Pearce Associates Ecological Research Papers


  1. Businesses have an unrivalled ability to mobilize human, physical and financial capital, often manage large land holdings, and draw on resources and supply products that impact a wide array of ecosystems. Businesses therefore have the potential to make a substantial contribution to arresting declines in biodiversity and ecosystem services. To realize this potential, businesses require support from researchers in applied ecology to inform how they measure and manage their impacts on, and opportunities presented to them by, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

  2. We reviewed papers in leading applied ecology journals to assess the research contribution from existing collaborations involving businesses. We reviewed applications to, and grants funded by, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council for evidence of public investment in such collaborations. To scope opportunities for expanding collaborations with businesses, we conducted workshops with three sectors (mining and quarrying, insurance and manufacturing) in which participants identified exemplar ecological research questions of interest to their sector.

  3. Ten to fifteen per cent of primary research papers in Journal of Applied Ecology and Ecological Applications evidenced business involvement, mostly focusing on traditional rural industries (farming, fisheries and forestry). The review of UK research council funding found that 35% of applications mentioned business engagement, while only 1% of awarded grants met stricter criteria of direct business involvement.

  4. Some questions identified in the workshops aim to reduce costs from businesses’ impacts on the environment and others to allow businesses to exploit new opportunities. Some questions are designed to inform long-term planning undertaken by businesses, but others would have more immediate commercial applications. Finally, some research questions are designed to streamline and make more effective those environmental policies that affect businesses.

  5. Business participants were forward-looking regarding ecological questions and research. For example, representatives from mining and quarrying companies emphasized the need to move beyond biodiversity to consider how ecosystems function, while those from the insurance sector stressed the importance of ecology researchers entering into new types of interdisciplinary collaboration.

  6. Synthesis and applications. Businesses from a variety of sectors demonstrated a clear interest in managing their impacts on, and exploiting opportunities created by, ecosystem services and biodiversity. To achieve this, businesses are asking diverse ecological research questions, but publications in leading applied ecology journals and research council funding reveal limited evidence of direct engagement with businesses. This represents a missed opportunity for ecological research findings to see more widespread application.

Keywords: applied ecology, biodiversity, business, corporate social responsibility, ecosystem function, ecosystem services, insurance, knowledge exchange, manufacturing, mining


The potential contribution of businesses to slowing or reversing losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services is enormous (Rubino 2000; Daily & Ellison 2002; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Business and Industry Synthesis Panel [MEA] 2005). Businesses have an unparalleled ability to move human, physical and financial capital around the globe; own and manage extensive land and resource holdings in some of the most biodiversity rich regions; manage supply chains that draw on and impact a wide array of ecosystems; and take strategic decisions that can influence consumer preferences and shape regional development patterns. Exhortations for businesses to incorporate better stewardship of biodiversity and ecosystem services into their corporate social responsibility (CSR) planning and reporting are commonplace (e.g. Lovins, Lovins & Hawken 1999; Jeurissen & Keijzers 2004). However, the measurement of biodiversity and ecosystem services that this will demand remains a significant scientific challenge. For businesses to devise strategies to protect, restore and enhance ecosystems is a greater challenge still.

We examine how research in applied ecology is helping to meet these scientific challenges and we scope opportunities for growing its contribution. We focus on scientific research activity as opposed to case specific applications of existing ecological knowledge. The distinction is important for understanding our design. Research in applied ecology aims to discover knowledge about ecological patterns and processes that will support new fields of application and new techniques that make such applications possible. As such, the role of the researcher in applied ecology is distinct from that of the environmental consultant, whose remit is to apply existing ecological knowledge to a specific situation. That being said, individuals may sometimes take on either role; individuals primarily employed as environmental consultants make contributions to research and researchers often undertake consultancies.

An extensive literature examines connections between scientific research and businesses and the influence that governments exert on these relationships (e.g. Dasgupta & David 1994; Nowotny, Scott & Gibbons 2003; Inzelt 2004; Etzkowitz 2008; Kruss 2008). The extent and nature of science to business connections varies across disciplines, but past studies do not provide insights specific to applied ecology. For example, Belkhodja & Landry (2007) in Canada and Martinelli, Meyer & von Tunzelmann (2008) in England report on activities in the Life Sciences in general but do not resolve their data further.

We examine peer reviewed publications in leading journals to assess the productivity of existing collaborations between researchers in applied ecology and businesses. We examine applications for research council grants to determine the role of this type of public funding in supporting collaborations. Clearly, peer reviewed journal articles and research council grants provide only two measures of research activity and in the Discussion we consider the limitations of these measures and the suitability of alternative indicators. In the Discussion, we also review the economic theory that justifies public investment in collaborations between businesses and applied ecology researchers.

Next, we explore with businesses from three different sectors the types of research questions in applied ecology that they would find particularly useful. This exercise is designed to identify opportunities for expanding collaborations between businesses and applied ecology researchers, to ground discussions of what new types of collaboration might look like and to provide exemplars of forming questions in a common language for emerging issues. To do this, we draw on the model of recent question design activities conducted with public agencies and NGOs (Sutherland et al. 2006, 2008, 2009; Morton et al. 2009). However, these previous studies failed to engage end-users of ecological research drawn from the business community. Indeed, a key motivation for representatives from businesses to participate in the current question design exercise was because they perceived a need or felt a frustration that they could not access the relevant academic resource and that their priorities for applied ecology research were not being well understood or valued.

Materials and methods

Publication and funding of research engaging with business

To assess the contribution of existing collaborations between researchers in applied ecology and businesses to new knowledge production, we reviewed all primary research papers published in the two leading, international applied ecology journals in 2008 (200 papers from the Journal of Applied Ecology published by the British Ecological Society and 185 papers from Ecological Applications published by the Ecological Society of America). Papers were scored for evidence of private sector involvement in undertaking the research as revealed in the authorship list, methods or acknowledgements. Where there was evidence of business involvement, we classified the type of business and the nature of their involvement by combining the original text with web-based searches for company details. We do not include universities or other private and charitable research institutions in our definition of businesses.

To assess the extent to which government research council grants support collaborations between ecological researchers and businesses, we examined research grants funded by and applications submitted to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK government’s primary funding agency for ecological research. We focused on the full range of NERC grants, including those intended to communicate the results of science to end-user groups. Searches were conducted by NERC staff of their database of around 900 ecology projects funded in the previous 8 years for grants evidencing private sector involvement. To be identified by this search, researchers had to have classified their project’s focus as being ecology (‘population ecology’, ‘community ecology’, ‘behavioural ecology’ or ‘conservation ecology’) from within a specified list of possible topic areas and also had to have reported the specific direct or indirect contribution that a private sector partner would make to the research. To assess whether these search criteria were unduly stringent, the authors worked directly with academic researchers who were members of NERC’s paid peer reviewing community and asked them to score recent grants they had received to review from NERC for evidence of private sector involvement. This second smaller sample of grants included both successful and unsuccessful proposals submitted to all types of funding programme.

Question-design workshops

We ran workshops in February 2009 with three different business sectors. In each workshop, participants first discussed biodiversity and ecosystem service concepts and reviewed business activities in these areas. Participants then developed a list of 9–10 exemplar questions where they felt ecological research could benefit companies within their sector. Opportunities for and obstacles to research collaboration were also discussed.

We chose three contrasting sectors – mining and quarrying, insurance, and manufacturing, engineering and technology – to ensure a diversity of perspectives. The mining and quarrying sector depends on access to raw materials; manufacturing, engineering and technology companies face both up- and downstream supply chain management issues; and insurance companies create the conditions needed to support the investments of all types of businesses. However, each sector was suggested by the survey of publications and grants as having relatively little existing engagement with the ecological research community, despite being very interested in building such collaborations (see below).

Each workshop involved 11–12 participants. Workshops were restricted to this size to facilitate discussion. Five core participants took part in all three workshops, four from the academic research community (authors PRA, BAE, KJG and TH) and one ecological science advisor from a relevant public agency (JH).

Each workshop included representatives from a suite of companies in the relevant sector (one per company). Individuals from participating companies ranged from the Managing Director to environmental managers. Companies were identified based on recommendations from industry bodies, trade associations and public agencies and through the science team’s own informal contact networks. Summary details regarding participating companies are given in Table 1. These companies were mostly multinational organizations with established CSR programmes, although some specialized operators with a particular interest in biodiversity and ecosystem service topics also participated. The companies therefore do not represent a random sample from within their sector. Innovation surveys commonly involve unrepresentative samples (e.g. Inzelt 2004), because of biased response rates. This may not be a problem for our study, because we seek to identify opportunities for new research collaborations and as such, our sample should be drawn from companies that would be interested in joining such collaborations. The greater representation of large companies also makes sense given concentration profiles in most industries (Scherer & Ross 1990).

