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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Beyond Agency


Robert Huesca
Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas USA

Abstract. Research accounts of alternative media practices -- those media production activities that strive to be democratic in structure while advocating for social change -- are largely descriptive of homogeneous, unified, and integrated practices. This article focuses explicitly on alternative media practices in terms of how they deal with pluralism and heterogeneity in the process of producing media content. Specifically, this article examines a well-known alternative media genre -- the radio stations operated by Bolivian tin miners -- with regard to how these broadcasters conceptualized and responded to "difference" in their everyday activities. The Sense-Making Methodology was used as method and also meta-theoretically to generate an analytic template refocusing the examination of alternative media from an emphasis on homogeneous practice to an examination of how media practices implement differences procedurally. Conclusions emphasize that a communication- as- procedure analytic is useful both for distinguishing alternative from mainstream media practices and for designing media practices that are responsive to pluralistic, heterogeneous, and diverse societies.


Scholars from around the world are increasingly interested in developing theories of and for media practice that are based on participatory, democratic structures and that yield transformative social consequences. Collected under the umbrella term "alternative communication," this body of research surfaced in the early 1970s most prominently in Latin America, which has a long and rich tradition of combining critical and empirical approaches to media studies that honor the dialectical nature of theory and practice. 1 Hence, a robust body of work exists that explores different facets of alternative media practice, essentially providing a diverse set of theories of and for media practice. 2

Despite the diversity within this research, notions of solidarity, unity, and cohesiveness run throughout theories of alternative media practices aimed at effecting social change. Some scholars have noted that alternative media practices and the social movements they are often attached to are themselves permeated by a diversity of perspectives that could threaten solidarity, unity, and cohesiveness. Yet none has elevated the issue of dealing with "difference" in media practice to a central position in empirical research. The purpose of this article is to address this gap in the research by presenting findings from an empirical study of Bolivian tin miners' radio that focused on how broadcasters thought about and responded to differences in everyday practice. Furthermore, it will explore some of the consequences associated with the various ways of dealing with difference in media practice. The conclusions from this study are meant to contribute not only to tin miners' radio practitioners, but to any scholar or communicator who is concerned with making media more democratic, pluralistic, and participatory.

The Sense-Making Methodology, its overarching meta-theory, and its specific interviewing method informed this study from its initial conceptualization to its data gathering phase through its eventual analysis of findings (Dervin, 1983, 1991, 1993). Sense-Making was selected because of its compatibility with the theoretical concerns of the alternative media and Bolivian tin miners' radio literatures in some key respects. First, these literatures identify participation as one of the core values, characteristics, and guiding principles of alternative media practice. Sense-Making was deemed a commensurable approach theoretically and methodologically because of its central placement of the research subject in determining meanings of social phenomena and generating the substance of data in research.

Second, these literatures express concern with developing models that explain the relationship between media practice and social change. Sense-Making, again, was deemed compatible with this theoretical concern because of its explicit assumptions regarding the active role participants play in theorizing relationships between social forces as they move through time-space. 3 In fact, Sense Making was particularly helpful because it is one of the few methodologies that systematically maintains a focus on how participants conceptualize their movements through time-space. It does this through the bridge-building and step-taking metaphors that guide concrete interviews, field observations, and data analysis. In this study, Sense-Making guided ethnographic field methods to add a dimension of descriptive richness to the data collected through interviews and observation.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Sense-Making was selected because of its implicit mandate to honor and actively focus on difference. It does this in two ways. First, Sense-Making's focus on "gaps" on both material and symbolic levels results in a focus on differences, as it assumes discontinuity within and across experiences, events, actions, understandings, times, and places. Second, Sense-Making zeroes in on the dynamic process of communicating, rather than on static categories of communication. This focus on dynamic process is relevant to a concern with difference because it generates data that moves beyond cataloguing specific differences (e.g. race, class, and gender), to identifying procedures by which differences, and responses to them, are implemented. Sense-Making's emphasis on verbs is particularly useful here, because it provides a theoretically guided way of analyzing the many forms of identifying, assessing, and responding to differences in communication that emerge in fieldwork and interviews. The communication procedures used by alternative media practitioners to respond to differences, in effect, are conceptualized as instances of "difference-ing" when approached from a Sense-Making perspective.

The remainder of this article will summarize the major theoretical thrusts from both global, alternative media research and Bolivian tin miners' radio scholarship. After laying this theoretical backdrop, I will describe the methods guiding my study of Bolivian tin miners' radio, explain how I conceptualized "difference" for the purposes of the study, and summarize the differences that emerged in this study. A concluding section will explore the implications of these findings to alternative media theory and practice.

