Who Needs Institutions When You’ve Got Soap Operas

Great Lakes scholar Betsy Levy Paluck and academic superstar Donal Green teamed up to study a radio program intervention in Rwanda. Apparently, Rwandan soap operas can have a huge impact:

Our evidence suggests that certain behavioral aspects of political culture are malleable in the short run. A mass media program was sufficient to shift perceived norms of open expression and local responsibility for community problems, as well as actual expression and dissent about sensitive community issues such as trust and resource distribution.  Listeners did not become contrarians or antiauthoritatrians – for example, when reconciliation listeners decided to take collective responsibility for [a] hypothetical refugee problem, they created roles for local authorities in their decision-making process.

I thought people were over all that fluffy media sensitization stuff. It’s all about institutions and governance now, right?

Political science is concerned with the ways institutions are internalized – it is one thing to write legislation and enact policies, and it is another for citizens to recognize opportunities and constraints set by these institutions. Clearly, mass communication is an important way in which institutions are translated for public understanding. This leads to the question: is institutional change a necessary condition for changing public understanding of institutions and constraints? The provocative suggestion of our current finds is that perhaps it is sufficient to encourage a new understanding of social norms of dissent, deference, or dispute resolution using the media, rather than to launch far-reaching changes in law or policy.

This excellent paper is well worth a read, as is the rest of Paluck’s research on prejudice, conflict resolution and behavioral change in the Great Lakes.

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