Table 1

Average size of businesses with representatives in each workshop as measured by financial turnover and number of staff

Each workshop also involved a representative from a related industry body or trade association (the Mineral Products Association, the Lighthill Risk Network, and EEF, the manufacturers’ organization). These individuals provided clarification as to whether the research questions identified would be of interest to other (often smaller) companies from within their sector. Additional representatives from public sector organizations (DEFRA and NERC) participated in some workshops.

Participants were asked to offer personal perspectives in workshop discussions, and their comments may not reflect official positions held by their home organizations. Participants were also offered anonymity for themselves and their employer if appropriate and some chose to remain anonymous; others are included among the authors or recognized in the acknowledgements. Anonymity was offered to satisfy some companies’ corporate policies and to allow an open discussion of research priorities and obstacles to collaboration.

Question selection

Business participants were asked to provide initial suggestions for research questions. Most canvassed colleagues from within their home companies to arrive at these suggestions; those representing professional associations and industry bodies canvassed their member companies more broadly. Some participants preferred to suggest questions in the workshops in person rather than providing them in advance as a written list. In total, more than 80 distinct candidate questions were considered in the workshops.

Workshop participants were asked to select from these initial suggestions and to refine question wordings to arrive at a final list of 9–10 questions they felt offered illustrative examples of where applied ecology research would be of interest to their sector. All questions on the initial lists or suggested in person by business participants were considered for inclusion. Several criteria had to be met for a question to be included on the final lists. First, participants had to agree that a question fell within the purview of applied ecological research – some focused instead on issues such as food safety, climatology or improving the energy efficiency of appliances. Academic and public sector participants played an important role in deciding what questions met this first criterion. Next, a question could only be included if one or more business representatives indicated that research directed towards answering it would be of interest to their company. Of questions meeting this criterion, those garnering support from multiple business participants were given greater priority for inclusion. Academic and public sector participants were permitted to suggest questions but these only went forward if business participants indicated they were as important as others on the list. The primary role of academic and public sector participants was to facilitate discussions and to help codify ideas as research questions. They also helped to identify common themes across the workshops.


Publication and funding of research engaging with business

Of the 385 papers reviewed, 15% showed some evidence of private sector involvement. This drops to 10% if we exclude papers where the only evidence of business involvement concerned an environmental consultancy. Of this 10%, the great majority of companies involved in ecological research are connected either to agriculture, fisheries or forestry (Fig. 1). However, the few studies that involved participation of other sectors, such as retail, power generation and telecommunications reveal greater diversity.

Fig. 1

Percentage of primary research papers published in Journal of Applied Ecology or Ecological Applications in 2008 that show evidence of involvement of businesses from different sectors (excluding private research institutions and consultancies). Some papers...

The most common ways for businesses to contribute to research were by providing access to land, other assistance in the field or funding (4% of all papers for each type of involvement). When collaboration is only at the level of allowing access to land, many collaborative agreements may not be documented in subsequent publications, and so the relevant percentage should be considered an under-estimate. At the same time, where there is only limited evidence of engagement by businesses with the research process (e.g. they provide access to land only), it is unlikely that they see research products as being highly relevant to their operations.

A direct search by NERC staff of their database of around 900 ecology projects funded in the previous 8 years suggested that less than 1% of funded grants had private sector involvement and that the majority of those that did were funded under one of the programmes specifically intended to promote knowledge transfer or exchange with end-users.

In contrast, when NERC’s paid peer reviewers examined a sample of 34 submitted grant proposals (including both successful and unsuccessful proposals), they found that 35% of projects made some mention of the private sector. However, more than half of those that did simply identified businesses among a list of potential beneficiaries of the research without providing any suggested delivery model. The remainder proposed particular research products for business end-users, such as presentations or bespoke reports. Only one grant proposal identified a role for businesses in designing research activities. Importantly, none of these more informal end-user engagement mechanisms would have been identified by NERC using the more restrictive database search criterion described above.

Exemplar research questions from different sectors

Mining and quarrying: Mining and quarrying operations depend on access to land for exploration and production, sometimes in acutely sensitive areas for biodiversity and ecosystem services (Koziell & Omosa 2003). As such, they often own or manage extensive land holdings of ecological interest. These operations produce variable amounts of non-saleable material, which strongly influences the design and characteristics of quarrying restoration. Operations may also draw on ecosystem services during production (e.g. through the use and movement of water). Guidelines for avoiding and minimizing environmental impacts of operations have been developed from industry best practice in consultation with conservation NGOs (ICMM 2006). Key scientific topic areas concern siting and access decisions, avoiding and minimizing on- and off-site impacts, offsetting any residual impacts with offsite improvements in habitat quality (see Kiesecker et al. 2009 for a related example), and progressively restoring sites as phased mineral extraction is completed (Brady & Noske 2009). Restored mines and quarries often provide valuable habitat for many species and have the potential to supply important ecosystem services (e.g. carbon sequestration, flood storage, recreation) that, in some cases, are more highly valued than the pre-operation land use.

Participants in the mining workshop included representatives from companies with a strong national and international presence focused on the extraction of industrial minerals and aggregates, as well as a professional association representing a sizeable element of the sector in the UK. The exemplar questions identified by these participants were:

  1. How do we harmonize ongoing and future planning for biodiversity and ecosystem function with the release of mineral reserves?

  2. How do we identify locally and regionally appropriate habitats to restore that will maintain their ecosystem health in the long term in the face of global environmental change?

  3. How can we identify ecosystems that are capable of contributing to socioeconomic outputs (for example, through biomass production or supporting sustainable tourism) in addition to ecological function?

  4. What are the components of a robust decision matrix that reconciles different (ecological, social and economic) priorities for restoration and post-mining reuse?

  5. What is the potential role of restored ecosystems, surface waters, land covers and soils in carbon sequestration, climate regulation and climate change adaptation?

  6. How do we define and measure ‘success’ of restoration efforts in terms of restoring ecosystem function?

  7. What are the most cost-effective ecological management methodologies for restoration and post-restoration management of ecosystem function?

  8. How long does it take to restore a site to a functioning ecosystem as evidenced, for example, by comparison with semi-natural reference sites?

  9. What is required by way of ongoing management and monitoring of restored sites?

  10. Where are the overlaps and tensions in biodiversity and broader environmental policies, and can we streamline these policies to ensure greater policy effectiveness at lower regulatory cost?

Site access was identified as providing a possible impediment to expanding research collaborations with the sector. Participants felt businesses would have concerns about allowing field teams access to sites with resources or reserves if there was a risk that the researchers’ findings could lead to additional land use constraints. For example, would restrictions on future operations follow if researchers comparing restoration techniques on one part of a site happened across a rare species on a different part of the site? Participants suggested that the prospects for future collaborations would improve if agreements could be put in place that ensured that voluntary participation in a research collaboration would not place businesses at risk from future land use restrictions as a result of the site-specific (as opposed to generalizable) findings of the research study.

Insurance: A functional insurance market is needed to enable the investments that allow other types of business to operate. The insurance sector contains a wide diversity of companies ranging from those that are risk bearing, including both primary insurers and reinsurers, to specialist companies involved in modelling and understanding risk or providing customer support. Risk identification and quantification is an important preliminary to an insurer’s decision on whether, and / or where to provide cover and at what price. Measurement of risks is typically based on a combination of observed historical losses and physically or statistically-based models; it needs to include a measurement of the potential frequency and intensity of those losses. This assessment requires an understanding of the hazard, the exposed assets at risk and their vulnerability to the behaviour of the hazard at a given location, normally expressed in terms of some form of monetary loss potential. The need for diversification of risk requires exposures to be distributed sufficiently independently across a portfolio of places and/or insured activities in relation to the hazards being considered.

The pace of environmental change presents particular challenges to insurers, because of the emergence of novel environmental risks, such as those caused by the changing climate (Mills 2009), emerging diseases, new pollutants, and invasive species. New environmental regulations themselves bring new risks and liabilities to businesses that must be insured. For example, the EU Environmental Liabilities Directive (EU 2004) allows businesses to be held financially responsible for damages that arise from their operations to land and water resources and to species and habitats of conservation concern. Specialist insurance companies already provide insurance cover for well-commoditised ecosystem goods and services, such as agricultural and timber products. Some leading companies are looking beyond these products to assess whether new types of insurance are needed to support investments in emerging ecological commodities (Pearce 2002), such as carbon offsets, biodiversity offsets or benefit flows from ecosystem services.