Synthesis of Research

Synthesizing significant theoretical contributions from the alternative media literature is difficult due to the breadth of the research and the tendency of scholars to focus on specific applications and genres -- public access television, "pirate" radio, the dissident press -- rather than on cross-media comparisons or theoretical propositions. 4 Nevertheless, I have attempted to extract the principal theoretical contributions arising from empirical research and cutting across the boundaries of medium and genre in the two, abbreviated sections below. The North Atlantic research and the Bolivian scholarship are treated separately because of their starkly different contextual factors and theoretical premises.

The North Atlantic Research

This wide range of alternative media topics and issues can be examined through four major theoretical categories that have emerged from these studies. The major categories posit alternative media as: components of social movements, centrally focused on power, democratic organizations, and/or participatory by nature.

The most sweeping generalization from the range of alternative media studies suggests that media practices must be understood as forming a part of wide-reaching social changes and specific social movements (Armstrong, 1981; Barlow, 1988; Downing, 1984; Enzensberger, 1970; Glessing, 1970; Kellner, 1989, 1990; Lewis, 1972; Tomaselli & Louw, 1989). This position constructs a part-whole relationship that both describes the broad social context in which alternative media reside and guides how practitioners should move in their daily lifeworlds. This theoretical approach interprets dispersed and seemingly insignificant practices operating in the margins of society as small parts playing a central role in the whole determination of social, political, and cultural norms. At the same time, this approach positions alternative media as implements of social movements -- means to ends, rather than ends in themselves -- thus providing direction to practitioners to use media in conjunction with movements.

A second theoretical thrust of this research identifies the issue of power as essential to understanding alternative media. This position suggests that an awareness of and commitment to changing the differential power relations in society are central to interpreting alternative media and to guiding practice. Alternative media, as products and processes, are viewed as sharing indissoluble links to power, culture, and communication. These links show up most transparently in the form of the overarching goal of alternative media practitioners to create new social relations that counteract and overcome sources of oppression (Bruck & Raboy, 1989; Downing, 1984). Communication practices guided by a central place of power are often framed in a Gramscian discourse that conceptualizes alternative media as sites where counter-hegemonic efforts struggle to influence social and cultural meanings attached to race, class, gender, and other divisions (Barlow, 1988; Kellner, 1990).

A third theoretical position carved out in the literature emphasizes democratic relations in both political and economic arrangements. This research argues that alternative media are internally egalitarian in decision-making and task-implementation and are noncommercial in financing (Armstrong, 1981; Barlow, 1988; Blau, 1992; Bruck & Raboy, 1989; Devine, 1992; Downing, 1984; Enzensberger, 1970; Glessing, 1970; Halleck, 1984; Lewis, 1972; Schulman, 1992). The issues of politics and economics are viewed as intertwined in many of these studies, which evaluate democratic tendencies of alternative media in terms of their nonprofit, noncommercial structures.

A final theoretical thrust of this research centers on the need for citizen participation in alternative media productions. Insistence on a central role for community involvement and participation has been advanced on several theoretical grounds. First, involvement is viewed as part of the dialectical relationship that sustains noncommercial, alternative communicating (Armstrong, 1981; Devine, 1992; Dixon, 1988; Halleck, 1984; Lewis, 1972; Schulman, 1992; Vargas, 1995). Second, given that power is not transparent and always threatens to reproduce itself, participation is seen as a way to gain multiple views of reality that continually challenge the status quo (Barlow, 1988; Downing, 1984; Kessler, 1984).

Bolivian Tin Miners' Radio

Tin miners' radio in Bolivia provides a rich source of empirical data in the study of alternative media. It began in 1947, making it one of the oldest alternative radio practices in the world. It appeared as an extension of literally centuries of struggle by workers against the exploitative oligarchy that controlled mining and exercised enormous influence on the state (Cajías, 1989; Gumucio Dagron, 1989a; López, 1989; Reyes Velásquez, 1990).

Nearly all scholars of tin miners' radio have noted that the stations have been highly structured -- reflecting the union organization -- and fairly open with regard to popular participation. Participation has been conceptualized, however, as arising from the historical and material relationship that the labor union has maintained with its members and with the radio practitioners, who fall under the financial and organizational supervision of the union. This continual, organic connection between the union and the radio practitioners is assumed to provide ratifying testimony to the participatory nature of the medium, while obviating the need for every voice in the movement to be broadcast and heard.

