Communication and action: Re-reading Habermas in the age of activism
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Pieczka, M. (2020) Communication and action: Re-reading Habermas in the age of activism. Nauki o Wychowaniu. Studia Interdyscyplinarne, 2(9), pp. 231-252.
The combined effects of digital communication technologies, political upheavals around the world, waves of powerful activism and protests have injected a new urgency into communication research. How communication theory is able to respond to this challenge is a matter of discussion, including the question of the adequacy of older theories to the new circumstances. This paper, aims to add to this discussion by returning to Habermas’s pragmatics, one of the 20th century communication classics, to reflect on how communication and other forms of action interact in campaigns for social change in the context of growing reach of strategic communication and the growing role of social media in activism. This article starts by posing theoretical disjuncture as a problem shared by a number of communication subfields, such as public communication, public relations, communication for social change, and my particular example, development communication. The more recent scholarship, however, has moved away from this state of knowledge. Instead, scholars highlight the need to embrace non-linear models, of communication for social change and appear to embrace hybridity to deal with the theoretical confusion in the field. The analysis presented in this article aims to demonstrate that Habermas’s communication pragmatics works well to explicate complex campaigning practices in a consistent and yet theoretically expansive way. Re-reading Habermas makes it possible also to respond to the call articulated by social movement scholars to move beyond the limits of strategy and to recognize the importance of larger cultural conversations and scripts. Conceptualizing public campaigning as chains of speech acts, defined here as both linguistic and nonlinguistic acts, offers an analytical tool that works across different levels, spaces, and actors involved in social change efforts and that privileges communication as the explanatory mechanism for the contemporary social change praxis. Finally, returning to Habermas’s work underscores the importance a valid position, rather than of desirable identity, from which to engage with others in the social world. This invites a clear and consistent focus on action and its basis (moral position) rather than on attributions ascribed to organizations and campaigners (identity). The key question thus shifts from ‘Do you like me/trust me sufficiently follow me?’ to a more substantial, ‘Is this a good thing to do?’