Robert Cox: Communication influencing the larger system

Civic Action06 Sep 2009Robert Cox

I have been concerned that many of the traditional approaches used in social change communication such as framing, social marketing, messaging, etc, are increasingly inadequate, to address the challenges of campaigns aimed at large-scale and complex transformations of political economies. Indeed, the scope of the changes needed (for example, to measurably slow and then reverse human-induced climate change) can be hard to conceive. This is true, not only of the complexity of changes required in economic and financial systems, but also the political and social apparatuses sustaining these systems. These resemble what Althusser called a ‘complex whole,’ that is, the relations among the economic, political, and ideological in a social system constitute ‘a structure articulated in dominance’.

How, then, can social change campaigns—individually and jointly—begin to challenge this ‘complex whole’? My own work has been involved, both as a rhetorical scholar and in my role with environmental organizations, with what Salmon, Post, and Christense (2003) call ‘public will’ campaigns, i.e., organized, strategic initiatives designed to legitimize and mobilize public support as a means for achieving public policy change. Yet, traditional assumptions about mobilization—even when strategically intended—often prove non-adaptive at the scale and a timetable that global warming and other system changes require.

In my remarks to the opening of the Center, I want to take a closer look at recent public will campaigns to illustrate what I mean by the neglect of the strategic, as well as at the discourses which, I believe, contribute to this neglect: Michel de Certeau’s insistence, for example, that tactics, and not strategy, are the ‘art of the weak,’ and that social change agents are, therefore, forever limited to the terrain of the opportunistic and the temporary.

By contrast, I want to propose that we think of the strategic as a heuristic or way of understanding contingency and the possibilities of change within in the ‘complex whole’—that is, how communication that is more strategically aligned can enable a process of events capable of influencing effects within a larger system.