Communication for Development likes what’s new. Where most academic communities are bound by cautious incrementalism, C4D has always sought to keep up with the times, trading a little certainty to gain more relevance. That disciplinary bias towards novelty is often helpful – but it is important to look back too.
In talking about New Media, we would do well to evaluate how new it really is. And in doing so, we can learn much by looking at much older forms of communication. The very oldest is face-to-face communication. What does the literature tell us about that channel?
Face-to-face communication is associated with higher levels of personal wellbeing, and other positive things (Wang et al, 2013). More importantly for activists, it is also associated with much higher levels of persuasiveness. Canvassing works better than other methods in attracting voters (Gerber & Green, 2000). Interpersonal contact seems to be effective at reducing prejudice, for instance (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).
Given that power, one nascent line of research is particularly intriguing. Social networks are clearly crucial, and these papers test the diffusion of real messages and real campaigns through those networks. Abhijit Banerjee’s vital paper explores the diffusion of gossip in Indian villages (Banerjee, 2014). David Nickerson has usefully explored how canvassing one voter can affect others in the household (Nickerson, 2008). Justin Schon has begun to examine how information and uncertainty determine whether civilians flee conflict.
These findings are highly suggestive for activists. If their campaigns are to succeed, they cannot only be online. Many know this, of course; in developing countries especially, the community meeting remains the dominant form of persuasion, organization and education (and more evidence is needed about how best to improve these).
Yet face-to-face communication is among the more expensive channels of communication. Activists always have limited resources. The social network research described above suggests one way in which they may make their efforts more efficient, by targeting the right people and allowing information to diffuse further. Still, careful judgments about cost-effectiveness will still be necessary. There are important theoretical implications to each communication channel, but for many activists, that practical balance between scale, cost and likelihood will remain central.
Bonus: Yale have provided an excellent summary on the literature on persuading voters.