Most approaches to development communication are grounded in economic frameworks concerned with how material resources are allocated in society. The dominant modernization philosophy aims to maximize individual opportunities for material gain, while critical perspectives argue for just distributions of resources and against the inequities of capitalist systems. Both literatures usually fail to consider non-material aspects of people’s lives, thereby neglecting a vital resource for empowerment and social change.
Modernization is grounded in neo-classical economic theory and Enlightenment philosophy, which privilege the public sphere of reason, science, technology, economics, and politics, and devalue other areas of human experience. Modernization therefore assumes that development should address material needs, whereas religion speaks primarily to spiritual needs, which may conflict with material gain. Material development goals require a set of communication strategies. In large projects, campaigns usually are planned in a highly rational and systematic manner via social marketing research. Religion is seldom considered except as a barrier or a resistance point (e.g., to family planning or HIV prevention) that needs to be overcome by research-based strategic planning.
In much of critical or Marxian thought, religion and spirituality likewise are regarded as more problematic than helpful. Religion is the opiate of the masses, blinding people to material inequalities and injustice. While some critical arguments do address nonmaterial concerns of ideological influence and cultural imperialism, these arguments have been largely subordinate to questions of power over capital resources.
Hence, non-material considerations that move development to the realm of the spiritual have seldom been priorities of western development aid. Few writings on development communication in mainstream traditions have addressed the role of religion and spirituality. Most scholars and practitioners make only passing references to religion, as a simple demographic or in a negative sense, as an obstacle to development. Further, just as western development usually ignores non-material realities, much theological writing and practice focuses on religion and spirituality with little or no attention to material injustice.
Yet religion, spiritual practice, communication, and material realities are inseparable in most of the world. In contrast to the secular orientation of western cultures, in many societies religious values are a part of everyday life, providing a foundational framework for behaviors related to everything from clothing styles to childrearing to health-care. Also religious rituals play a central organizational role in marking key life events.
Not all of this is positive, as religion and spirituality often do seriously impede progressive social change. This may be particularly the case for women and minority ethnic groups. Also heinous crimes have been carried out in the name of religion.
Efforts to bridge the intellectual gap between the material and spiritual may be found in the practice of hermeneutics, which involves the interpretation of sacred texts within historically specific contexts. Hermeneutics therefore assumes that no religious beliefs and practices are fixed and rejects a sharp and inseparable divide between people’s spiritual and material needs.
Outcomes of hermeneutics include liberation theologies within every major religion, with leaders who are making arguments for development as a process of liberation from injustice, discrimination, and prejudice wherever they occur, including within their own organizations (Melkote & Steeves 2001). These arguments – plus accompanying faith and spiritual practice – frequently catalyze activism and provide openings for individual and community empowerment and social change.
In applications of liberation theology to development communication and education, the work of Paolo Freire (e.g., 1970) is particularly significant. Although his ideas emerged initially from the Christian liberation theology movement of 1960s Brazil, he drew upon works from other traditions as well, especially that of Ghandi. The impact of his arguments and methodologies has been broad, beginning in Latin America and spreading globally. From liberation theology, Freire’s assumptions of what development communication should do are radically different from the assumptions of modernization, which emphasizes message transfer supportive of economic gain. Rather, for Freire, development communication ideally is emancipatory dialogue that leads to expanded individual and communal consciousness and power. Freire assumes that once people name their sources of oppression, as well as their sources of power, they can determine their own collective and individual solutions via a process of action and reflection. For development communication practice, the central focus should be dialogue. The success of the awakening process via dialogue requires spiritual practice, a form of communication seldom examined by western communication specialists.
The assumption is that spiritual practice by individuals and groups taps resources that provide the necessary consciousness, energy, and motivation for change. Other forms of traditional religious communication may additionally be significant in the liberation or empowerment communication process. These forms are unique to each religious tradition and culture, and may include song, dance, storytelling, and gatherings of groups with shared interests. Additionally, uses of mass-mediated information and communication technologies are not necessarily inconsistent with the goals of liberation.
Freire has inspired many scholars and practitioners who remain secular in their assumptions. Additionally, arguments consistent with his approach are made by some branches of feminism and of critical scholarship, and by advocates of communitarian theory; all advocate context-based dialogue as a means of challenging unequal power relations. Yet Freire and other proponents of liberation theologies go further in emphasizing the role of religion and spirituality in dialogic processes of empowerment.
A particularly well-known application of Christian liberation theology is the base ecclesial community movement in much of Latin America. The US Civil Rights movement is another. However, there are many examples in other religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam (Melkote & Steeves 2001).
Most development projects do not rise to the level of social movements. Yet their strategies and outcomes can be improved via consultation and active collaboration with religious and spiritual leaders. For examples, see the journal Media Development, published by the World Association for Christian Communication, and also the website of the Communication Initiative, and its free online publication, Drum Beat.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
- Melkote, S. R., & Steeves, H. L. (2001). Communication for development in the third world: Theory and practice for empowerment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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