (symbolic, administrative, social, institutional, organisational, etc.) of relation and communication that link individuals among themselves and with other partners usually on unequal terms, often with bonds of dependency and domination, sometimes through conflictual rapports. 
Any local community is structured by a play of competing social and cultural forces which explain for the actual strategies and dynamics at work in a locality. Moreover, local processes of change can not be isolated from the control of external wider forces. No local community whatever its size, can stand in isolation, self-reliant and independent from distant controls, pulls and inputs. To give the social worker with the appropriate technical skills (including the capability to harness people's participation through professional 'communication techniques') the role of activating and coordinating local human resources to solve local problems with the participation of all may appear an ideological disguise to wish out the actual power relations. But the latter are the crucial elements which from within and from without control a given community. No community stands in a power vacuum. No 'community organisation' can simply ignore the power contests and challenges which structure the processes of communication within the community. To by-pass that politics of communication amounts to work for the status quo and for no significant democratic transformation.
Four features are constitutive of communication processes as social events.
Any communication process is a social action, viz., a phenomenon of social relation, a rapport between people, a kind of social link  . Whatever its form, medium and techniques, when information is circulated, news broadcast, knowledge imparted, commodities advertised, etc., the important feature is that a relational process takes place between social entities. Communication is a social intervention.
The implication is that communication should not be understood as a mere transfer of knowledge or a cognitive happening. This is a secondary aspect and we miss the point when we consider it as mere information process. Instead of focusing on the means of information, their techniques and their degree of effectiveness in conveying a message,  let us view the whole process as a medium of social action purposively intended by some one out of a will to sway some sort of control. As a matter of fact, information itself is subject in its content, form and use to purposes which are not cognitively informative but socially performative. Any use of a medium of communication is itself instrumental and subservient to objectives which have nothing to do with information but with social control, cultural leadership and possibly overall hegemony. Information is a modality of a power relation.
On the one hand, any communication process by the very relational pattern that it inaugurates, is performative of a particular type of human behaviour, social relation and structuration, depending upon "the conditions in which goods are distributed and appropriated." "Contrary to production relations, very little attention has been focused on usage relations." "In a world saturated with all kinds of objects and services, these relations are decisive, especially for information and/or technologies that facilitate the distribution and processing of information. Although an individual may use these products and technologies for his own purposes, he is still bound by their logic and conditions of supply. This viewpoint raises the issue of the drawbacks of the current situation in terms of the quality of democratic institutions and public debate." 
A newspaper, a video film, a public speech, a poster with an image, a poster with a slogan, a slogan in a demonstration, a e-mail message, a photo, web sites, etc. call for different types of behavioural and intellectual reactions and modes of human relations. Information means are not neutral carriers of information: each of them -- written, visual, audio, informatics -- conditions in its own way its contents and shapes a particular social rapport through the form of its usage. Images for instance have a strength of their own as much as written words induce specific mental logical attitudes.  With writing techniques appear bureaucratic states and pyramidal hierarchies, centralised economies, universal religions with normative scriptures, written laws, etc. With printing presses appear newspapers and public opinion, techno-scientific progress with industrialisation. With audio-visual and informatic mass media emerge a civilisation of simulacrum, decentralised and transversal societies which challenge the hierarchical authoritarian power of territory-bound regimes. Why should we not experiment with the multidirectional facilities of cooperative learning and freely restructure social links at will?
Harold Innis explains the miracle of Athenian democracy as the result at that time of an harmonious combination of the oral and written traditions. "The oral tradition affirmed the individual conscience, flexibility and dialectic thought, while the written tradition supported intellectual development, memory, and critical detachment". In this perspective, in the post war period oral traditions seem given a marginal importance with the resulting loss of humanist and individualist values, while nowadays democracy may suffer from the predominance of the audiovisual sector and 'machine languages'. Formerly a reader could avail of an entire oral tradition at hand to interpret a text within a shared context of experiences and debates. Which oral traditions and referential experiences can nowadays cope with the overwhelming and pervading sway of the audio, electronic and video spheres which wrap the whole world?  "Now, with a media-based society and a 'seducer image-oriented government', we question the increasing power of television",  when the image came to dominate over other media in the same way as the written text of pandits and scriptures has been the dominant medium in other eras of human civilisation to spread dominant values and normative symbolic systems of interpretation.
