This PhD research study is concerned with the conditions and effects of intercultural dialogue on its participants and their peers. Through the use of a dialogical action research inquiry it investigates the experiences of participants in a structured and sustained intercultural dialogue process facilitated by the researcher. The participants aimed to identify barriers that inhibited different cultural communities from building relationships with each other, and goals on how to overcome these barriers. In addition to examining the experiences of dialogue participants the study also researches in what ways ideas, frames of interaction and group behaviours developed during the dialogical inquiry and how they affected changes outside the dialogue group within the peer networks and communities of participants. As a dialogical action research project, the study documents action plans and change projects and their implementation through the inquiry group. It hopes to contribute to a better understanding of how dialogue processes and action research can encourage generative social change, reduction of prejudices and building of meaningful and sustainable positive relationships between members of a diverse society.
The action research took place in Brisbane, Australia, and included a group of thirteen people from diverse cultural backgrounds including Indigenous and white settler Australians, migrants from Kenya, South Sudan, Mozambique and refugees from Burma, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. The study is located in a context of contested multiculturalism in Australia and addresses issues of racism, exclusion and a fear of difference. These phenomena are investigated through a conceptual framework based on complex systems science which allows an understanding of discourses of racism and fear of the other as historical narratives perpetuated by social interactions between agents in a social system. These interactions have created a system attractor influencing Australian perceptions of Indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees. The systems theory of social emergence is used to explain how such narratives develop in a complex social system and how a dialogue process can counteract strong attractors to provide relief from the effects of downward causation exhibited by social structure. This theory is used to construct and refine a model of intercultural dialogue that emphasises the importance of dialogic moments and can change behaviours and attitudes within the dialogue group. Through the personal networks of dialogue participants, these changed attitudes were communicated outside the micro-system of the dialogue group and affected peer networks and communities of dialogue participants.
Research data was gathered through an innovative computer-assisted dialogue process, which allowed participants to record, analyse and structure their ideas in text-form. It was complemented by focus groups with dialogue participants and through interviews with people from the peer networks of the dialogue group members. This qualitative data was coded and analysed through the lens of the conceptual framework.
The findings include perceptions of how relationships changed during the dialogical inquiry, how the participants developed better skills at analysing community conflict and at articulating their own and their communities’ needs. The findings also provide examples of how historical narratives can prevent people from participating in dialogue and how they impact on their ideas and views expressed during dialogue. During the inquiry group sessions participants experienced dialogic moments which impacted on them and helped produce collective ideas and frames of interaction. The group developed a number of action plans and project ideas and collaborated to implement some of them. They included increasing participation of community elders at each other’s celebrations and events, distribution of a report of the findings of the dialogical inquiry to government and civil society and working with schools to improve the knowledge of young people about cultural diversity.
The study contends that the most significant impacts within peer networks of participants did not result from these specific action plans but from the way in which participants changed their interactions with people from different cultural backgrounds, and how they reproduced the respectful and friendly relationships that they had developed during the dialogue process with others outside the dialogue. Based on these findings, the thesis argues for more emphasis on relationship-building, personal story sharing and encouragement of dialogic moments over the development of specific and measurable action plans. This allows for a critical discussion of common peacebuilding and community development methodologies which preference outcome-focus over process-focus, and the development of a more concise definition of dialogue that differentiates it from other conflict resolution processes such as mediation and negotiation. It also responds to a common critique of dialogue as being difficult to define and practise by offering an innovative and reproducible dialogue method, based on systems theory which allows for the collection of data as part of the dialogue itself.