Because social movements provide the ratification of participation in radio, media practices must be understood as being enmeshed in the struggles of everyday life. Such engagement with social struggle has given way to innovative practices, such as: the chain of democracy, where one station captured and retransmitted the signal of another station during times of military provocation to form an instantaneous, national communication network (Gumucio Dagron, 1989b; López Vigil, 1984; Lozada & Kúncar, 1983, 1986; World Communication Report, 1989); the open microphone and emergent speaker -- decentralized media forums conducted in public places such as markets and plazas -- in response to military crackdowns on information (Barrios de Chungara & Viezzer 1978; López Vigil, 1984; Lozada & Kúncar, 1986; Reyes Velásquez, 1990).

The empirical inventions noted above constitute and reflect what one author calls the "self-governing spirit" or "participatory will" of the stations (Gumucio Dagron, 1989b). This position suggests that alternative media practices must discover ways of perpetuating themselves that are commensurate with their egalitarian and transformative aims. Bolivian tin miners' radio stations achieved a high degree of such perpetuation through grass-roots financing and management (Gumucio Dagron & Cajías, 1989; Lozada & Kúncar, 1983, 1986; O'Connor, 1990).

Despite these many mechanisms of participation, no study has centered on how this movement has managed multiple and competing interests. The research to date implies that Bolivian tin miners' radio stations have succeeded in placing difference at the center of their media practices, yet studies have failed to conceptualize participation as being fundamentally concerned with dealing with difference.

This brief overview of both the North Atlantic alternative media research and the Bolivian tin miner's radio scholarship demonstrates an emphasis on the role of social movements in alternative media practice, and on the importance of incorporating difference in alternative media practice. The review of these research literatures indicates that the connection between media practice and social movements has been a widely assumed characteristic of alternative media practice. Furthermore, both of these literatures offer implicit understandings of difference that make significant contributions to our thinking about this concept. The purpose of this article is to elevate the notion of difference to a central place in examining an empirical example of alternative media practice. Focusing on the communication procedures of difference-ing is assumed to be helpful at creating participatory strategies in alternative media that avoid replicating authoritarian structures that govern many mainstream, as well as alternative, media practices.

Research Sites and Methods

This study was conducted over five months in 1992 and 1993 at three research sites in the Bolivian altiplano: Radio Nacional de Huanuni (a union radio station in the mining town of Huanuni), Radio Pío XII (a Catholic radio station aligned with tin miners' struggles in the mining town of Siglo XX), and the Centro de Investigación y Servicio Popular (a non-governmental organization in the urban center of Oruro that produces and distributes programs to miners' radio stations throughout Bolivia). 5 Although these data are somewhat dated, they are valuable as they represent one of the last efforts to document the practices of Bolivian tin miners' radio, which has continued to decline with the privatization of the mining industry. These may be some of the last systematically gathered traces of one of the oldest, alternative media practices ever documented.

These sites were selected because they offered both continuity and diversity: all of them fit under the rubric of "tin miners' radio," yet they each had substantially different organizational structures -- union, religious, and non-governmental. Given the historical track record of tin miners' radio stations as participatory media, this combination of diversity and continuity was expected to yield a rich set of experiences relative to difference-ing. I lived in these different locations observing the daily routines and participating frequently in radio productions. Participation at the station primarily consisted of providing technical assistance, such as equipment set-up and operation for field and studio production. Living and working with radio practitioners gave me a deeper sense of the material conditions of daily life and the objectives for social change identified by miners and producers. My interactions with participants and my initial data collection and analysis were guided by contemporary concepts in "dialogic" and "postmodern" ethnography, as well as by theoretic assumptions of the Sense-Making approach. 6 Formal interviewing protocols were designed following the assumptions and theoretical direction of the Sense-Making approach (Dervin, 1983, 1989, 1992). Data for the study included fieldnotes, 21 interview transcripts, symbolic artifacts collected at the sites, recorded radio programs, and videotapes recorded by participants in the study during fieldwork.

The definition of "difference" that was used to analyze the data was based on a pedestrian, commonsense understanding of the word: a perceived dissimilarity or distinction. More specifically, I have considered differences in media practices as those instances where competing, conflicting, disagreeing, complementing, and/or accentuating sets of experiences or perspectives entered into the routines of radio production in a way that became problematic for practitioners. By "problematic" I mean that the difference produced a range of situations and outcomes, which included calling attention to, placing into relief, interrupting, challenging, or upsetting habitualized routines in radio production. Notice that this definition of difference includes experiences and perspectives that not only contest, refute, and contradict existing views, but also extend and add to existing positions.