Participants in the insurance workshop included representatives from insurers, re-insurers, global insurance intermediaries, research groups focussed on insurance risk assessment, and an NGO focused on promoting dialogue between the insurance sector and academic researchers. Exemplar questions identified by participants to illustrate where additional ecological research would help the industry were:

  1. What earth observation data are available to generate better estimates of insurance risks, and can we do more to translate these data from their existing environmental science applications to this context? For example, the industry currently relies on spot loss data when looking to insure against forestry losses. Can we estimate more accurate risk profiles for forestry projects on a global scale by integrating spatially resolved satellite data on burn scars?

  2. How does vegetation (including species, age and other characteristics of individual trees) change subsidence risk for buildings and can we capture that in risk modelling?

  3. Where can we make better use of long-term ecological records (e.g. peat cores, sediment records, tree rings, historical documents) to identify levels of baseline variability and non-stationarity in time series of potential environmental risks and hazards and can we use these records to make causal association with past events?

  4. How do we map, model and attribute the contaminant sources that might spread in a flooding event? Can we identify better land use or management measures to mitigate such possible spread?

  5. How can we quantify the uncertainty in value estimates of ecosystem services or biodiversity losses associated with a catastrophic event in a way that reflects spatial and temporal variation in the underlying ecological mechanisms and ecosystem functions that support these?

  6. When do land use and habitat changes adjacent to urban areas increase fire, flood or other risks through contagion effects?

  7. What data are available from ecological mitigation projects (e.g. for habitat creation, carbon sequestration or water purification) that could be used to create a risk profile (frequency, severity and cause of losses) for such projects? In the absence of such data, what other means can be used to develop such a risk profile?

  8. How have land use and climate change altered the risks of latent disease, e.g. through changing the rate of human contact with disease reservoirs in other species?

  9. How do we attribute sources of contamination from accidental release of genetically modified organisms and model their potential spatial transfer and long-term impacts?

More generally, the need for horizon scanning exercises that combine expertise from the ecological research community with industry representatives to identify emerging ecological risks was highlighted. Participants also stressed the need for ecological researchers to engage in new types of interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, collaborations between researchers in ecology and legal scholars are needed to determine when ecological evidence will be sufficient to attribute liability in a court of law.

Manufacturing, engineering and technology: With evolving regulations, societal preferences and the corporate social responsibility agenda, manufacturing companies are increasingly looking for ways to identify and address the broader environmental impacts of their products and operations. This requires consideration of where inputs and materials are sourced and what impacts are involved in supplying them, what processes are involved in production and what is the likely fate of products after they have fulfilled their useful life. This can be particularly challenging when developing new technologies for which the potential long-term environmental impacts may be poorly understood.

Participants in the workshop with manufacturing, engineering and technology companies included major multinational companies heavily invested in the development of new technologies as well as a related business association. The exemplar questions identified were:

  1. How can we trace and capitalize better upon the contribution ecosystems make to product value (e.g. through access to quality raw materials and processes at low cost)? For example, with what accuracy can we assess the contribution of upstream habitats to improving the supply of freshwater to semiconductor plants where large quantities of clean water are needed in chip production?

  2. In evaluating the long-term impacts of future products, how can we factor in impacts on the environment more broadly to include biodiversity and ecosystem services? For example, when working with businesses designing technologies for the tidal renewables industry, with what degree of confidence can we predict the impacts that new products will have on marine ecosystems and biodiversity?

  3. How can we design or adapt spatial planning tools for ecosystem services and biodiversity so that they can support facility location, design and operation choices that will maximize benefits to operations from the environment, while minimizing environmental impacts or even making net environmental gains?

  4. To what extent can we ameliorate environmental impacts of products through choices over where and when they are deployed given variation in ecosystem dynamics and variation in the vulnerability of ecosystems? For example, can we account better for spatial and temporal variation in air pollution vulnerability across ecosystems when evaluating product performance?

  5. Can we forecast future supplies of raw materials (including water, land, and energy supplies, as well as metal and mineral resources) taking into consideration the trade-offs that must be confronted when extracting those materials with impacts on other environmental goods and services?

  6. How can a consideration of ecosystem goods and services help inform planning for secure and sustainable supply chains in the face of a changing climate, changing societal preferences regarding the environment, etc.?

  7. How do we factor ecosystem impacts into life cycle analysis and footprinting techniques for current products and new substitutes (e.g. oil palm)? Do current metrics adequately capture the full breadth of ecosystem impacts? What other metrics are needed to capture those?

  8. How can businesses capitalize on the well-being benefits provided to existing employees and local communities by ecosystems and the environment (including air quality, biodiversity, and access to ecosystem services) and also use these to achieve competitive advantage in recruitment?

  9. How can we develop a low-cost, rapid assessment approach to enable more businesses to capitalize on the opportunities provided to them by ecosystem services and to engage with environmental reporting and environmental risk and opportunity management?

In the more general discussion, participants noted that the list of research questions might look different if repeating the exercise with companies from other manufacturing sectors or small and medium sized enterprises.


Businesses will make new scientific demands of researchers in applied ecology as they seek to exploit new opportunities presented by biodiversity and ecosystem services and to grow their contribution to efforts to manage human impacts on the natural world. We used peer reviewed publications to provide one measure of how researchers in applied ecology were currently meeting such demands, applications for research grants to infer the role government research councils play in funding such collaborations, and workshop activities with businesses from three different sectors to scope opportunities for expanding collaborations.

Of the surveyed papers, only 10–15% evidenced business involvement. These collaborations were dominated by traditional rural industries with which applied ecology research has had a long association (agriculture, fisheries and forestry). Moreover, the nature of these collaborations (e.g. land access) often did not suggest a strong engagement of businesses with the research process. This survey of journal publications suggests that new knowledge production derived from existing collaborations between applied ecology researchers and businesses is limited.

Publications provide the most commonly used metric of research productivity in science - the ‘fundamental currency’ as one author put it (Kennedy 1997, pp. 186). However, collaborations between researchers and businesses take many forms and whatever indicators one uses to measure them, some collaborative activities are likely to be missed. For example, we could instead have measured contract research activity, but contract research represents a particularly advanced type of business-research interaction (Inzelt 2004) and this measure would miss many other types of interaction (Martinelli, Meyer & von Tunzelmann 2008). One particular concern about using a publication-based metric is that those who produce knowledge that is of greatest interest to businesses will look to appropriate that knowledge through patents instead of publishing it. However, the available evidence suggests to the contrary that researchers responsible for most patents tend to be the most prolific publishers of research findings (Van Looy, Callaert & Debackere 2006). Furthermore, biodiversity and ecosystem services are partly public goods and financial benefits from patenting many ecological research findings will be limited. A second concern is that much reporting of the results of business-research collaborations in applied ecology happens through other outlets, including industry and NGO publications and websites (e.g. International Council on Mining and Metals [ICMM] 2006;; Such outlets communicate research findings to the business community in ways that scientific journals cannot. Indeed, workshop participants commented that publication of results in subscription-only journals impedes engagement with the business community. We would welcome further attempts to quantify the productivity of collaborations between businesses and the ecological research community by monitoring non-peer reviewed outputs. At present, we are aware of no alternative estimates of the extent of collaborations between businesses and researchers in applied ecology to compare with those that we present.

We examined grants submitted to a UK science funding agency as an example of how governments support efforts to engage businesses in applied ecology research. These were responsive mode grants (researchers were free to choose the research topic area) and included proposals for programmes specifically designed to engage end-users with research. We found similar issues regarding how collaborative research activity is measured and reported. The funding agency’s own database indicates very limited research activity involving the private sector (< 1% of grants). However, this probably reflects rather stringent criteria for research to qualify as engaging with businesses in some way, because a direct examination of a smaller sample of research grants submitted to the same funding agency revealed a higher percentage of researchers gave some thought to potential business end-users of research. However, most proposals lacked clear plans for how the researchers would engage with or communicate results to relevant businesses.

Two economic benefits to society justify public investment in research when considering goods that fall partly outside the market economy (Fischer 2008), like many ecosystem services. First, because knowledge itself has public good properties, private research investment alone would lead to less investment in research than would be socially desirable (Arrow 1962). Second, even in the hypothetical situation where knowledge externalities could be overcome, it would still be worth society investing in such research, because private innovators could not appropriate the social benefits derived from environmental goods. Public investments that promote science-business collaborations includes research grants to scientists, but also tax breaks for businesses’ investments in research and development (Inzelt 2004) and support for intermediaries that aid communication between the two communities (Howells 2006). A fuller accounting of public investment in collaborations between applied ecology researchers and businesses would also account for these latter two mechanisms.

