Purdue signature

Mohan Dutta

Professor of Communication
College of Liberal Arts Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education

Culture-centered communication as key to effective health campaigns

For health communication to work, the experts must go to communities and really listen to their stories. Without listening as a starting point, no amount of top-down information and persuasion can change human habits sustainably. This is where Mohan Dutta and his emphasis on culture-centered communication strategies gets involved.

"There is a gap between top-down health campaigns designed by experts and the stories that local communities are voicing," says Mohan Dutta, who emphasizes a culture-centered approach to prioritizing the health needs of local communities, which means the community participates in decision-making to identify a problem and develop corresponding solutions.

"For the people who are the poorest of the poor, health is not just about family planning interventions, clean water or immunizations; it's always first and foremost about food," Dutta says. "People are often marginalized economically because they are communicatively marginalized. Because the poor do not have a voice, they do not get a say in the policies that are directed at them by experts who don't really have a clue about the reality of their lived experiences."

In the world of health, one of the biggest challenges facing those most at risk is also the most basic: food.

Dutta, who is leading a $1.5 million grant to implement a culture-centered project directed at African Americans and heart disease, has also worked on hunger as a health problem for the last decade. Specifically, he has looked at food security and its role in health communication through studies that focus on food insecurity in India, Singapore, Bangladesh and the United States.

Dutta's culture-centered approach engages local communities in creating spaces for voicing their concerns, rather than relying on outside experts to make decisions for them. Listening to voices of local community members allows scholars and policymakers to better understand the problem and work with communities to achieve a solution that is culturally appropriate, he says. The findings of this work have been woven together in his upcoming book Communicating Social Change: Structure, Culture and Agency to be published later this year.

Always learning: This communication scholar's work extends far beyond the written or spoken word. It translates into action. He may be found out in the field cooking or serving food, translating, and yes, writing leaflets. "Our greatest learning emerges from our interactions in the field … These are the most insightful and most humbling moments."

Listening is golden: During Dutta's last visit to Singapore, he met a migrant worker to hear the man's story of time spent working away from his family for 12 years, only to become disabled and forced to return home poor. "At the end of a conversation, the worker said, 'I don't know what will come from your work, but thank you for listening to my story.' That made my journey worthwhile. That is a proud moment for me because there is something very powerful about listening."

Inspiration: Seeking out spaces for dialogue with people who are marginalized, whether it's migrant workers in India talking about food security or African Americans in Indiana about heart disease, inspires Dutta. Answers to big picture problems are in the stories of individuals and in their communities. "The inspiration for me is to always go back to those moments of listening," he says.

Actions speak louder than words: Dutta, who has been trained in folk, classical and modern dance forms, likes to share the stories he collects by dancing and acting them out in public performances, choreographies and theater workshops. His public performances and choreography have been presented by Rittwick, an Indian organization that he has served as artistic director. Dutta has also collaborated with his students for performances on marginalization and poverty presented at national and international conventions.

By Amy Patterson Neubert
Photos by: Andrew Hancock