Within the communication discipline, numerous scholars have attempted to theorize what is admittedly a very slippery concept -- communication as a dynamic process -- but few have been able to develop models that do not eventually slip back into some sort of static rendition. 7 The focus on process and dynamics, however, has been theorized usefully by Dervin (1991, 1993) and Dervin and Clark (1989, 1993). 8 Their work has been fundamental in the creation of a "communication-as-procedure" template useful for conceptualizing both media practice and research design.


Aside from the direction offered by the Sense-Making Methodology, the analysis of the data was guided by a specific theoretic template developed for this project. Drawing on the work of Dervin (1991, 1993) and Dervin and Clark (1989, 1993), this "communication-as-procedure" template attempts to maintain a focus on the communication processes of the radio practitioners. The basic premises of the communication-as-procedure template are that human communication action is embedded in situation and consequence (Figure 1). Human communication actions are conceptualized as processes that are grounded in specific contexts, that make and remake social structures (defined broadly as including constructs such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, media institutions, and the like), which often end up being the target of communication research. These actions are assumed to derive some sorts of consequences. Holding onto this entire procedural chain -- situation-action-consequence -- is posited as a way of centering on communication processes without losing touch with contextual particularities or real-world consequences. Consequence is conceptualized not as mere cause-effect result, but as an outcome that is bound up in a complex sequence of actions.


Figure 1. The communication-as-procedure template.


Aside from the general premises of this template, communication actions in this study are further conceptualized as "verbs," following the work of Dervin (1993) and Dervin and Clark (1989). The intention of identifying the verbs of communication action is to avoid producing laundry lists of issues, events, and inventions. Instead, this study will look for pattern and rupture in difference-ing procedures that will constitute a communication repertoire of potential utility in diverse settings.

The organization of the remainder of this article reflects the communication-as-procedure template. That is, I will discuss the kinds of differences that were problematic for practitioners (situation), communicating strategies (action), and the resulting outcomes (consequence), providing selected examples to illustrate some of the concepts. 9 The entire procedural chain is considered an instance of difference-ing that demonstrates how media practitioners actively construct situations, actions, and consequences that are marked by difference.

Before discussing each piece of the situation-action-consequence chain, however, I have mapped the generalized concepts that were extracted from the entire data set (Figure 2). Although these will each be discussed in turn, it is useful to see the whole picture of the general kinds of differences, action strategies, and outcomes before sifting through detailed explanations and examples. In addition, an important characteristic of this figure should be noted prior to reading each section; situations, actions, and consequences are depicted in separate boxes in order to circumvent any assumptions that their relationships are unidirectional or causal. The data in this study indicate that similar situations could and did elicit diverse actions. Therefore each piece of the procedural chain held the possibility of moving independently of the other. Nevertheless, procedural patterns did emerge and will be discussed later in this article.


Figure 2. Problematic instances of difference in media practice, conceptualized in conformance with the communication-as-procedure theoretic.


Kinds of Differences

The relationships between media practitioners and the institutions controlling the radio stations provide the context for understanding how differences arise and what their characteristics are. Virtually all of the problematic differences that emerged in this study could be conceptualized as being of an internal or external nature. That is, differences within the union, church, or non-governmental organizations were understood in ways distinct from those with external groups. Definitions of these kinds of differences are:

Internal/Hidden differences -- involve social actors within a practitioner's organization or group and concern dissimilarities that are surprising, unexpected, murky, imprecise, or unknown but suspected by practitioners.

Internal/Obvious differences -- involve social actors within a practitioner's organization or group and concern dissimilarities that are obvious, clear, defined, known, and readily identifiable by practitioners.

External/Hidden differences -- involve social actors outside of a practitioner's organization or group and concern dissimilarities that are surprising, unexpected, murky, imprecise, or unknown but suspected by practitioners.

External/Obvious differences -- involve social actors outside of a practitioner's organization or group and concern dissimilarities that are obvious, clear, defined, known, and readily identifiable by practitioners.

The most common problematic difference in the data was one that was internal and obvious to the practitioner. This included struggles for leadership power within the union and miners cooperatives, varying opinions on a workers' hunger strike, and differing perspectives on the changing role of housewives in the union movement. The most vivid field example -- and one that will be discussed further in this article -- involved a struggle for leadership power between the union secretary general and several workers' factions in Huanuni. This forced radio personnel into difficult decisions of how to deal with this internal, obvious difference when producing programs.

A second prominent kind of difference was the internal but hidden. All practitioners seemed surprised at one time or another to learn of specific beliefs and actions of their compañeros [companions, partners, friends]. Examples include: the painful memories of learning that union leaders held opinions more akin to management than workers; discovering that union leaders functioned as spies for management; watching left-wing laborers overwhelmingly elect a right-wing presidential candidate in secret balloting.

