Aaron Fellows (ENVS/Economics ’16) & Jim Proctor
The evolving modes by which scholars and activists communicate information have inspired multiple bodies of research, including research into environmental communication (Hansen 2011). The schools of thought which these modes of communication represent reasonably parallel the evolution of contemporary western environmentalism over the last half-century, as well as modes of communication in fields such as the sciences. This allows us to trace a progression of models of communication, which we will group into three: the classical model, the framing model, and contemporary models, followed by an annotated bibliography.
The classical (deficit) model
One predominant approach to scientific communication is what is known as the deficit model—the notion that public skepticism and lack of support for scientific knowledge and science-based policy is grounded in inadequate scientific understanding, which when addressed will result in public support. A longstanding critic of the deficit model is sociologist of science Brian Wynne (1992, 1993, 2014); for a defense, see Dickson (2005). Classical environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as more recent incarnations of classical environmentalism, tended to rely on a similar method of communication, positing that the public could best be inspired to action by hammering home the facts of the issues. This mode of communication often tended to rely on innately shocking statistics to make their point loudly. A prominent example is Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006); for a representative clip of his movie by the same name, see here. The deficit model has generally been discredited in environmental communication (Hulme 2009) and science communication more broadly (Kahan et al. 2011, Klein 2014), and recent research suggests that the common apocalyptic tone of deficit-model environmental communication may be less effective than more positively-oriented communications (Feinberg and Willer 2011).
The framing model
The deficit model rested on the assumption that humans, as rational beings, would take the facts provided and draw predictable and obvious conclusions from them. But this assumed that all people receive information in the same way. A more recent model based on the science of framing is built on greater sensitivity toward the contexts in which humans receive information. Advocates of the framing model argue that reasoning is often automatic and subject to the individual’s emotional and cognitive landscape surrounding the issue at hand. One well-known scholar who has advocated the framing model is cognitive scientist George Lakoff, whose book Don’t Think of an Elephant! (2008) summarize the framing model for laypeople and activists; he has also connected the framing model to environmentalism (Lakoff 2010). A prominent example of the framing model in environmentalism is Global Warming’s Six Americas (Maibach et. al. 2009), and it is a widespread model at present, with some highly sophisticated applications (e.g., Kahan et al 2012), though more research into cross-cultural environmental communication (e.g., Thakadu and Tau 2012) is needed, and framing alone may not lead to the public mobilization environmentalists desire (Cox 2010), in spite of considerable research now evidencing this diversity in environmental approaches (e.g., AP & NORC 2015). The framing model is relatively sophisticated in its understanding of diverse public audiences, yet largely assumes, as does the deficit model, that communication is a one-way flow of information from experts to the public. Challenges to this assumption constitute one of the major emphases of contemporary models of environmental communication.
Contemporary (dialogic) models
A recent overview of scientific communication summarized contemporary trends as moving from “deficit to dialogue” (Stilgoe et al. 2014, 5), thus constituting a critique of both the deficit and framing models. And indeed, some recent arguments in environmental communication (e.g., Bain et al. 2012) suggest alternative strategies that include far more than proclamation of scientific facts—take a look, for instance, at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology for a highly dialogical definition of public engagement. Central to these strategies is listening as well as speaking—quite different from the models above.
But what sort of two-way dialogue is explored in contemporary models? Perhaps one of the most exciting recent dialogic approaches to communication around controversial political and moral issues was made popular via a number of news outlets, notably This American Life in spring 2015—and then its primary scientific evidence (LaCour and Green 2014), summarized via the phrase “dialogue opens the door to attitude change,” was later retracted (see also Wikipedia article). But more recent studies have validated a variant of this approach: as This American Life again reported in spring 2016, canvassers in Florida working to reduce transphobia found lasting effects when they engaged in genuine two-way conversation, encouraging both parties to actively take the perspective of others (Brookman and Kalla 2016).
To our knowledge, these recent dialogic models have not yet been fully tested for controversial environmental issues such as climate, environmental justice, and biodiversity protection. There appears to be considerable promise, offset by understandable challenges:
- The video Accidental Courtesy discusses how a black musician engaged in successful dialogue with KKK members.
- A number of efforts at deliberative democracy (e.g., see this one and this one in Oregon) engage citizens in issue-based dialogue.
- The Meetup organization Crossing Party Lines sponsors conversations across the country, in order to “Create open dialogue between Americans with dissimilar ideologies to increase tolerance, build communities and encourage civic engagement.”
- The organization Narrative 4 supports what it calls radical empathy, with participants around the world exchanging personal stories. An extended inquiry into one Narrative4 event involving gun victims and gun advocates, however, suggests that radical empathy may not necessarily change hearts and minds
Dialogic models may be highly relevant even when communicating non-controversial environmental topics, as listening may provide important background context prior to communicating these topics, or important followup information on how the topics were received and/or acted upon. These cases are similar to the framing model in that the recipient’s context matters, but they go a step farther in partnering with the recipients of communication, to the point that they become collaborators more than recipients!
Dialogic approaches to communication may ultimately be the best way for those concerned about environmental issues to engage with others, as they are the only approaches that take people seriously and listen to them—an important democratic principle we must not forget.
All references cited above are listed here in alphabetical order by author last name, with the publisher’s supplied abstract preceded by a brief note on relevance, as well as a link to help you to obtain each publication. The references are dynamically generated via Zotero and Zotpress; please wait a moment for them to appear.