Transformative Power of Dialogue

Review of:
Stephen W. Littlejohn & Sheila McNamee (Eds.). (2014). The coordinated management of meaning: A festschrift in honor of W. Barnett Pearce. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

by Robyn Penman

In 1980, Barnett Pearce and his colleague, Vern Cronen, published Communication, Action and Meaning, a seminal work introducing scholars to the theory of the coordinated management of meaning (CMM). Over the ensuing decades, CMM theory has continued to grow, reaching a wider and wider audience as the practical and theoretical relevance of Barnett’s work became increasingly acknowledged.

In recognition of Barnett’s outstanding scholarship, a conference, entitled the Transformative Power of Dialogue, was held in his honour in January 2011. The essays in this book collection emerged from that conference. I am one of the contributors to this volume and, as such, this review is more of a commendation than any conventional critical review.

The book opens with an essay written by Barnett shortly before his death, reflecting on what it could take for personal and social revolution to be brought about. As he put it, he has “bet my professional life” on following the risky, high stake path that this evolution “could be promoted by explicit attention to what we are making together in the forms of communication in which we engage” (p. 44).

Barnett’s bet has reaped its rewards, not the least of which is the extent to which he has inspired, encouraged and collaborated with an extraordinary range of scholars and practitioners, a sample of which is contained in the current volume. The very breadth, scholarship and wide-ranging practical import captured in the 15 essays bear witness to the rich offerings to be found in CMM and its broader communication perspective.

For those interested in intercultural dialogue, the central importance placed on dialogue in Barnett’s work, and in the essays in this volume, makes the book especially pertinent. One part of this volume is specifically devoted to the theme of dialogue. The topics include the role of systemic questioning (Victoria Chen), moral conflict and managing difference (Stephen Littlejohn), framing and conflict transformation (Linda Putnam), and generative community dialogue (Stanley Deetz).

Dialogue also emerges as a powerful theme throughout the other parts in the book. For example, I (Penman) consider the core relationship between dialogue and presence and what this means for understanding participation in mediated life. John Lannamann explores the key role of dialogue and its practice in cosmopolitan communication in making better social worlds. And Kim Pearce sums up the volume by talking about the pathway to personal and social evolution in terms of the “life of dialogue…that holds in tension, and compassion, the various stories, actions and people who loves us, or don’t, who are like us. . . . , or aren’t and who may challenge us to the core to remain civil and open” (p. 328).

For anyone interested in dialogue and its role in making better social worlds, this book should be a rewarding read.

Author: Center for Intercultural Dialogue

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, the Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue, manages this website.

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