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From the “communicative turn” to the “dialogical turn”

January 12, 2006

A few preliminary thoughts on Rodger’s discussion of the “communicative turn” in international-relations theory.

The “communicative” and “linguistic” turns both occupy a great deal of attention in contemporary constructivist scholarship. One question that immediately arises is whether these are different words for the same underlying sets of arguments. The answer? It depends.

Advocates of the communicative turn share a belief that “words matter” in international politics: that “rhetoric, argument, and debate” profoundly shape international-political processes. Proponents of the linguistic turn argue that language is constitutive of social reality. Linguistic structures, they contend, create the very terms self and other, subject and object, and other relations that give rise to the conditions of possibility for action in world politics.

The relationship between the two “turns” can be represented as a vin diagram. Both imply that language shapes political processes in profound ways. Communicative-turn scholars believe that rhetoric, argument, and debate plays some sort of constitutive role in international relations. Many linguistic-turn scholars embrace a dynamic (rather than static) view of language in which communication generates, reproduces, and transforms intersubjective structures. The point of departure, as François Debrix (2003) suggests, is that some communicative-turn scholars accept a foundationalist ontology and epistemology in which some significant facts about the political world stand outside of language. Most linguistic-turn scholar, however, are either non-foundationalists or post-foundationalists: they do not accord any significant weight to an “external reality” independent of language. In this, the constructivism of the former is closer to that of John Searle, the latter to that of Ludwig Wittengenstein (Pouliot 2004).

It would be fruitful, I suggest, to add a third circle to our vin diagram representing the “dialogical turn” that runs through many different strands of sociology and political science. Scholars working in this tradition conceptualize political and social processes as ongoing dialogues between social sites, whether individuals or collectivities. Politics is an “interactive bargaining process” (te Brake 1998: 7) that involves a broad variety of symbolic and material transactions. Thus, one can embrace the “dialogic turn” without accepting any, or all, of the assumptions of linguistic-turn international-relations theory.

Not all linguistic-turn theory, furthermore, is dialogic: a great deal of discourse analysis, for example, is abstracted from processes of social transaction and fundamentally static. Communicative-turn theory, for its part, may not be fully dialogical in its orientation. Many theories, particularly those found in mainstream “argument” theory, treat actors as “monads” that exist independently from communicative interaction (Morsen and Emerson 1990:50).

My view is that the dialogic turn points us towards some important ways that symbolic exchange influences power in domestic and international politics. In particular, models of communicative power often focus on exchanges between monad. Consider two common mechanisms of communicative or rhetorical power:

• Persuasion: the ability of actors to convince other actors that a particular set of actions are appropriate given a specific context. A gets B, through argument, to internalize a script and thereby makes B more likely to follow that script.
• Discursive entrapment: the ability of actors to coerce other actors by “hoisting them by their own petard.” A gets B, through argument, to conform with a script by forcing B to recognize that failing to do so will expose B to charges of hypocrisy and “loss of face,” “loss of value consistency,” or some other process.

In contrast, dialogical approaches focus our attention on how actors may engage in symbolic exchanges that aim to reconfigure the political relations of their targets and hence shift relative power (access to resources, support, and so forth). I have in mind here “wedge issues” that are used by political parties to force their opponents to “clarify” positions that the latter would rather remain ambiguous. When such strategies succeed, they splinter a target’s coalition (and, in the process, may even alter the boundaries—e.g., the identity—of the target) and thus weaken its political position.

Patrick Jackson and Ron Krebs adopt a broadly dialogical approach in their working paper, “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric” (PDF) [although I wonder if they focus too much on discursive entrapment], and Stacie Goddard just published an article using a dialogic approach to explain the construction of indivisible issues in international politics. Of special note is Janice Bially Mattern’s Ordering Politics: Identity, Crisis and Representational Force. In it, she looks at how “representational force” cemented a set of political relations – the US-UK-French alliance – when it was placed under strain by the Suez Crisis.

I’ll have more to say about this approach, and provide more concrete examples, at some future date. For now, I refer readers back to some of my earlier posts on “multivocality” and Bill’s recent writings on signaling in world politics. Also consider the farcical nature of the Alito hearings and how they relate to the dialogical dynamics of strategic ambiguity, as well as Pierson’s and Hacker’s arguments about one of the ways the Republican majority is able to govern from the right.

I think, furthermore, that dialogical approaches to power and coercion are central to the development of any kind of “realist-constructivist” approach to world politics… but that’s definitely a topic for another time.

Debrix, François (Ed.). 2003. Language, Agency, and Politics in a Constructed World. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Morsen, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. 1990. “Global Concepts: Prosaics, Unfinalizability, Dialogue.” Pp. 15-62 in Mikhal Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, edited by Gary Saul Morsen and Caryl Emerson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Pouliot, Vincent. 2004. “The Essence of Constructivism.” Journal of International Relations and Development 7:319-336.
te Brake, Wayne. 1998. Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500-1700. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.