A third kind of difference emerged from relations with groups external to the radio organization and in a very obvious manner. All of the radio stations in this study -- union, Catholic, non-governmental -- were trying to forge alliances with like-minded civic and labor groups. In reaching out to these groups, however, practitioners often encountered problematic differences, including: resentment by miners' cooperatives over the privileged treatment received by state miners; conflict between state miners and cooperative miners over scarce natural and fiscal resources; ideological differences between conservative and liberation theology wings of a campesino [peasant farmer] group and the Catholic radio station.

A final kind of difference emerged from relations with groups external to the radio organization and in a hidden manner. Again, as each station attempted to forge alliances with outside organizations, they were all hampered in unexpected ways by their own ideological blindspots or by hidden resistances that others held toward them. Problematic differences included: tenacious distrust and hostility by community organizations toward nongovernmental organizations, which are frequently associated with external oppression; distrust and hostility of civic organizations toward labor unions, which are occasionally accused of manipulation; inability to perceive issues important to clandestine miners, which were often very different from the priorities of union miners.

All of these kinds of differences and the ways in which they emerged help to establish a meaningful context for understanding practitioner responses to them. In the next section, I will provide details on the various actions taken to respond to differences.

Action Strategies

Faced with problematic situations involving differences, practitioners took a variety of steps to manage them. The variety of actions arising from the situations discussed above were assigned to three, inductively derived categories that were based on performance metaphors, which reflected the constructed, choreographed sense of practitioner behaviors. Furthermore, the performance metaphors are both sufficiently abstract -- as mandated by the procedural template explained earlier -- and highly concrete, even vivid -- as suggested by Sense-Making's emphasis on anchoring concepts in space and time. 10 The three broad categories and their definitions are the following:

Backstaging -- dealing with differences in off-the-air arenas, that is, moving attention off stage. Discussions of difference were held in private, nonmediated venues

Spotlighting -- dealing with differences on the air, that is, on stage. It involved emphasizing or focusing on a narrow set of actors and the differences they manifested, both internal and external to social organizations

Floodlighting -- dealing with differences on the air, that is, on stage. Similar to spotlighting in that differences are on stage but different in its scope. Floodlighting illuminated a broader set of issues by bringing multiple social actors into mediated settings. Differences were discussed in terms of wider relationships to other social actors, internal and external.

Among the three action strategies, backstaging was the one most frequently used by practitioners. The majority of backstaging instances coincided with situations where difference was hidden in a way that demonstrated an interaction between the two categories, i.e., differences were hidden in part because they were backstaged, and they were backstaged in part because they were hidden. For example, a CISEP producer described a situation where he was reporting on negotiations that were occurring between the national miners' union and government officials. Miners from across the altiplano had mobilized and traveled to La Paz in order to participate in the negotiations which had generated some conflicts with some unions affiliated with the national office. When the producer attempted to cover this issue by interviewing the top union officials, however, he was not allowed to record their responses. Rather than giving up on the report, the producer interviewed rank-and-file members who had traveled to La Paz regarding their thoughts and desires, but this never revealed many details concerning the conflict underlying the negotiations.

A smaller number of backstaging actions were taken in cases where differences were obvious. For example, the internal struggles for union leadership mentioned earlier often were managed to keep disagreements from spilling onto the public stage. Radio practitioners backstaged by ignoring disagreements, by coaching interviewees to avoid criticism on the air, and by invoking language of unity and solidarity. The struggle for power within the union grew so volatile at one point that the station manager read an editorial imploring public displays of solidarity:

It is always confusing for rank-and-file workers and for the workers of this medium to receive information from two sectors of the work force, each with different versions. In communication, the message should always be positive, along the lines of not only creating values of unity, but of social force that will guarantee positive actions in the face of policies that are completely alien to the worker's movement. . . . That is why we, the workers of this communication medium, will not contribute to sending messages that are absolutely destructive. Rather, our mission is to unify and focus the struggle of the exploited class. . . . From this position we fraternally ask the union leaders to conform to the rules of classist, social communication. -- editorial from Radio Nacional de Huanuni, October 7, 1993
This editorial fulfilled the function of orientación, or giving guidance, which, numerous practitioners explained, was a principal role of the radio stations.

Ignoring conflict within or between groups seemed to be the easiest way to continue programming and reporting functions. This strategy was used with regularity, and it followed the established lines of organizational hierarchy. Just as frequently, however, practitioners spotlighted differences on the air.