We ran workshops with businesses from three different sectors to explore the types of ecological research questions that businesses would find useful. Unlike previous studies (Sutherland et al. 2006, 2008, 2009; Morton et al. 2009), we do not claim the lists present the most important research questions for each sector. Rather participants were charged to identify questions that could serve as exemplars to communicate to researchers in ecology how their science could be useful to businesses. Full prioritization of the questions would require exhaustive canvassing of businesses. However, the nascent nature of discussions between ecological researchers and businesses means that any such attempt probably would have suffered from communication problems and low response rates and, as a result, would have failed to obtain the representative samples needed. This project was conducted during an acute economic downturn, meaning the inevitable bias towards businesses that are the ‘best in class’ on biodiversity and ecosystem service issues would only have been accentuated. Despite these shortcomings, we believe that the question lists that we were able to produce provide some insights into the types of ecological research topic businesses would find useful.

The questions demonstrated considerable interest in the business community about biodiversity and ecosystem services. The diversity of questions reflects our decision to target three very different sectors, although some common questions are apparent between sectors (e.g. Q1, Q24). A number of the questions are concerned with managing costs arising from the impacts of business operations on ecosystems (e.g. Q7, Q23), while others would help businesses exploit new opportunities that arise from biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g. Q17, Q27). Some questions are targeted towards helping businesses to plan for the long-term (e.g. Q21), while the answers to other questions would lend themselves to more immediate commercial applications (e.g. Q12). If successful collaborations are to develop, the ecological research community needs to develop a better understanding of these and other motivations of businesses.

Questions related to ecosystem services are common in the lists. Discussions regarding the importance of, and opportunities provided by, ecosystem services are often more interesting to businesses than discussions of the need to conserve biodiversity for its own sake (MEA 2005; Armsworth et al. 2007). For example, in the workshop focused on the research needs of mining and quarrying companies, there was clear agreement among business participants that priority research needs for the sector should move beyond biodiversity to look at how ecosystems function and the delivery of ecosystem services. Interestingly, this was because the business representatives already felt their companies had well-established programmes in place for managing their impacts on biodiversity and felt that the knowledge base within the industry about how to restore land for biodiversity was, on the whole, reasonably well-advanced. However, there were strong appeals for hands-on techniques for restoring, monitoring and managing sites in a way that takes into account the need to support ecosystem functions and ecosystem services.

As with previous question design exercises (Sutherland et al. 2006, 2008, 2009; Morton et al. 2009), the final question list was influenced by interpretations of definitions. We decided some questions showed too little connection to applied ecology for inclusion; yet we included questions regarding ecosystem services, despite their interdisciplinarity. Indeed, business participants were in agreement across all three workshops that research would need to become more interdisciplinary to see greater uptake by the business community. Other definitional issues also influenced the question lists. In workshop discussions, business participants sometimes struggled to distinguish between the conservation movement in general, regulatory agencies and the ecological research community. This confusion may reflect the fact that one important role ecological science has to play is in enabling and supporting conversations between businesses and regulators or between businesses and the wider conservation community. For example, some research questions suggested by businesses were directed towards streamlining policies and improving policy effectiveness both in general (e.g. Q10) and specifically through changes to land use planning (e.g. Q4, Q14). Business participants also highlighted a role for more direct public funding in carrying forward research ideas to application by supporting the delivery and longer term management of biodiversity benefits and ecosystem services.

A common theme across the discussions was that the data needed to answer many key questions may already be held within the science community or within the business sectors themselves. For example, participants in the mining and quarrying discussion felt that much could be learned from meta-analyses that look for common trends across the many Environmental Impact Assessments published by the industry. In the discussions with the insurers, participants often felt that the required ecological data already existed but were not being communicated to this constituency or analysed in the most useful ways.

The long time delay between when research activities are initiated and when they deliver results proved an impediment to discussions with some businesses. These businesses were focused on current CSR challenges associated with reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and struggled to forecast the ecological research they would be likely to need in 5–10 years time. Others remarked that the existing time-scales involved in bringing academic research to fruition were not compatible with the rate of turnover of staff in many businesses in light of reorganizations, mergers, closures, etc. That being said, some participants (e.g. all of those associated with mining and quarrying) did not consider the slow rate of progress that accompanies academic research an impediment to collaborations, because their companies’ business plans already operate over decadal time-scales.


In light of the potential for the business community to contribute to efforts to stem the loss of biodiversity and ensure better management of ecosystem services, the dialogue between conservation groups and business has shifted from one of opposition towards one of partnerships (Rose 2000). Research in applied ecology has a critical role to play in allowing partnerships like this to grow and succeed. However, publications in leading journals and grant applications to a relevant research council reveal only limited collaborations between researchers in applied ecology and businesses, collaborations that rarely look outside the traditional constituencies of farming, forestry and fisheries. Applied ecological research will enjoy much greater application if it also tries to connect with other business sectors. Discussions with three very different sectors make clear that there are rich veins of scientific inquiry that would shed light on fundamental ecological processes while also having important implications for businesses.


This work was supported as part of the UK Population Biology Network (UKPopNet) and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (Agreement R8-H12-01) and Natural England. We thank the Lighthill Risk Network; the Mineral Products Association; DEFRA; the Willis Research Network; Willis Analytics; businesses and business representatives who participated in the workshops but chose to remain anonymous; businesses that suggested research questions for the workshops; NERC staff and peer review college members for help reviewing ecology grant applications and three anonymous referees for suggestions to improve the paper.


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Taking a Communication Perspective On Dialogue

W. Barnett Pearce and Kimberly A. Pearce

In Anderson, R., Baxter, L. A., & Cissna, K. N., Eds. (2003). Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 39-56.

The virtues of dialogue have been hailed in a variety of social contexts, including management, conflict resolution, community-building, interpersonal relations, and personal development (see, e.g., Chasen, Herzig, Roth, Chasin, Becker, & Stains, 1996; Dixon, 1996; Saunders, 1999; Yankelovich, 1999). Since most of these persons are not connected with our home academic discipline, we are glad that communication scholars have accepted the challenge of exploring the implications of society’s new experience with dialogue for understanding and practicing communication. However, our interest also runs in what we might call the other direction. In addition to asking what dialogue has to offer communication, we wonder what communication theory and research might offer for understanding and practicing dialogue.

Until recently, the disciplinary study of communication has apparently had little impact on the development of thought and practice of dialogue. To the best of our knowledge, none of the seminal figures in dialogue formally studied communication and none based their thinking about dialogue on theories of communication. For example, although the first chapter of David Bohm’s (1996) On Dialogue is titled “Communication,” the short (four page) treatment shows no connection to the scholarly work done by the academic discipline of communication. Martin Buber’s (1958) work was grounded in his philosophical investigations of the qualities of different forms of interpersonal relationships. Mikhael Bakhtin’s concept of dialogue emerged from a preoccupation with language and literature from the perspective that “No word can be taken back, but the final word has not yet been spoken and never will be spoken” (Morson & Emerson, 1990, p. 52). In a similar manner, most practitioner organizations that focus on dialogue ground their work on sources other than communication theory and research. For example, the Public Conversations Project applies concepts from family therapy to the public discourse (Chasin, et al., 1996); the National Issues Forums grounds their work on classical models of deliberation (Mathews, 1994, pp. 111-116); and Study Circles (2002) develop their practices on concepts of participatory democracy.

Although these thinkers and practitioners have somehow managed to overcome the handicap of not knowing communication theory and research (please read the preceding phrase as written with an ironic chuckle), we wonder how their thinking about dialogue might have differed if they had been acquainted with a robust theory or two of communication. Our curiosity is intensified because we realize that our own work as dialogic practitioners has distinctive elements that, for good or ill, result from our involvement with a particular theory of communication. In this chapter, we describe the ways this theory has informed our work, seeing this as a first step in exploring the potential for enriching dialogic practice from the basis of communication theory.

We are scholar-practitioners, deliberately working as “practical theorists” (Cronen, 2001) in which theory and practice are fully integrated. As theorists, we have been involved in the development of the theory of the “coordinated management of meaning” or “CMM” (Pearce, 1999; Pearce & Pearce, 2000); as practitioners, we are founding members of the Public Dialogue Consortium ( and Pearce Associates ( The PDC is a nonprofit organization intending to improve the quality of public communication about public issues (Spano, 2001, pp. 29-36), and Pearce Associates is a consulting firm specializing in dialogic communication.