Moreover, society in the main is a system of rapports, a pattern of interdependency. Communication processes operate as a sub-system of a wider web of social linking. Whatever the form and media of the processes, the latter are imbedded into those networks or systems of social relations of which they represent a sub-system. Let us therefore focus on the social relations of communication in the same way as we analyse the social relations of production. Let us study the production of communication practices -including our own practices- as a particular social asset and stake within the whole context of society as a system of action and interaction with many actors competing for control and domination. 
The implication is that a double question should guide our analytical investigation. First, what pattern of social rapport do our own use of any medium of communication build up. Second, to what extent does this pattern actually differ from those which use to prevail? In other words, do the relational patterns of our communication practices -- whatever be their input medium, their form and their information content -- contribute to strengthen, avail of, counter or re-structure the dominant systems of social communication? We may in this respect hypothetically assume that the extent and import of that re-structuration is not necessarily and directly correlated with the material or financial importance of the medium itself.
The new generation of audiovisual and informatic tools succeeding those of the industrial and nuclear technological revolutions, lead in the seventies in Europe to entertain comparable utopian dreams of a fast transformation of social and cultural behavioural patterns. The 'new technologies' appeared enveloped with a strong halo of ideological connotations. These dreams are prompted by the same technicist assumption that technique means modernity and modernity human progress. Accordingly in India social engineering is more than ever on the agenda and is prompted by a naive faith that revolutionary communication technologies have the potential to carry out on their own significant social and cultural change.
Technical miniaturisation of audiovisual and informatic media may with some legitimacy credit the latter with the capacity to release in the individuals hidden forces of cultural creativity and social initiative, bring down conflicts and counter-challenge the evils caused by mass media, emancipate individuals from the hold of big information systems, facilitate wide interactive and pluri-directional exchange among its customers, promote free speech of all citizens and allow for democratic transparency, etc. But one would wrongly have this to naturally happen by virtue of two self-deceptive principles: that 'small is beautiful' and that a tool or means, by its mere use, has a determinant effect on representations, values and social behaviours. 
There is no denying that a radically new technical environment opens up unforeseen assets and hopes of a new civilisation era comparable with those inaugurated by the alphabet in Ancient Greece and the triumph of printing press in the eighteenth century Europe.  Information highways offer wide spaces of cultural freedom and social intervention to organised individuals and networks of citizens. Still the delusions may be equally important as no technological push can achieve what only a cultural pull and a decisive social pressure upon the new technology of communication can oblige the latter to yield.
Three sets of risks, stakes and challenges may be particularly stressed in this respect with regard to our debates.
It mistakes the technique for the content; it wrongly equates the material interests and power stakes of communication industries with the symbolic and socio-historical substance of the customers; it tears the latter apart between their limited and immediate context of experience and a uniform world-scene staged for clients' consumption by unknown market interests. Local, regional and national particular identities ought to be given a due status: communication is rich and meaningful to the extent it maintains differences and heterogeneities. Moreover, the space and time of one's restricted territory of daily life is the privileged milieu of construction of social links and where basically the individuals belong in. When global standardisation leads to cultural anaemia, what can we do to avail of the new media with the aim of a genuinely autonomous representativity of those cultural minorities, dissent voices, different ways of life and alternative viewpoints which belay and counter standardised discourses?
One of the challenges here is one of electronic literacy for the many in order to facilitate a dialogue in as many voices as possible. For this diversity of voices to be possible, in many countries governments, citizens and media interests have collectively defined a number of principles, in particular competition and diversity, moral standards and access for all, support for innovation, creation and production.  The same principles have not been transferred to the international arena despite increasing globalization of information.
At the international level, both technology and economic considerations still favour standardisation; only when 'global culture' product is hard to sell do media managers become willing to diversify content so as to satisfy their market. "When audience ratings are paramount, creative possibilities will be constricted"  . "Concentration of media ownership and production is becoming even more striking internationally than it is nationally, making the global media ever more market-driven. In this context, can the kind of pluralist "mixed economy" media system which is emerging in many countries be encouraged globally? Can we imagine a world public sphere in which there is room for alternative voices? Can the media professionals sit down together with policy-makers and consumers to work out mechanisms that promote access and a diversity of expression despite the acutely competitive environment that drives the media moguls apart?" 