Spotlighting actions did not correspond with any particular situations, but emerged from contexts where differences were both internal and external, hidden and obvious. These actions were related, however, with the position occupied by the practitioner vis à vis the social group manifesting the difference. Specifically, spotlighting was a strategy used when the practitioner either was reaching out to forge a linkage with a group or was fulfilling a commitment or obligation to a group. The most vivid example of this occurred with practitioners who worked with the Housewive's Committee, which traditionally operated at the direction of the male union leadership. One practitioner described how she spotlighted actions initiated by the women, which threatened the male leadership because of its independent nature:

Back then, [Supreme Decree] 21060 was declared. 11 This was in '85. That's where they started, the hunger strikes. Fine, the women didn't want these policies to become permanent, right, in the mining towns. That they be carried out all the way. So they began to make movements, the compañeras. And I was participating with them. When there was a need to gather together in assemblies, assemblies were called. These assemblies were broadcast live. The entire analysis and all of the discussion was broadcast. . . . As the problems intensified, the women grew more mature. They called assemblies to delegate people to participate in the hunger strike, as wives. The Housewives' Committee called meetings to orient the compañeras on what this policy, [Supreme Decree] 21060, consisted of, what its repercussions would be on the lives of the miners, their families. Sowhile they went along building, they also gathered a series of understandings that helped us popularize ourselves, back at our internal meetings at Pío XII. It helped us to clarify, more or less, the picture of what was going on, how we could aim our work, how we had to give guidance to the masses, etcetera. -- Marta M., producer at Radio Pío XII
The spotlighting strategy noted above was done in fulfillment of an obligation the practitioner had to the women, whose role in the union had evolved away from the control of the male leaders, who initially opposed the housewive's actions.

The least frequent action strategies in this study were efforts to floodlight difference. This action strategy is distinct from spotlighting, inasmuch as it incorporates a broader range of differences into programming. While spotlighting focused on a delimited difference -- gender, political, economic -- floodlighting incorporated a wider range of diverse, even competing, actors. This action strategy generally coincided with situations where practitioners were relatively removed from the specific social actors being floodlighted. For example, the nongovernmental organization, CISEP, sponsored a conference that brought together unionized, state miners with worker's cooperatives (these groups often have competing interests). CISEP's producers were able to rise above factional disputes and arrange live and taped broadcasts of the conference discussions. Similarly, the Catholic station, Pío XII, sponsored events that drew together competing factions within the miners' and the peasant farmers' movements to produce programs that incorporated diverse actors within these organizations.

Floodlighting differences placed the practitioner in a facilitating role that seemed to be aided by an ability to rise above the concrete commitments of the social organization. Nevertheless, this created a tension expressed by most practitioners, who are traditionally rooted in a commitment to social change. Loosening ties with organizations in order to "facilitate" communication was a step in the direction of dispassionate, disinterested, mainstream media production that most practitioners had rejected.


The holistic units examined in this study reached some sort of denouement, if not a definitive end, which were captured in three categories:

Cases transforming the status quo -- manifest differences resulted in an important social change.

Cases maintaining the status quo -- manifest differences virtually unchanged from initial to final state.

Cases affecting practitioner on a personal level -- manifest differences changed the practitioner's life.

The most frequent consequence involved a variety of transformations in either media practice, social movements themselves, or material living conditions. Perhaps the most vivid example of transformative consequences involved the evolution of the Housewive's Committee described earlier. A radio practitioner noted that spotlighting women's activities seemed to change everyday language, gender relations, and the union organization:
The women, starting with Domitila de Chungara, began to form movements and I was participating with them. There was the need to gather in assemblies, and these assemblies were transmitted on the radio. All of the analyses done by the women were transmitted, and the discourse that existed back then had changed. They no longer talked only about the company store, the price of bread and meat. No. The discourse of the housewives had changed. They began to say, "Compañeras, we cannot permit our husbands to be thrown out of work. We cannot permit our lives to end, that the mining industry decay. We cannot permit these things." And as the problems intensified, the women grew and matured, and they said, "No longer will you men be the only ones to go on hunger strikes. No longer will you be the only ones who struggle." . . . The movement of the Housewives' Committee had changed in its essence. They were no longer a support organization in domestic matters, of nutrition, education, and health. They now started suggesting to the union leaders the things they needed to do, because we women can see what's happening. They advanced to the point of no longer being a domestic organization, but converted into a union organization. -- Marta M., producer at Radio Pío XII
Note that the practitioner above has collapsed many months of work into a single paragraph. Nevertheless, historical accounts such as this were repeated at other locations in the study, as well.