Dialogue from the Perspective of CMM

We use four key CMM concepts to explore dialogue: the communication perspective, coherence, coordination, and mystery. The most basic of these is the knack of looking “at” communication, not “through it” to things that are thought to be more real or substantial. We call this “the communication perspective.”

“The Communication Perspective”

The communication perspective names an insight that Richard McKeon (1957) described in this way: “Communication does not signify a problem newly discovered in our time, but a fashion of thinking and a method of analyzing which we apply in the statement of all fundamental problems” (p. 89). Note that the “communication perspective” is a non-totalizing perspective. It proposes that we see events and objects as textures of communication; it does not make the “nothing-but” argument that events and objects are only patterns of communication.

Taking the communication perspective involves three steps. The first step consists of seeing organizations, families, persons, and nations as deeply textured clusters of persons-in-conversation. A family can be seen as constituted by the conversations that it permits and those that it does not, and by the persons whom it allows to participate in certain conversations. The structure of the family is changed if, for example, the children are included into conversations that they have previously been excluded from, or if events or some outside person initiates a conversation unlike that those which currently constitute the family (Cronen & Pearce, 1985; Stone, Patton & Heen, 1999). In a similar way, organizations can be seen as clusters of conversations and managers as orchestrating conversations rather than embodying information or power. Matters of efficiency, morale, productivity, and conflict can be handled by attention to what conversations occur, where, with what participants, in what type of language, and about what topics (Barrett, 1998; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2002; Kegan & Lahey, 2001). Much of the work of the Public Dialogue Consortium consists of starting conversations and shaping them. That is, we bring people into conversations who would ordinarily not talk to each other or, if they did, would talk at rather than with each other, and we facilitate the development of certain qualities of conversation in contexts where these qualities do not ordinarily occur. By focusing on the form of communication with principled disinterest in the topic and neutrality toward “positions” about those topics, we have been able to bring about significant change in the social worlds of participants (Spano, 2001).

The second step in the communication perspective is the realization that communication is substantial and that its properties have consequences. Tannen (1999) noted that public discourse in America is dominated by adversarial forms of communication. While not denying the value and situational virtue of standing against that which one does not support, she calls into question the preference for:

using opposition to accomplish every goal, even those that do not require fighting but might also (or better) be accomplished by other means, such as exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and the exchanging of ideas suggested by the word “dialogue.” I am questioning the assumption that everything is a matter of polarized opposites, the proverbial “two sides to every question” that we think embodies open-mindedness and expansive thinking.” (p. 8)

Some consequences of this quality of public discourse include simplifying complex issues (into just two sides); eliminating possibilities for creative solutions not prefigured in the positions initially proposed; creating animosities and enemies who sometimes are more concerned with “winning” the contest with the other than to implement the best policies; and driving from the public sphere those who do not relish no-holds-barred combat.

When comparing our ways of thinking about dialogue with others, it is perhaps significant that we usually work with groups who already see each other as enemies or opponents and have an established pattern of animosity and conflict. When we bring these persons and groups together, we note the importance of such “minor” matters as how a question is phrased, whether a statement is followed by a counter-statement or a question, nuances of timing and tones of voice, and the pattern of who responds to whom..

Communication is not a neutral vehicle by which an external reality is communicated about, and by which factors of psychology, social structure, cultural norms, and the like are transmitted or are influential. The communication process: (a) exerts a role in the personal identities and self-concepts experienced by persons; (b) shapes the range of permissible and impermissible relationships between persons, and so produces a social structure; and (c) represents the process through which cultural values, beliefs, goals, and the like are formulated and lived. (Sigman, 1995, p. 2)

Because communication is both material and consequential, rather than ask “what is it about?” we ought at least also to ask, “how is it possible for a turn of phrase (or other behavior) to emerge during interaction and to shape, in an unplanned-for manner, ensuing behavioral production?” (Sigman, 1995, p. 4).

The third step in the communication perspective consists of treating such things as beliefs, personalities, attitudes, power relationships, and social and economic structures as made, not found. From this perspective, they are seen as constituted in patterns of reciprocated communicative action (Pearce, 1989, pp. 3-31). The term “constituted” stands in the place of other verbs that connote different and, we believe, less useful concepts -- forms of the verb “to be,” for instance, describe things as static and direct our attention to what they are made of and to their causes or effects. On the other hand, the term “constitute” directs our attention to how the events and objects of our social world are made.

For example, many people had asked what the carved stone heads on Easter Island meant, and suggested that they were evidence of Egyptian seafarers or monuments to aliens from space. At least as described in his own account of the events, Thor Heyerdahl (1960) employed a different method that generated very different results. He asked a native of the island if he could make one of the megalithic statues. When told that he could, Heyerdahl hired him to do so and filmed the process from beginning to end. Not only a clever way of outflanking interminable arguments among armchair pundits, what we like to call the “Heyerdahl solution” involves a major philosophical shift: describing the processes by which things are made rather than analyzing the final product.

In many ways, the “communication perspective” simply consists of applying the “Heyerdahl Solution” to such things as arguments, political policies, and interpersonal relationships. Like Heyerdahl, we shift from asking about what they “are” and begin to look at how they are “made” (Pearce, 1994, pp. 66-70).

The more traditional way of thinking about communication describes messages as expressing meanings or referring to events and objects. Taking the communication perspective, we speak rather of meanings, personalities, acts, institutions, etc. as being constituted in communication, and of specific messages as responding to and eliciting other messages. Penman (2000) described her adoption of the communication perspective this way:

I first began …with a seemingly innocent and obvious question: “What makes a good relationship?” It soon became apparent, at least to me, that this question needed to be reworded to “What makes a good communication process?” Communication is the observable practice of a relationship, and so it was to the actual process of communicating that I had to attend.” (p. 1)

Although everyone acknowledges that dialogue has something to do with communication, many treatments look “through” communication to see something else that is considered more real or important. We are experimenting with the idea of radically foregrounding communication – what people actually say and do in specific contexts – to an extent that, we think, extends beyond others who are at the cutting edge of this field. When we read Isaacs (1999), we get the impression that “suspending assumptions” is the foregrounded aspect of dialogue, and that what people actually do and say is a means to that end. Gergen, McNamee and Barrett (2001) and Cissna and Anderson (1998) pay considerable attention to the give-and-take of communication, but, again, we get the impression that communication is understood in service to developing something else, such as “transcendent vocabularies” on which people may draw or the quality of interpersonal relationships. With deep respect to these theorists, we are still curious about what would happen if we were to follow more radically Penman’s (2000, p. 1) lead and think of “the actual process of communicating” as constituting dialogue.

The practitioners whose work we have studied distinguish among dialogue, discussion, diatribe, and debate, noting that these forms of communication lead to substantially different outcomes (e.g., Chasin et al., 1996; Tannen, 1999). Like them, we believe that forms of communication are material, calling forth different ways of being in the participants and providing different affordances and constraints. Dixon (1996) described dialogue as:

Talk -- a special kind of talk – that affirms the person-to-person relationship between discussants and which acknowledges their collective right and intellectual capacity to make sense of the world. Therefore, it is not talk that is “one way,” such as a sales pitch, a directive, or lecture; rather it involves mutuality and jointness. (p. 24)

Listening for understanding (rather than to find the flaw in the other’s position) is easy when communicating dialogically but difficult in the reciprocated diatribe of a political campaign; expressing one’s own commitments without eliciting an attack or being dismissed is possible when communicating dialogically but is virtually impossible when debating. Emotion, passion, confrontation, and challenge occur within dialogue, just as they do within other forms of communication (Pearce, 1995), but do so “within bounds that affirm the legitimacy of others’ perspectives” (Dixon, 1996, p. 24), and these “bounds” enable very different things to be done with these emotions and in these relationships.

Taking a communication perspective, we want to go further than differentiate dialogue from non-dialogic forms of communication. Relevant questions include “how is dialogue made in communication?” and “what is made by dialogic communication?” (Kearney, 2002; Pearce, 1989, pp. 23-31). In the following paragraphs, we describe how these questions have directed our inquiry.

We noted that various practitioners use the term “dialogue” differently, both in terms of what they refer to as “dialogue” and in the grammars they use when talking about it. Here are two examples of grammar that fell heavily on our ears. A consultant coming to our area offered to “do a dialogue” for a client organization, pro bono. What is “dialogue” that one person can “do” it for another, even if pro bono? A participant in an online forum about the use of dialogue in organizational development, after acknowledging what had been said in the previous posting, described herself as “wondering why…” and then added, as a parenthetical comment, “(Sorry if this inquiry sounds indirect but I was trying to ask the question dialogically rather than as a direct question…)”. Is a “direct question” incompatible with “dialogue”? Is it impossible to ask “direct questions” dialogically? We think that there are clouds of philosophy in drops of grammar, and that these patterns of speech constitute different ideas about dialogue.

