Bohm’s Approach to Dialogue – Applicable to Identity Dialogue?

David Bohm presents a theoretical framework of dialogue as a communication tool and solution to overcoming inherent communication incoherency, assumptions and thought patterns in On Dialogue.



Bohm is a physicist who is most noted for his work on communication theory and dialogue. This specialization gives him a sort of outsider perspective that enables greater clarity of theory on dialogue, and enables him to frame much of his ideas about dialogue in terms that go beyond just social constructivism.

Bohms’ contribution and communication theory are premised on the notion that there is an inherent contradiction in thought, which immediately makes an object of thought and by extension of the self. In dialogue we need to learn to suspend this negative sense of incoherence endemic to thought so we can see it in ourselves and then drop it. As such, Bohm is really the first theoretician to posit dialogue as a method of human relations and a strategy for group consciousness raising.

To Bohm, thought creates an image of an individual self who is supposed to be the source of thought but he is alienated from the processes of a mechanized thought pattern that has come to dominate his reality. Marx would have taken this further to ask: what does he do as an active citizen living out a mechanized or automated existence in social reality?

Reading Bohm in the twenty-first century we notice that much of his theory of dialogue is not compatible with identity-based dialogue, and in some ways is not compatible with social justice dialogues.

Firstly, identify-based dialogue requires participants to never suspend judgments; to come to the dialogue with the purpose of expressing a personal narrative of identity, whereas Bohm’s dialogues seem to place greater emphasis on group dynamics, down-playing the central role of the individual and the individuals self expression in the dialogue. Bohm’s group dialogue model doesn’t address intergroup and intragroup identity dynamics and issues either.

His model of participatory thought seems designed to envelop the individual in an experience of “participatory thought” that places less emphasis on the individuals ego in strengthening and understanding its own social role, and more emphasis is put on enabling the participant to realize the objectified and externalized nature of their own thought processes through participation in dialogue. Here we notice that Bohm’s group dialogue seems to envelop the individual participant as an objectless agent in an alienated world, and their participation in dialogue enables this realization.

The entire basis of Bohm’s theory of group dialogue presupposes an inherent disconnect within thought itself. Bohm posits that all individual views are just made up of thought, or an objectified and patterned reflex imposed on the individual from years of social conditioning. While identity-based dialogue and social justice dialogues can benefit from Bohm’s idea that “assumptions function as an observer,” in helping to challenge complex issues such as oppression and even internalized oppression.

Bohm’s idea of suspending assumptions on a “knife’s edge” is an important concept for participants of all forms of dialogue. Yet I found myself confused when reading this idea over whether Bohm is implying that suspension should be an assertive internal bringing to the surface of the assumption, or a passive hold onto it attitude. Again, I want to point out the complexity of applying Bohm’s notion of suspension in a social justice or identity-based dialogue. Because Bohm’s emphasis on the group realization process is indicative of the 1960’s zeitgeist and ethos that stressed notions of collectivity, and anarchic group processes.

When we apply Bohm to this generation of dialogue, especially considering the post 1990’s fascination with deliberative democracy and intergroup dialogue we notice some interesting incompatibilities and contradictions in Bohm’s approach and theory to current methodologies of identity-based dialogue and intergroup dialogue.
Bohm’s contribution to the field of dialogue is most interesting as it grounds dialogue in terms of human perception, and it isolates the role of participatory dialogue in transcending inherent contradictions in communication.

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