A fewer number of cases resulted in unchanged differences, or the maintenance of the status quo. Several of these cases coincided with backstaging communication actions, the most vivid of these involving the struggle for union leadership noted earlier. Volatile meetings that were either ignored or managed such that conflict was removed from radio programs seemed to leave union divisions as rigidly defined and in place as they were before programs were aired. In addition, several examples of floodlighting coincided with maintenance of the status quo. Since the floodlighting actions formed part of a long-term series of programs, however, it may be premature to draw definitive conclusions from these cases.

A final kind of consequence was of a personal nature, where practitioners reported impacts on their lives in ways that changed their subsequent communication actions. These impacts were both conceptual -- a broadened understanding of issues -- and material -- physical suffering and job loss. One practitioner noted the consequence of spotlighting internal corruption at a miners' union:

I think this was a benefit for the workers, but harmful for those of us working in the radio because we suddenly acquired enemies that were in high political positions in the government. Afterwards, this resulted in our imprisonment and, later, house arrest for a set period of time, just for having expressed these kinds of ideas. Don't forget either, that those of us working at the radio were also in exile and working clandestinely. Under house arrest, we were under strict government control. -- Pablo J., producer at CISEP
This was one of the most dramatic personal consequences noted by a practitioner. Most personal consequences were of a conceptual nature, where a deeper understanding of people and circumstances resulted in changed production practices.

Patterns, Ruptures, and Conclusions

As noted earlier, the relationships between situations, actions, and consequences were not of a unilinear nor causal nature. Nevertheless, several dominant patterns emerged, as well as instances of ruptures in those patterns. The patterns and ruptures are useful at understanding tin miners' radio and at informing media practices elsewhere. This section briefly describes patterns and ruptures and discusses the implications of them for media practice, alternative communication theory, and Sense-Making studies.

Patterns and Ruptures

When examined in their entirety, the units in this study revealed two major patterns. First, backstaging communication actions tended to result in consequences of maintaining the status quo. This was dramatized most effectively at the union radio station where practitioners ignored or managed conflict such that disagreements would not be broadcast. As long as this strategy was used, the union leadership was unable to carry out even simple tasks, such as convening meetings with the workers. As a result, the conflict between rank-and-file workers and union leaders was unaffected by the radio station's programming. A second dominant pattern in the data revealed that spotlighting communication actions coincided frequently with transformative consequences. The programs that spotlighted actions taken by Housewive's Committees in different locations, for example, transformed the women's movement itself, the practitioners' understandings of social change, and the radio programs dealing with the miners' struggles.

Despite some clear patterns, several ruptures in the data emerged, demonstrating the complexity of communication procedures. Some of these ruptures concerned the actual communication action patterns observed in the field. While living at the union station, for example, I noticed that most internal/obvious differences were met by backstaging communication actions. Periodically, however, practitioners created spaces where workers could voice opposition and contestation in programming. This suggests that while communication procedures are highly regular and habitual, human agents are to some degree flexible and able to break out of routine practices. A second kind of rupture concerned contradictory communication actions present in a number of the holistic units of this study. A particularly illuminating example occurred in a case of spotlighting a difference and achieving transformative consequences. In the programming of the Housewive's Committee of Huanuni, for example, the practitioner spotlighted actions of the women that were undertaken independently of the union leadership. During this episode, however, an internal conflict broke out between two factions within the Housewive's Committee, threatening to divide the organization. In this case, the practitioner took steps to backstage this conflict, while spotlighting the differences the women had with the male leadership of the miners' union. This indicates that the dominant patterns noted above are actually multi-layered and highly nuanced. Communication procedures, therefore, must be conceptualized as interwoven in a way that allows a variety of patterns, including inverse and contradictory ones, to emerge in our analysis of data.

Implications for Theory, Practice, and Method

This study offers beneficial insights to alternative communication theory, alternative media practice, and to studies guided by the Sense-Making Methodology. Alternative communication theory to date has skirted around the issue of difference and its role in building democratic, participatory, and transformative practices. Research has largely been concerned with maintaining solidarity and unity, rather than focusing on how to deal with differences that challenge social movements. Of the few studies that have focused on differences, discussions have been relegated to abstract considerations of the reproduction of power that occurs when differences within social movements are ignored or marginalized. This study provides a wealth of empirical evidence that warrants placing the issue of dealing with difference at the center of the research agenda in alternative communication research. It is warranted because many significant concerns -- generating ideas, moving people to action, forging solidarity -- cling around the issue of how differences are sensed, interpreted, resolved. Furthermore, this study demonstrates a broad range of potential responses to differences, all of which are shaped by individual, contextual, and historical factors. The alternative communication research to date lacks empirical data focusing on difference-ing from which it can derive theories of practice. To a degree, then, theoretical advance is dependent on future research that documents how alternative media practitioners deal with difference.

