Can the Dialogic Method be a means of empowerment, dispersed capacity for conflict resolution and problem-solving, and a way of creating community-oriented, win-win-win solutions?
These possibilities emerge from a recent (2022) research conducted by VikasAnvesh Foundation for Kshetra / Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. The study, titled “Dialogic spaces for dispute resolution in the social sphere,” aimed to map an indicative and representative array of traditional and non-traditional community dialogic spaces in Indian society.
Covering a variety of institutions that aimed at resolving conflicts through the use of dialogue in formal and informal spaces designed for the same, the study used a combination of literature survey and field research to study Gram Buras in Assam, Tribal communities in Odisha and Maharashtra, Khap Panchayats in Haryana, fishers community in Kerala, Flood affected communities in Bihar, Trader communities, Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO) in Gujarat, Self-Help Group Federation in Jharkhand and Legal Services to migrants by Aajeevika Bureau.
While a host of positive features were observed, of particular interest are the limitations of dialogue spaces in the Indian social sphere – alongside the questions of whether The Dialogic Method can be a means of overcoming such limitations.
Focus on community goals
Traditional dialogic spaces often operate on principles of preserving stability, social cohesion, social structures, and the continuation of norms for the community’s well-being. In addition, given the intimate nature of these communities, social harmony and peaceful living are also given importance. In the case of non-traditional spaces, such as the Aajeevika Bureau, flood-affected communities, or the WGWLO, the goal of the promoting organisation or group is considered the broad community goal. It remains the focus of the dialogue space.
The resolution process, in most cases, involved calling the affected parties, giving them opportunities to share their viewpoints, and creating an environment where other participants in the meeting could present their points as well. These spaces function to create a conducive environment where compromises can be reached without any threats and enforced using the social-cultural norms and principles of community.
From individual parties’ perspectives, ease of access and cost-effectiveness emerge as significant conveniences. However, where personal interests may conflict with the social group norms – for instance, as was observed in the functioning of Khap Panchayats – the individual often has no choice but to conform to social mores.
Binding Nature of Outcomes
The traditional institutions are central to the communities they exist in and command respect and reverence among the people. This gives them the authority and power to decide on the issues brought to them for resolution, and the decisions are binding to the parties in dispute. In addition, social force, collective community strength, and the threat of social sanctions and ostracising play a role, especially in non-traditional spaces such as the SHG federation.
In most situations, the dialogue space is activated only upon an aggrieved party’s institution of an objection in some form. Thus, latent tensions between individuals or groups may not be taken up for transformation in these spaces, no matter how disruptive. This also implies the kind of issues brought up for the dialogue and may preclude broader community-welfare cases, with the focus remaining on inter-personal disputes.
Adjudicatory process and outcomes
The conclusion or outcome of the process, while often aimed at restitution, justice and maintaining harmony and good relationships between the parties, is still like an adjudication. This introduces binaries of right and wrong and limits the possibilities of parties co-creating sustainable solutions to the problem. The adjudicatory nature also requires the presence of a judge and facilitator, often a person considered to be in a position of power. However, the source of this power is usually exclusive and based on considerations including but not limited to gender, caste and economic class.
Despite the stated focus on community goals, the communities are limited by their definition and inclusivity. For example, some spaces excluded (menstruating and non-menstruating) women from holding adjudicatory or facilitative positions and prohibited them from participating in the dialogue. Even where the aggrieved party is a woman, restrictions and conditions remain. Again, caste and class considerations also come into play, with positions of adjudicatory or facilitative power being held by members of certain castes or by force of economic superiority. In addition, caste, class and gender also determine the relative representation of parties in these spaces.
The Dialogic Method as a means to overcome the limitations of current dialogic spaces
The Dialogic Method is a framework for designing using three fundamental principles: Value Creation, Non-binary Approach, and Self-determination, all of which come together towards creating sustainable solutions by parties to a problem situation. Value creation allows for exploring aligned interests to develop new forms of value instead of conventional justice approaches that seek to distribute weight fairly. In addition, the non-binary system, creating space for multiple views and perspectives to co-exist, allows different parties’ interests to be satisfied and augments value-creation by constructing a sum of parts that is greater than the whole. Finally, a self- determination will enable parties to willfully participate (or not) in creating solutions to the situation rather than merely assenting or dissenting to proposed options. Self-determination is essential in and of itself and ensures that solutions are sustainable, given the parties’ commitment and interest in seeing the solution into action. In addition, the Dialogic Method is a dispersible, versatile and multifunctional framework. It is simple and accessible to use across structured and unstructured situations and can result in outcomes from conflict resolution and transformation to collaborative problem solving and community mobilisation. As a result, the Dialogic Method holds potential not just as a means of creating more dispersed dialogic spaces for resolving conflicts and co-creating solutions to problems but also, in the context of India’s social fabric, it can emerge as a means of empowerment of those who lack access to existing dialogic spaces – formal and informal.
Furthermore, dispersing the ability to transform conflicts and resolve problem situations at the individual and community levels can, in the long run, result in systemic change by creating individual and community-level change agents. This then reduces reliance on top-down systemic approaches to justice, favouring a bottom-up approach to social change. In a country where both judicial and quasi-judicial justice mechanisms are not only cumbersome but also expensive and laborious (sometimes impossible) to access for a broad segment of the population, the ability to engage in and enable conflict resolution can be a game-changer in the lives of many.