Dialectics of Ambivalence

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Michel J. Menou
City University

Most issues regarding ICT applications, and social issues at large, are usually addressed as if there will be distinct options (e.g. positive and negative) and as if people had a clearcut preference for one or another.

In reality most choices and circumstances people face involve a tension between options which are themselves ambivalent or ambiguous.

There is a need to learn how to observe, analyze and act upon these nested contradictions.


Fluency in the dialectics of ambivalence is especially useful all along the "project" cycle" for the analysis of the initial situation of a community, to the assessment of the outcomes of its community development efforts . It helps articulating a compounded judgement on facts, constraints, expectations and achievements. It feeds proactive negociation within the community.


Christina Courtright
Doctoral Student
School of Libarary and INformation Science
Indiana University

Proponents of "digital inclusion" often highlight the benefits of collective access to information and communication technologies (ICT). Many such arguments are based primarily on the faute de mieux rationale of the prohibitive cost for many of owning technology tools. Yet individual ownership, and individual -or even private- use is not only the dominant (imposed) economic model but also a preferred behavior. It has been observed that intensity of use and satisfaction with ICT augmented when switching from collective to individual access (1). However, the preference for individual ownership and use coexists with the recognition that not only may technology be financially out of reach, but also that under certain circumstances (e.g., when learning how to use the facility or when encountering particularly stimulating resources), one wishes to share with others the experience of learning and using ICT. Moreover, the positive aspects of the collective mode may be further reinforced by additional experiences found in different milieux, such as those outside the classroom, family home or work place, participating in related useful activities (e.g., training or social work).

We are therefore confronted with a dialectic that is not straightforward in Hegelian terms. The
thesis and the antithesis are both ambivalent, borrowing pros and cons from each other, though marginally, and incorporating additional factors which are themselves bringing a mix of pros and cons. The synthesis is consequently far more subtle, balanced and progressive. It is also likely to result in a new confrontation between no less ambivalent poles. Miller and Slater(2) have highlighted this phenomenon of dialectical evolution, which they called "dynamics". However, in their interpretation, these "dynamics" are described as a tension between homogeneous drives, for instance, to be more oneself (Trinidadian par excellence) while also becoming more another self, creator of a new (cyber) universe. In the system we describe, these two forces can be seen as part of a single pole which is itself working with/against another one both with an ambivalent combination of visibility and privacy drives. One pole is constituted by the private self who is necessarily also socially situated, while the other is constituted by the collective self who also needs to focus privately on his or her own learning processes.

An additional layer of complexity resides in the fact that this dialectical process among ambivalent forces is played out in each of the domains where real people live and communicate: personal, family, social, professional. In each of them, communications may take place in both analog (i.e., non-electronic exchanges with others) and digital form. In most instances, the effect of digital communication cannot be explained without taking into account those of analog communication. Furthermore, there is no strict boundary, at least in terms of knowledge base, among these different domains, and they all interact, as Menou contended in an earlier paper, constituting among them a complex "composite space" (3).

In such a situation, most established tools and procedures for assessing an initial situation,
designing ICT applications that can serve community goals, monitoring their effects, and assessing their outcomes or impact, are grossly inadequate. For instance, asking people if the intensity of their face-to-face social relationships is reduced by their use of the Internet is nonsensical within this framework, as the communication is obviously taking place amidst a set of dialectical ambivalences that seek both more and less interaction in both modes, with both more and less openness or exposure.


Use methods of data collection, analysis and discussion of findings that combine the opposite values of each factor. An example is the Yin-Yang scale Menou has proposed (3). Avoid unidirectional scales.

The "Sense-Making" theory and methodology developed by Brenda Dervin is another example of an enquiry process which maintains a strong association between opposite factors.
The project cycle should be accompanied by a open, collective and continuous process of learning. The command and control activities in design, managing and evaluating should be left aside of the above learning process
Nested micro-projects based upon people's real need should be preferred to large catch all projects where people's conscientization is very difficult, if at all attempted.

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