Aside from theoretical contributions, this study provides guidance to alternative media practitioners. First, this study should raise the level of awareness regarding differences among media practitioners concerned with effecting social change. The findings note that often problematic differences either are not perceived by practitioners, or are created as unintended byproducts of the social movements themselves. Potential allies with tin miners in this study frequently felt snubbed, left out, or threatened by the actions taken by the labor union. Practitioners, therefore, would be wise to seek out differences in ways that benefit the building of a social movement. Second, this study demonstrates the pragmatic difficulty of embracing differences in media practice. The most commonly used method of dealing with difference in this study was to backstage it by either ignoring, diverting, or managing differences outside of mediated arenas. Despite the difficulty of incorporating difference into programs, this study offers some concrete examples and conditions for accommodating diverse perspectives and actions into media production. Finally, this study provides evidence that incorporating differences into media practice offers tangible benefits to social movements. The transformative consequences achieved in media practices and in social movements were clearly related to placing difference at the center of production.

The central placement of difference in this study informs research using the Sense-Making Methodology, as well. An inherent mandate within the Sense-Making Methodology regards the obligation of the researcher to seek out differences in data collection. This mandate is implicit in the iterative nature of Sense-Making interviews, where the complexities of context, the human subject, behavior, history, future, helps, hindrances, and so on are dismantled, exposed, examined, and dismantled again. This iterative dynamic allows difference and contradiction to emerge in an informative way. The findings of this study bolster this aspect of Sense-Making. They illustrate how media practitioners often take conflicting actions in dealing with difference to achieve multiple consequences. The results suggest that communication actions do not act in linear, predictable relation to consequences, but that they do result in dominant patterns that are enmeshed within other, sometimes contradictory, communication actions. This multidimensional portrait of communication procedure is one of the results of using iterative methods to expose the complexity of human behavior. These findings, then, support and advance the position that researchers incorporate a difference-ing mandate into studies using iterative approaches.

Finally, this study demonstrates the utility of the Sense-Making Methodology as a springboard for the development of theoretic templates aimed at particular research questions. The communication-as-procedure template introduced earlier was cast from the assumptions and propositions developed in the Sense-Making approach. It was forged, however, with the particular research project of Bolivian tin miners' radio in mind. The coupling of an ethnographic component in the Bolivian highlands with the Sense-Making approach, led to the development of the communication-as-procedure template. This template provided guidance, continuity, and integrity to the research project. It served as a lens for field observation, a structure for formal and informal interviews, and a framework for data analysis. Sense-Making, therefore, provides a broad range of conceptual assumptions and propositions that can and should be used to derive templates for inquiry that respond to specific research questions, settings, and demands across academic disciplines.


1.  Critical research of this type from Latin America has been named, among other things, "horizontal," "grass roots," "participatory," "democratic," and "alternative communication" (McAnany, 1986). See Huesca & Dervin (1994) for a fuller explication of the dialectical play between theory and practice in the Latin American research tradition.

2.  The list of individual studies is wide-ranging and too numerous to include in this article. A sampling of this research is included in recent collections such as Dowmunt (1993), Girard (1992), Schneider & Wallis (1988), and Thede & Ambrosi (1991).

3.  For a more complete discussion of "subject theorizing," see Huesca (1995b, 1996).

4.  Downing's (1984) work represents one of the few efforts to bridge multiple genres.

5.  Entree to these sites was facilitated by Bolivian researcher Luis Ramiro Beltrán and officials of the Bolivian Federation of Tin Miner's Unions in La Paz. National union officials reviewed this project and wrote a letter of support, which functioned as a prescreening and endorsement to local unions and radio practitioners in the three sites of this study.

6.  For a more detailed account of the ethnographic model used in this study, see Huesca (1995a, 1995b).

7.  The difficulty of breaking out of static theorizing runs from early attempts of reconceptualizing communication process -- Berlo's (1960) Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver model is the clearest example of this -- to the current reinscription of sender-receiver assumptions in the very language of "reception" studies.

8.  I offer a highly abridged version of this concept here. See the cited works for fuller detail, in addition to chapter one of the doctoral dissertation on which this article is based in part (Huesca, 1994).

9.  Given space limitations here, these are extremely abbreviated examples. See chapter 5 of Huesca (1994) for a complete account.

10.  Several qualitative methods books have adopted performance metaphors without fully developing them theoretically, thus tacitly attesting to their utility (Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Wolcott, 1990). My understanding of performance is informed by Bruner (1986), Conquergood (1988), Pool (1991), and Schechner (1993).

11.  This was the executive order that resulted in the firing of 20,000 of the state's mining work force of 27,000.


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