The risks of widening gaps between elites and common people do disproportionately increase. They turn dreams of social fraternity and political transparency into a deceptive catchword. No tools of communication can by themselves generate transparency in society. It is the other way round: only transparent forms of social relations can secure a transparent use of the media. There can be total lack of communication in a social space that means of communication have totally gone through.  For instance, a generalised use of informatic in the secondary and tertiary sectors has not put upside down the hierarchical structures that govern the social organisation of labour. Computers can in no way on their own upset a centralised model of society and hierarchical systems of communication, whether we have in view the rapport between teachers and students, public servants and citizens, managers and employees, priests and devotees, political leaders and followers, advertising firms and customers, state officers and citizens, etc.
Moreover informatic media generate their own processes of differentiation and hierarchy. The risk of an unbridgeable gap between a few elites -- engineers, technicians, urban educated classes, state functionaries and the mass of the population -- is rather tremendously increasing. By and large, the great majority of world population will for long remain out of the informatic world-market and world-web of information exchange  -- in the same way as it was and is still in many societies and countries maintained deprived of access to alphabet and school. The challenge is here one of appropriation of the information highways by counter-cultural networks to check the interests of hegemonic centres of information. 
The risk of a gap between the permanent broadening of the symbolic spaces and the possibilities or wish of intervening and acting upon them comes as a serious question. A renewed balance is to be struck between them. New technologies may even easily nurture an individual unable to actually enter into a dialectical rapport with his co-citizens and his actual socio-cultural environment, satisfied with interacting alone as a consumer with informatic systems and market forces. New forms and scales of social link ought to be devised. Technical plethora generates political vacuum  through processes of isolation and deterritoriality of individuals.
Contrary to initial expectations, the new media did not increase community links nor set up an information agora with a wide range of diverse voices striving towards harmony. The utopia was that a public and free reciprocal self-learning through the mutual cooperation of all in a world-wide synergy of competencies, imagination and exchange of ideas would mediate a reconstruction of the social link between human beings through subverting the boundaries of all sorts of territorial powers (through soil, ethnicity, nation, state, organisation, scientific discipline, gender, age, religion, etc.).
Recent studies show that new media increase instead individualisation, mediation  and simulation  in our societies. Dissemination of lies and manipulation become all the more pernicious considering the largest number of people whom they falsely inform. "Studies have shown that people who spend the most amount of time in front of the television tend to accept whatever televised scene that is broadcast daily as the real world. They therefore display the greatest possible social conformity in their attitudes and judgement." 
The concepts of "enlarged citizenship"  and "social interactivity"  suggest new horizons and models of democratic involvement far beyond the mere 'interactive' participation as consumer with the systems. They point to the modes of access of the citizens to the information and to the processes of production of that information. They advocate an active involvement of individuals and public interest groups in the definition and circulation of the mediatic contents.  One should not narrowly think only in terms of impact of highways of information on social, economic and political life: we have to design autonomous projects to avail of them for our ends. The new technologies of communication represent the material infrastructure upon which humankind can build up a cooperative world of autonomous intelligent cities driven by appropriate cultural dynamics. 
When inequalities in the social appropriation of communication media generates top-down communication processes and strengthens the control of the dominant symbolic systems of communication, one is naturally led to claim for a Chart of Rights to Communication. 
To secure a greater democratic independence in usage relations, the citizen ought to be protected no less than the consumer. As consumer he must be able to exercise his freedom of choice, as citizen "he cannot be totally excluded from the terms and conditions of supply of contents and programs. At the present time, technical and economic factors command the development of forms of usage. To promote more equitable usage relations, it would be good to preserve the diversity of supply, and reduce the user-producer gap by giving more power to the former." In this respect, one should not naively maintain "the illusion of a demand-controlled supply. The world is saturated with media and messages, and the demand no longer expresses a lack or an expectation; it reacts to the supply."  The possibility itself of the citizen's autonomy of judgement is problematic: its maintenance calls for adequate strategies.
The belief in communication revolution ushering the world community into a new civilisation era is prompted by the conjunction of three general phenomena:
The declaration of Albert Gore, US Vice-President, September 15, 1993, defines the National Information Infrastructure (NII) of the United States and calls for the private sector to invest in it, while the Global Information Infrastructure, March 1994 is addressed to serve as a basis for engaging other governments to cooperate in the same direction.  Communication technologies are forcefully sought to be brought under the anonymous hegemonic control of the increasingly 'free' forces that structure the market of the media on the world scene.