To explore these differences, we analyzed transcripts of conversations that the participants named as dialogues (Pearce & Pearce, 2000). We recognize that each transcript underrepresents the complexity, overrepresents the coherence, and misrepresents the fluidity of the grammar of practice of which it is a part. However, our study identified two traditions of practice with subtle but perhaps important differences in their concepts of dialogue.

One tradition uses “dialogue” as a noun naming a type of communication that is different from others. These practitioners work to create a stable “container” in which participants can engage in dialogue. They often describe dialogue as having no agenda or specific purpose other than “thinking together.” In our observations, the form of communication within this container consists of the serial repetition of a single speech act with three parts. The speaker first acknowledges the preceding statement, perhaps by paraphrasing or expressing thanks for the contribution; performs a segue such as “that makes me think of;” and then states what she or he is currently thinking. The speech act is performed well when spoken “to the center of the room” and avoiding “interpersonal dynamics” (Isaacs, 1994, p. 380). Following these rules, it makes sense to offer “to do a dialogue for you,” and asking a direct question is out-of-bounds because it risks “falling out of dialogue” and into interpersonal dynamics.

This tradition of practice has been widely used in corporate America and there are several professional consulting groups who offer training and facilitations (e.g., Dialogue Group, 2002). Those experienced in it claim that this kind of dialogue makes it possible for groups to think in a particularly useful way:

Dialogue transforms the quality of tacit thinking that underlies all interactions. It thereby adds to these practices an in-the-moment insight and reflective quality that transcends the mechanical application of theories. In dialogue, people interact in a way that “suspends” habitual thought and action. They become free to engage in inquiry, about both the quality of interpersonal reasoning, and the nature of the underlying shared ground of meaning in which they interact. Even in high-stakes situations, percussive conflict is replaced with breakthroughs in collaborative inventiveness. (DIA•logos, 2001)

We identify with a different set of practitioners, who use “dialogic” as an adjective or adverb describing a distinctive quality of communication in which any speech act can be performed. Rather the naming some forms of communication as “dialogue” and contrasting it with other forms, such as “discussion,” “debate” or “monologue”, these practitioners refer to a distinctive quality of “dialogic communication” or “communicating dialogically” which can be done in any form of communication. When communicating dialogically, one can listen, ask direct questions, present one’s ideas, argue, debate, etc. (Pearce, 1995). The defining characteristic of dialogic communication is that all of these speech acts are done in ways that hold one’s own position but allow others space to hold theirs, and are profoundly open to hearing others’ positions without needing to oppose or assimilate them. When communicating dialogically, participants often have important agendas and purposes, but make them inseparable from their relationship in the moment with others who have equally strong but perhaps conflicting agendas and purposes.

The dialogic quality of speech acts is often achieved by verbal or nonverbal metacommunication (e.g., “my story about this…which might be different from yours…is that…”), the help of a facilitator, and/or the careful design of meetings. Dialogue happens in what Cissna and Anderson (1998) call “moments of meeting” in which people respond to others as “Thou” rather than “it,” using Martin Buber’s (1958, p. 4) terms, and find themselves transformed because the “I” of “I-thou” is not the same as the “I” of “I-it.” Such moments cannot be made to happen or delivered on schedule as a package: “dialogue thrives at the margins of human agency—those ill-defined situations in which we imagine we are somewhat in control but in which our plans surprisingly can blend into the unexpected…. Dialogue, which cannot be mandated, rarely happens accidentally either” (Anderson, Cissna, & Arnett, 1994, p. xxi). However, if we attend to the quality of what people actually say and do in communicating with each other, then we think we have a better idea of how to invite and prepare the conditions for these moments to occur.

Practitioners in this second tradition tend to work in public or community contexts, often with people who are deeply committed to opposing political or social positions. Exemplary organizations include the Public Conversations Project (2002), Study Circles (2002), and the Public Dialogue Consortium (2002). Among these groups, the PDC’s work is distinctive in that our work is explicitly based on communication theory and our practice includes members of the public discussing community issues in public meetings. Since we do not know who will attend until they arrive at the door, our ability to select and work with participants before the meetings is limited. This circumstance makes us stress careful design of these meetings and the use of trained facilitators. We spend a good bit of time training community members to facilitate conversations among their peers about issues they perceive as very important.

Hundreds of people, including middle school children, adult professionals, and seniors, have participated in trainings to learn to facilitate dialogic communication. The normal profile of participants in our training is a group of 20-30 volunteers representing a cross-section of the community in which we are working. In our opinion, there is a “turning point” in the learning curve of most participants, occurring much sooner for some than for others, when they “get” what we are trying to teach. They begin to respond to novel situations in ways consistent with the grammar of dialogic communication and act with a high degree of self-confidence. We believe that this happens when they put together two concepts: the “communication perspective,” which focuses on communication itself, and the characteristics of “dialogic communication,” as the specific, desired quality of communication. In our workshops, we describe dialogic communication as remaining in the tension between standing your own ground and being profoundly open to the other.

The challenge in our work as practitioners is facilitating people not necessarily interested in it to engage in this quality of communication in situations that are not conducive to it. Our attempts to achieve this objective are grounded in concepts from CMM: coherence, coordination, and mystery.

Coherence: Making Meaning Together

When CMM was introduced in the late 1970s, the claim that stories were integral to human life was far more controversial than it is now (see Bruner, 1992). Like many other theories, CMM assumes that these meanings take the form of stories. It sees persons as storytellers, attempting to ensconce both the extraordinary and quotidian aspects of our lives within stories that make them coherent. The stories we tell are fateful; they guide and direct the way we feel, think, and act. It is not too much to say that “human beings [are] storytellers, at once immersed in linguistic webs that they did not spin and busily weaving webs in which to immerse [themselves and] others. Whether these ‘webs’ are imprisoning snares or enabling scaffolds, is, of course, a matter of opinion” (Pearce, 1989, p. 68).

The term “coherence” is used to designate human activity as meaning-making; not as a judgment about the success of that process. As all researchers who have studied transcripts of actual conversations know, people seldom say all that they expect other people to hear them as having said, and sometimes say something quite different from what they expect to be heard as having said, but usually treat others as if they are responding to what they intended to be heard as having said. Our first clue for this insight came from analysis of ordinary conversation (Pearce & Conklin, 1979) and was supported by our studies of the desiccated discourse in intractable conflicts (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997).

Based on these findings, what we call “enriching the conversation” (Pearce, 2002; Pearce & Pearce, 2001) is a key step in our work as dialogic practitioners. Facilitators are taught to treat any statement as an anecdote rather than a complete story, and to ask questions inviting the speaker to describe the fuller story, to move among first and third-person perspectives in telling the story, to probe for untold and unheard stories, to explore the differences between stories lived and stories told, and to bring in other voices to tell the story more systemically (for a description of these “ways of working,” see Pearce, 2002; Spano, 2001, pp. 36-44). When we are able to create a situation in which participants feel respected and confident that their interests will be protected, they often welcome the opportunity to speak more fully than usual about the things that matter most to them, and in this process, both they and those listening to them discover new richness in their stories and find openings to move forward together.

CMM’s “hierarchy model of actors’ meanings” (Pearce, Cronen, & Conklin, 1979) is a useful tool for enriching conversations and for understanding the complex role of those who facilitate dialogue. Building on Bateson’s (1972) use of the idea of logical types, Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) suggested that communication necessarily involves two levels, such that “relationship” is the context for and functions as a metacommunication about “content.” The idea of contextualization proved very useful. Among other things, it explained how saying the same thing can mean different things depending on the context, and that what is said as “content” sometimes functions just as a carrier for doing something at the relationship level.

CMM extended the idea of contextualization in several ways (Pearce, Harris, & Cronen, 1981). First, it suggested that we always tell multiple stories – an indefinite number, but always more than just two – about what is going on in any moment in communication. One way of parsing out these stories is that one deals with the relationships among the communicators (as Watzlawick et al., 1967, noted); another with concepts of self; another with the “episode” that the communicators are performing (this is the answer to “what are we doing together?”); and others about situational contexts (e.g., organizational culture, family stories, church, school, or play).

