Folktales for Social Change – A Study of Dialogic Democracy, Oral Culture, and Communication for Social Change in Rural Malawi

Start date: 3 October, 2011 End date: 19 December, 2011 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A10693 Countries: Malawi Institutions: Roskilde University (RUC), Denmark Grant recipient: Jonas Agerbæk Jeppesen Total grant: 15,000 DKK



This MA thesis combines philosophy and communication studies in a double investigation of, first, how to justify 'dialogic democracy' (which is a redevelopment of deliberative and participatory branches in democracy theory) as a viable basis for communication scholarship and practice, in particular within the Communication for Social Change paradigm (CFSC). Second, the thesis explores how dialogic democracy theory is put into practice when planning, implementing, and evaluating the so-called ROAR project designed by the author and conducted in 2010 and 2011 in rural Malawi, East Africa. ROAR is an abbreviation for Remediating Orature through Action Research.

After conducting an initial ethnographic investigation on media use and everyday storytelling practices in two villages communities in 2010, the author returned to the same area in 2011 to engage local storytellers and other community members in the ROAR project. By hosting inclusive dialogues with broad and diverse groups of community members, the ROAR experiment began by identifying, discussing, and prioritizing local social and political concerns. The identified issues were then brought into a workshop context where local and primarily female storytelling performers were encouraged to use their communicative skills to take one of the issues to a wider public. This was done by working out and recording a 'folktale for social change' for community radio.

The aim of ROAR was thus to integrate existing cultural practices and communicative resources present in this specific context to sustain public sphere deliberation, especially on the local level. Based on the research findings the thesis concludes that traditional storytelling remains a valuable communicative resource in Malawian rural village settings. Supported theoretically by the dialogic democracy perspective, it is furthermore assessed that projects such as ROAR are capable of assuming a central role in sustaining socially well-informed and thereby increasingly just form of democratic deliberation.

From a practical perspective, the ROAR experiment was inspired by ongoing Malawian NGO initiatives working with communication, culture, and development. In contrast to most of these initiatives, however, ROAR is radically oriented towards a complete shift of ownership to local village stakeholders. In this way, ROAR works as a pilot for self-sustaining and participatory content-creation for local media to be replicated in future projects sharing similar aims.

The examination panel wrote: "The thesis is an excellent academic performance. The work is very independent and original in its ambitious aim of integrating democratic theory, communication theory and action-research, and the aim is largely fulfilled. The thesis amply demonstrates fulfilment of the academic aims of philosophy and communication, it is exceptionally strong in its conceptual work, producing very interesting research topics from the literature review and delivering an interesting, well planned and implemented case study with nuanced reflections and analysis of the difficult pathway towards achieving dialogic democracy."