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People Can Change – In Defense of Communicative Contact

psychology of communicationWhat are the communicative, cognitive, and social psychological processes associated with change? Or, how do positive outcomes associated with contact come into being. Below I explain the processes most associated with how and why contact ameliorates or make change possible between conflicting parties.

Humans are open system information processors who are always subject to the influences of information. Even the most prejudiced person, with the most rigid boundaries and categories for classifying others, can unfreeze or loosen those categories in order to process new information or integrate new meanings. Any process of reciprocal interaction (contact) requires cues and stimuli to be integrated and made sense of. This is a conscious activity guided by individuals who take any sort of inconsistency, puzzlement, new information, or confusion and make sense of it. Consequently, two members of conflicting parties can have contact with one another and expect some sort of information processing that alters the cognitive content and boundaries of each. Surely this will vary by individuals with some being more recalcitrant and resistant to change than others. But all individuals by the very nature of their information processing capabilities are subject to change. The contact hypothesis, in the hands of knowledgeable facilitators, is designed to direct this process as much as possible; the conditions of contact can be controlled such that they maximize the opportunities for communication to work. Contact, and the information processing that accompanies it, is by definition communicative and interactive and potentially transformational even if the transformation is minimal. By emphasizing interpersonal exchanges the chances for altering attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and perceptions are increased potentially resulting in change for individuals and groups. This possibility for learning and integrating new information makes it possible to develop practices related to positive change such as restorative justice, forgiveness, cooperation, and reconciliation. It is grounded in a cultural context and articulates a subjectively central interaction where the participants are the primary resources.

Groups in conflict must adjust and change for the purpose of peaceful relationships, political order, and the recognition of group rights. Interactions between divergent groups, then, are subject to different perspectives and patterns of communication necessary for reaching across symbolic divides and working toward consensus on difficult issues. Contact experiences can be designed for maximum conditions essential to the linking and convergence sought after by conflicting groups. Dryzek (2010), for example, makes the distinction between bonding communication and bridging communication. Bonding communication takes place when people in groups are similar and share similar backgrounds and cultures. Bonding intensifies commonalities and identification with others. For instance, Yasser Arafat was known to speak one way to his own people and another way to international or culturally different groups. When speaking to his own cultural group he engaged in bonding forms of communication by using Arabic communication patterns and emotionally arousing discourse. This type of communication intensifies group identity and deepens divisions with outgroups. Of course, President Bush adopted a bonding discourse in order to solidify support after 9/11. Bonding discourse can separate groups into polarized differences and reinforce attitudes. It is not the kind of communication most conducive to unfreezing prejudices or moderating stereotypes of outgroups. Rather, a contact experience would benefit from communicative arrangements designed to “bridge” individuals and groups. Bridging communication takes the perspective of the other and works to incorporate it into one’s own outlook. The goal is to bridge or transcend differences between groups by providing some pathway from one group reality to the other. Contact experiences are fundamentally concerned with bridging disparate realities by using communication to coordinate and manage meanings and relationships. Such bridging contact can be difficult because group members must recognize and understand the attitudes and beliefs of the other and adjust or incorporate them in some way. There are any number of psychological barriers, filters, and defense mechanisms that make bridging communication difficult. The burden of bridging communication is considerable especially when one group is a discriminated against minority. Bridging communication must find overarching shared values that appeal to and connect both sides. So, for example, even though one side (e.g. Palestinians) is discriminated against they must participate in the task of building bridges in order to achieve full rights and representation.

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