Second, CMM suggested that all of these stories stand in a contextualizing/ contextualized relationship with each other but one in which there is no fixed pattern. That is, “relationship” is sometimes the context for and sometimes contextualized by stories. One of the tasks for interpretive research is to explore not only what stories are being told to make a particular experience coherent, but also their ordinal relationship. The assumption is that some stories are, at any moment in time, at a “higher level” than others, exerting a nonreciprocal contextualizing function over them. The person to whom you are talking may be joking, of course, but it makes some difference if the “joke” is a momentary part of a higher context story about your relationship and what you are doing together, or if the joke is the highest level of context and your relationship and the episode are just part of it.

Third, CMM insisted that both the substance of these stories and the pattern of reciprocal contextualization are mutable. As Sigman noted (1995, p. 4), things that happen in a conversation can change a participant’s story about the other participants and what is being done together. But even if the story is not changed, its position within the pattern of which stories are the context for, and which are in the context of, other stories can shift, and this may have important consequences. A story that was relatively unimportant can become the overarching context, and vice versa. For example, at the beginning of our public meetings, many participants are primarily concerned to express their position and to refute the position of those they perceive as opponents or enemies. As the meeting progresses, their story of the “other” changes; now they are seen as partners or at least co-stakeholders. Rather than being perceived only as obstacles to achieving one’s own goals, others are seen as persons with legitimate goals of their own. The story about the meeting changes from competition to collaboration. But perhaps the most important change is that their story of self (and their own agenda) moves from the highest position of contextualization to one much lower, while the story of episode moves from low to high.

In 1996, the PDC planned and facilitated a Town Hall meeting in Cupertino, California (for a more complete description, see (Spano, 2001, pp. 102-115). This meeting followed a series of small group discussions during a six month period (for a description, see Spano, 2001, pp. 59-98), in which every group had named the implications of rapidly changing demographics in the community as their most significant concern; several used the phrase “a powder keg waiting to explode.” We learned that residents of all racial groups spoke freely in homogeneous meetings, but that no one felt safe enough to talk about the issue publicly.

Although the small group sessions were valuable as a first step in enriching their stories about diversity in Cupertino, the objective of the Town Hall meeting was to help residents talk abut the issue publicly, in a racially heterogeneous meeting, in dialogic communication. We realized that it was important to shift participants’ expectations from “Town Hall meeting” as a place where they could get on their individual “soap boxes” to an expectation that they would listen as well as speak, and speak so that others would want to listen to them.

To create the conditions for dialogue, we did several things. During the two months before the Town Hall meeting, we trained 70 high school students to interview adults about positive experiences they have had with diversity in the city. Sixteen of these students talked about these interviews during the Town Hall meeting. During the meeting, we also provided an opportunity for residents to talk about their experiences in ways that would enrich the community’s understanding of the issue. Among other things, representatives from the small group discussions reported what they had learned in their meetings, and trained facilitators guided small groups at the meeting in reflecting on what was heard.

Toward the end of the meeting, we invited participants to speak to the whole group in something resembling the usual “open microphone” format of Town Hall meetings. One speaker was Cupertino resident and school board member Barry Chang. Mr. Chang forcefully articulated the Asian community’s sense of living in a contradiction between being blamed for not participating in the community and shut out or accused of trying to “take over” when they tried. This was a hard thing for many in the audience to hear, because they correctly perceived it as an indictment. It could have been the divisive tirade that ignited the powder keg of smoldering resentments on all sides of the issue. Instead, it was a breakthrough moment of dialogic communication. Both the circumstances and the manner in which he spoke enabled even those who were being accused of treating Asians with contradictory messages to hear what he said and acknowledge his passion. This is a transcript from the videotape of the community access television broadcast of the meeting:

Yes, my name is Barry Chang. I am not Michael Chang’s [the first Asian elected to the city council] brother, ok. It just so happens to be the same last name.

I think there’s a cultural gap in between, between when we’re talking about the diversity here. For example, in my business, I went out door-to-door knocking a lot. I heard a lot of comments that Asian community or Asian owner doesn’t participate. They are the takers. They are not the givers. And then, they don’t take care of their yard. And when I went back and think about it, where I came from, Taipei, Taiwan, I mean barely you don’t have a yard to take care of at all. So we have no custom, no tradition, no habit to take care of the yard. Now we end up here with a big yard and what are you going to do? If you don’t do anything in summer, within 2 weeks, it die already. So a lot of those differences, a lot of people don’t understand.

And then when I came out running for Cupertino School Board, last year, when Michael and I won, and the local newspaper want to have an article after they interviewed me and Michael, they say they would have an article wrote it in this way. Heading says, “Chang’s Dynasty Taking Over Cupertino!” I mean when we’re accused not coming to serve, to help, to participate, and then when we come out then they will say you are taking over Cupertino, which is not, you know, doesn’t feel quite well from my feeling, so I have to protest.

And also when I started a couple of years ago when I was helping in the school with my wife. Then the other parents asked me “Why don’t you help out in the PTA?” and I said, “What’s the PTA?” and they say, “It’s Parent Teacher Association is helping the school a lot.” I went to the PTA meeting and as you men know, most PTA were attended by mother. So when I went over there, I was the few father in there. And added up with when every organization have their ongoing business going on, and when you cut in the middle, you really got lost. Then second, when I sit in there, I heard the mother said “I move this, I move that.” I was very puzzled because I thought she was sitting there, she was not moving anywhere. Why is she keep saying “I move this, I move that?” And then someone follow would say “I second” and I was even more puzzled because I feel you don’t have to be so humble, no one claim to be the first, why you have to be second. And that’s the cultural difference.

Maybe I let you know back in the country where I came from, the government at the time wasn’t purposely try to give you the democratic because they know if they give you the democratic, the people will ask for power. So we never been trained that way. So let alone coming here, you get all this different language barrier, and all this format, all this democratic process. So I thought it was someone inside the door waving to people outside “Why don’t you come in and help?” and then the people outside couldn’t find the door. So that’s a situation we have to understand and I think the most important, we have to understand the cultural gap and also the tolerance between each other. And that’s my comment. (Applause)

When Barry Chang told his story, the other participants at the meeting had an understanding and appreciation for the difficulties of recent immigrants that they hadn’t had before. The ability to talk about diversity (or as we had heard earlier “a powder keg waiting to explode”) using dialogic communication invites participants into a different kind of relationship with each other, enriching the stories of “self,” “other,” and “community.”

Coordination: Meshing Actions with Others

In addition to being storytellers, human beings are physical entities that occupy space and both respond to and elicit responses from others. From the communication perspective, these patterns of what Shotter (1993) calls “joint-actions” are real, and their characteristics constitute our social worlds. Although we presented “coordination” after “coherence” in what we have written here, an immersion in language games comes prior to the development of individuals (Beebe & Lachmann, 2002, pp. 38-42; Stern, 2002). Even as adults, conversations are multi-modal, with verbal interaction intertwined with intricate patterns of nonverbal cues-and-responses which are at least as important to the conversation although they are usually out-of-awareness and something about which the conversants have no story (Mehrabian, 1981).

The term “coordination” is used in CMM to direct attention to our efforts to align our actions with those of others. Among other things, the necessity to coordinate with others shows that communication is inherently and fundamentally social. No matter what speech act– whether threat, compliment, instruction, question, insult, or anything else –its successful performance requires not only your actions but the complementary actions of others (Pearce, 1994, pp. 109-125; Shotter, 1993).

By recognizing the social nature of communication, dialogic communicators are alerted to recognize openings to invite others into dialogue. When others act in ways consistent with, for example, debate or diatribe, we can respond with planned incongruence in ways that have the potential to transform the conversation dialogically. These in-the-moment invitation and facilitation skills involve recognizing the “normal” response to what others say and do, and choosing instead to respond in ways that make a preferred form of communication. What can you say to make a passionate advocate of a position listen respectfully to the passionate advocacy of a different position? How can you act into a situation in such a way that it elicits from others a willingness to treat each other as co-stakeholders rather than enemies? If your goal is to invite people to speak in a manner that others want to listen, and to listen in such a way that others want to speak, what can you do to elicit that response? Much of the work that we do in our trainings consists of coached practice in these skills (Pearce, 2002, pp. 37-49).

Mystery: Openness to Novelty and Acknowledgement of Limits

Although “mystery” is one of the least frequently cited concepts in CMM, it is perhaps the most relevant to an understanding of dialogic communication. An explication of this concept grounds a commitment to a life of dialogue, not just as a personal preference or because of its instrumental effects, but as prefigured by the nature of communication itself.

