From Technological Determinism to Self-Empowerment and Social Change. An Experience from Kenya

Valentina Baú
Publication Date
December 18, 2014

"Through the application of participatory approaches to video-making in the aftermath of a conflict, a process of appropriation of video technology occurs within communities who want to tell their own story. The possibility of using video to facilitate communication between enemy groups, victims and perpetrators, can open the path toward social change and sustainable peace."

In this book chapter, Valentina Baú explores the role of technology - specifically, participatory video-making - to empower people who are affected by conflict by offering a channel for dialogue. First, Baú introduces the concept of participatory communication, explaining how communication theory has evolved from a two-step information flow to the recognition of a process of dialogue that takes place between sender and receiver. Here, the key component is the process of creation, sharing, and contestation of meanings and values, such as those that divide perpetrators and victims of violence. This section is then followed by an illustration of the relationship between technology and social change, with a presentation of the main theories that were developed in this area. This is accompanied by a discussion that questions these approaches and puts forward an alternative view of how communication technologies can bring about new communication practices that lead to change in local communities - to the end of building peace within a social system that has been fractured by violence. As an illustration, Baú analyses a participatory video project implemented in the Rift Valley of Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 post-election violence. This case study brings to light the perception participants had of their video-production activities and subsequent screenings as a contribution to sustainable peace in their communities.

The view that Baú presents is in contrast with theories of technological determinism, which focus on the reduction in human agency that can follow as technological change follows its own imperative. (Baú examines several different approaches to determinism, some stronger, some weaker.) A participatory approach, on the other hand, allows for flexibility in the use of the medium; this prevents the product from being defined by its own technology's structure. Within this context, technology is neither to be viewed as an external element that is forced upon a group nor as a value-free asset (as it is still being regarded in certain practices), but as a new tool that allows communities affected by conflict to take ownership of their own development through communication. Baú examines the concept of "participation" in media technologies as it has been explored by various scholars. She also looks at the instrument of video in particular, discussing the sharing in the process of both the "communication expert" and the community. In particular, the messages created by way of the camera can be used horizontally - taken from one place to another (e.g., from village to village) and shared directly with the people without the need of negotiating with a gatekeeper. Barriers of traditional literacy do not stand in the way, either. Furthermore, the viewer is exposed to both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication that pass on greater degrees of information.

Baú describes her participatory video project, which was inspired by the widespread civil violence that broke out following the announcement of the December 2007 presidential election. Through the research she conducted in the Rift Valley, a largely rural area, at the end of 2012, she collected the views of 10 people between the ages of 19 and 35 belonging to different ethnic backgrounds (mostly from the formerly warring tribes of Kalenjin and Kikuyu). Having been participants in a Mercy Corps peacebuilding programme called Local Empowerment for Peace (LEAP), these young people took part in the production of participatory videos, facilitated by Insightshare. In the videos, 12 of the programme beneficiaries tell their story of the conflict and how they had overcome their anger and hatred toward the (former) warring tribe as a result of their participation in LEAP. Baú's research focused on the participants' experience with the video technology, and how such experience can be recognised to be one of the paths to change and peace after a conflict.

Specifically, she considers 4 different dimensions that have connected this medium to the communication process of recounting participants' own stories of violence, along with their new commitment to peace. The discussion clarifies these dimensions - appropriation of technology, self-empowerment, technology as facilitator, and participatory approach to the use of video technology - and illustrates participants' views through quotations. As this section of the paper demonstrates: "The youths who took part in the project underwent a process of self-empowerment owed to this new means of communication, which helped them reach a large audience for the important message of peace they were carriers of." It allowed people to tell the story they wanted others to hear, bringing together victims and perpetrators to collaborate in the media content production - making video the connecting element. In short, "giving people the opportunity to participate in shaping the content and use of a new communication channel offered to them by a media technology can lead to a positive transformation within communities. This is particularly important in contexts where relationships were broken by violence."

In conclusion: "communication technologies can facilitate community-driven processes that bring about social change and sustainable development."


Chapter 13 (pages 243-258) in Technological Determinism and Social Change: Communication in a Tech-Mad World, edited by Jan Servaes, Lexington Books. Image credit: Gallo Images/AFP/Tony Karumba