Subjugated by the hegemonic forces that control the world systems and techniques of communication, which spaces of autonomy and creativity can a common citizen inhabit or carve for himself? The question as such is absolutely similar to former questions raised about the means and weapons that subaltern groups -- though unable to bring about any structural transformation -- could still avail of to vent their grievances, denounce repressive socio-cultural domination or try to break socio-political subjugation  . Faced with NGOs' will to power or Government inappropriate schemes, local communities give a no-response to alien projects: they refuse participation and remain passive. These are conducts of self-defence in front of a situation that can not be brought under control. Suffering under the pressure of patriarchy illiterate women find roundabout ways to express their dissatisfaction through reappropriating in their own way, in narratives and songs, the idioms of dominant traditions to make them utter divergent speeches.  Folk mythical traditions carry a self-memory and construct a collective identity sometimes at variance with the prescribed discourses.  Initial denials of enforced participation may not appear triumphant: they are nevertheless experimenting with alternative forms and linguistic symbols of social communication.
What can media users nowadays do to refuse their participation but avail of the media at hand and act with autonomy? Should they switch off all channels and depart for a lonely no-man's land? This is escape, burying one's head in the sand as the ostrich does. Struggles are going on for the sake of a more human civilisation.
As we talk about consumers or users of mass media, we would like to refer to the concepts of 'use', 'usage' and 'user' as elaborated by André Vitalis after many others  as a partial answer to our query. We generally speak of users with reference to consumers of private and public goods and services. Use is related to consumption. The idea is to improve the commercial and administrative relationship of a consumer with a commercial firm; a service agency or a state department. That relationship should be more human, more rewarding, more profitable to the user/consumer.
The semantics is clearly one of economic and administrative efficiency. The user is understood to fit as a client or customer into those two categories of economics and administration. He does not intend to break away from them but to better partake of their facilities as he has internalised their advantages. Commercial firms, private and public service agencies meet his expectation as on their part too they wish to better attend to the user's need and wish. The personalised adjustment will be done within the prescribed and standardised definition of the possible uses of the good or services under considerations. The prerogatives of the user are therefore limited and circumscribed.
If we refer to the services that the media offer, "the small amount of autonomy conceded to the user is useful for a quantitative understanding of his behaviour, as attested to by the many viewer, reader, and general-public surveys." For the new technologies, the client/customer is even more than a crude consumer. Economists would rightly discard the word 'consumer' as inadequate. As a user, he is economically defined as the one who in the end has the last word. In the overabundance of items which can be possibly offered, the user figures as the one who gives the proposed innovation its meaning and relevance. Still only supply of commercial or administrative goods initiates the process and accounts for the particular attention of which the user is the object.
An anthropological or sociological insight of the social relation of usage may reveal a different picture of the user. The latter's behaviour has been studied at length, especially with regard to the new media and communication tools. The user often appropriates, misappropriates, pirates, resists and even rejects. The development of new forms of social uses takes time and does not always correspond to the original plan designed by the system promoters. "In a more subtle, hidden way, everyday practices reveal an array of individual methods, uses, stratagems and pilfering. This is particularly difficult to analyse, as this type of activity is not clearly revealed by particular products, but by a particular way of using those that are offered or imposed." The user may not remain a passive consumer or repository of information, only browsing through the material that he is fed with. In the end, the user's tactics -- which can be silent, disobedient, ironic, or poetic -- can get away with and even avenge the dominating power of the productive forces. Eventually, the user may remain the controlling agent and have "the final word on the marketplace". He eludes the imposed codes, turns them upside down, appropriates the very means of his subjugation and instead of participating and playing the same games, diverts them towards different targets.
Still, are we not overestimating the power of individual receivers? We may "wonder whether all the current research which attributes so much power and autonomy to the receiver, is not merely a reaction against earlier research which stressed the determinant pressure of social structures and technologies." Whatever be our final evaluation, it remains true that to discover the ways and strategies of an autonomous socio-political reappropriation of the mass communication media delivered by the new communication technologies, their usage must be studied at the intersection of three main analytical insights: a technical analysis stating the range of possibilities of the medium, an economic analysis defining the domains of profitable uses, and a social analysis locating the user's stand, needs, wishes and will to reappropriate and assume a leading role.
Copyright Guy Poitevin 1998,1999