Acting like a native in any group or culture involves using particular stories that, among other things, name persons, differentiate among foods that can be eaten raw and those that must be cooked, and evaluate acts by locating them in complex webs of responsibility and morality. A number of stories suffice for members of a group or culture to achieve coherence by taming the terrors of history and imposing meaning and order on the world. Further, they can coordinate if they make the same – or at least recognizable -- nominations, differentiations, and evaluations. However, mystery is the reminder that these nominations, differentiations, and evaluations are ultimately arbitrary, made rather than found. As Gergen (1999) put it, “the terms by which we understand our world and our self are neither required nor demanded by ‘what there is.’ … Every thing we have learned about the world and ourselves … could be otherwise” (p. 47).

One reading of mystery – a fairly shallow one, but still sufficient to imply that we should commit ourselves to a life of dialogue – is grounded on the observation that everything in human life can be, and probably has been, ensconced in multiple, contradictory stories, and that people with different life experiences and learning histories find different stories equally compelling.

This observation provokes very different responses, reflecting once again the wisdom of William James’ (1975) observation that temperaments -- or as he put it, “our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means” ( p. 9) -- direct our theoretical commitments rather than vice versa. Those with a critical commitment can use the fact of multiple, contradictory stories as the basis for careers in which they expose patterns of exploitation and domination in particular stories, seeking to replace those stories with other stories, purportedly more benign or benevolent, and creating a world “in which mutuality predominates and satisfaction does not mean the triumph of one over the repressed needs of the other” (McCarthy, 1979, p. xxiv). On the other hand, the plurality of ways of being human can be seen as a warrant for a life of dialogue, in which those who are “natives” of different social worlds are enabled to achieve communication with each other, starting with an appreciative celebration of the richness of human experience rather than the immediate categorization into better and worse. This temperament resonates with Clifford Geertz’s (1983) poetic pronouncement:

To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But the far more difficult achievement is that of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken: a case among cases; a world among worlds. Without this largeness of mind, objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham. (p. 16)

A more radical and controversial concept of mystery focuses on the power of language and, in our judgment, unequivocally leads to a commitment to dialogic communication. The most common way of framing this discussion – but not the route that we follow – starts with the question of whether we are able to say what is “there” in non-linguistic reality. Imagine a continuum in which those on one side say that nothing can be “said” as it is, and on the other side, that everything – or at least everything important – can be said and said well. The second side of this continuum is anchored by John Searle’s (1969) “principle of effability” which declares that everything that can be thought can be said, and said clearly. Not far from this extreme position is the “earlier” Wittgenstein’s (1921) dictum that “everything that can be said can be said clearly, but not everything can be said,” and Steiner’s (1967, p. 12) claim that “all truth and realness – with the exception of a small, queer margin at the very top – can be housed inside the walls of language.” Kenneth Gergen’s social constructionist position represents the extreme position on the other side. According to Gergen, (1994), there is an inherent disconnect between what we say and what we are talking about. “The terms by which we account for the world and ourselves are not dictated by the stipulated objects of such accounts” (p. 49). Rather, he said, they “are social artifacts, products of historically and culturally situated interchanges among people” (p. 49) that have more to do with social processes than to the “objective validity of the account” (p. 51).

Our preferred way of framing the concept of mystery avoids this continuum of effability. Instead, it focuses on the work that language does rather than on that to which it refers. From this perspective, even Searle’s principle of effability is seen as underrepresenting the power of language. Language does not just name the things of our experience, it creates them. The problem with words is not that they are too vague; it is that they are too precise. When something is named, language seduces us to forget all the other names that might have been used and all the other stories in which it might have been included. But moving beyond the linguistic function of naming, the communicative act of making speech acts requires not only a story, but the telling of a story – and this story is told by a specific person, in a specific language (dialect and all), and is told in a specific time and place (limited by acoustics, interrupted by other storytellers, etc.). Further, speech acts are not completed until they are responded to, and that response elicits another, and so on. As Shotter (1991) noted:

Everyday human activities do not just appear vague and indefinite because we are still as yet ignorant of their true underlying nature, but they are really vague…the fact is, there is no order, no already determined order, just…an order of possible orderings which it is up to us to make as we see fit. And this, of course…is exactly what we require of language as a means of communication: we require the words of our language to give rise to vague, but not wholly unspecified “tendencies” which permit a degree of further specification according to the circumstances of their use, thus to allow the “making” of precise and particular meanings appropriate to those circumstances. (p. 202)

The communication perspective focuses on the question of what is “made” by particular instances of communication. This creative aspect of communication is so powerful that it not only creates, but it also necessarily destroys. In any given moment of communication, the actor must act, but can only make real one of the many potential acts that he or she could potentially have performed. In this way, each momentary action destroys a myriad of potential social worlds. The stories we tell and the patterns of coordinated actions we engage in are, at last, understood simultaneously as scaffolds for comprehending and moving effectively in our world, and as snares that not only blind us to alternatives but destroy other possible ways to be ourselves, to be in relationships, and to be in community.

“Mystery” is not so much an attempt to describe unnamable things in the world or to know the potential worlds displaced by the worlds we have created together, but is a persistent reminder that the worlds we know are only some of the many that exist, might have existed, or might yet exist and that the lives we live are contingent on the interaction of our choices and circumstances. There is a kind of “liberation” that comes from being aware that there is always something more to every story and that every situation is unfinished (Gergen, 1999, pp. 47-48; Pearce, 1989, pp. 82-86).

The problem is words. Only with words can man become conscious; only with words learned from another can man learn how to talk to himself. Only through getting the better of words does it become possible for some, a little of the time, to transcend the verbal contexts and to become, for brief instants, free. (Shands, 1971, pp. 19-20)

Dialogic communication is one way of achieving what Shands called “getting the better of words.”

Concluding her review of approaches to dialogue in the business setting, Dixon (1996) defined the “purpose” of dialogue as:

The intent to uncover that which is tacit – to become aware of the paradigm in which those individuals engaged in the dialogue are themselves embedded. By making manifest that which has been taken for granted, the participants in the dialogue are able to hold their assumptions up for examination and, when warranted, to construct new joint meaning that is tested against their reasoning. (p. 25)

That is a laudable goal, but it seems only a small part of what a rich appreciation of “mystery” would suggest. Both Dixon’s approach to dialogue and the one that we’ve worked with over the years have in common the importance of reflecting on one’s own assumptions. Our approach, we think, leads to two additional ideas: (a) understanding that one’s own stories are partial, local, limited, or bounded, and (b) realizing the value of remaining in the tension between standing one’s own ground and being profoundly open to the other. For this reason, we have usually thought of listening (rather than introspection or telling one’s own story) as the most powerful opening for creating dialogic communication. Much of our work in designing and facilitating events focuses on modeling and creating the opportunity for participants to listen to others.

The key insight from mystery is that the world is far richer and subtler than any story we have of it, and that it changes because we perceive it, tell stories about it, and act into it. The good news is that the world contains Others who are not only not us but not like us, and that our relationships with them and even our own selves are transformed if we engage with them dialogically.


We began this project with curiosity about a communication approach to dialogue. We posed a counterfactual conditional question: what would have happened if the seminal figures in dialogic thinking and practice had based their work on a formal study of communication? We addressed – rather than answered – this question by reflecting on our own work as dialogic practitioners, noting that our work has been explicitly based on a particular communication theory, the coordinated management of meaning. Based on these reflections, we propose that dialogue can be understood better by articulating the theories of communication on which various concepts and traditions of practice are based. Further, we suggest that new concepts of dialogue and ways of achieving dialogic communication might be found through the elaboration of various theories of communication that we can now access but that were not available to the seminal thinkers in this field.

Working out the implications of theory, or hermeneutically reading the implicit theory presupposed by concepts of dialogue is valuable, but is limited in its impact. Any form of practice – not only dialogic practice -- is affected by the sensibility, vision, and theory of the practitioner; the habits or models that the practitioner has developed; and the constraints and opportunities of the specific situation. Because these are multiple influences, articulating only the sensibilities, visions, and theories of the practitioner are likely to exaggerate the differences between actual ways of working in specific situations. That is, to the extent that practitioners from different schools of thought confront similar challenges and opportunities, their theoretical differences are likely to be eroded.

That having been said, traditions of practice in dialogic communication differ. Specifically, our work has characteristics that distinguish it from other practitioners, and these stem from our grounding in CMM. We make no assumption that the distinctive characteristics of our work make it better or worse than the work by those informed in other traditions. We do, however, know that our ability to act into difficult situations and to know how to go on as practitioners is greatly enhanced by the temperament that leads us to articulate formally the theory of communication upon which we draw.



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Copyright 2003 by publisher, Sage Publications.
Reproduced on authors' web site with permission of publisher.

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