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Liber Amicorum James Stappers

edited by
Ed Hollander
Paul Rutten
Coen van der Linden
Houten: (1995) Bohn Stafleu van Loghum

Bart Nillesen
On the scientific frame of 'voorlichting1
The term 'voorlichting' has come to be used over the years for a wide variety of
activities which can be subsumed under the study of public coramunication.
However, this term does not seem to fit into any neat existing internationally
recognized category, which would still leave it specific enough to stand out, as it
somehow appears to do with the Dutch-speaking peoples e.g., in the Netherlands,
Flanders, or South Africa. An alternative strategy would be to stick with the term
'voorlichting', leaving it untranslated like 'apartheid' or 'verzuiling', as if it were
aprehensible what is meant by it. But, native professionals and scientists alike, are
found to use rather different Anglo-Saxon terms (and meanings) like: public
relations, extension education, adult education, public information, guidance,
enlightenment, or propaganda, to make clear to foreigners what Dutch-speaking
peoples mean by 'voorlichting'. This pragmatic attitude reveals that 'voorlichting'
appears to be rather a formidable translucent concept. Moreover, there will not be
many English-speakers who will be even able to pronounce the word 'voorlichting'
somewhat intelligibly. So, if not for scientific rigor but as mere courtesy towards
inquisitive foreigners, this issue needs to be dealt with. But, an analysis which
would do justice to this multangular issue requires considerable space, therefore a
decision has to be made to say a little about a lot, or a lot about a little, as it can be
sound to do either. Because all scientific knowledge and research is based on some
explicit or implicit theoretical notions of the object under enquiry, it seems plausible
one might be able to get an idea about the state of the art from the type of research
that is being utilized. We will present, from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, what can
considered to be the current dominant scientific frame of the art of 'voorlichting'.

'Voorlichting' as public communication

Nillesen en Stappers (1987) have given a brief outline of the many topical
controversies concerning the Dutch government as a public communicator exercising
'voorlichting'. They indicated as well that a considerable part of the resulting
confusion has been caused by an evident lack of understanding of the true nature of
communication. In an attempt to describe in English what is understood by
'voorlichting', they suggested the adjective 'elucidation' to hint at the figuratative
meaning of 'voorlichting'. A very similar description can be found in Merton and
Lazarsfeld (1943/1957), who remarked that their concept (***) is not far removed
from the 'logic of progressive education' where children can decide for themselves.
They stated: '*** marks off from propaganda which seeks to persuade by clarion calls
and direct exhortation. The *** does not seek so much to teil people where to go,
but rather shows them the path they should choose to get there. It preserves the
individual's sense of autonomy. He makes the decision. The decision is voluntary,
not coerced. It is by indirection, not by preconception that the *** operates. It has
guidance-value [iticalization theirs]1 (p. 526). Because this is much more like a


figurative description than an operationalization, the selection and choice of words

is really uncanny familiar to the etymology of the original noun 'voorlichten' as can
be found in a Dutch dictionary. And, as will be shown, this quotation comes very
close to how the Dutch scientific founding fathers defined 'voorlichting' too. So, an
English description of what 'voorlichting' discerns from something called propaganda,
and what a Voorlichter' actually does, seems to have been close at hand all along.
One major drawback is that instead of those three stars, Lazarsfeld and Merton had
inserted' propaganda of facts', which, because of it's pejorative connotation,
immediately disqualifies itself to be set on a par with the noble art that
'voorlichting' is supposed to be. However, we will also have to agree with Larsen
(1964) who observed: 'Of course the invention of nomenclature must not be equated
with the discovery of new principles or the extension of old ones' (p. 368).
Before we arrive at the central question, our point of departure has to be made
clear. As has been implied in the opening paragraph, 'voorlichting' is considered to
be (a particular form of pursuant) public communication. The term pursuant is
introduced here to mark the fact that the sender wants to go further than the mere
offer of a message from which the receiver can gain information. This type of public
communication, like public relations, advertising, or propaganda, intends to
influence the receiver beyond the point of mere reception and interpretation of the
The formally institutionalized 'voorlichter' typically holds a public position
(responsible to management), somewhat similar to a classic gatekeeper, who
processes and/or creates messages, which are offered directly or indirectly to the
intended public. The main general public task of this communicator could be
described as: to make known, so that it will be known. This description seems to fit
journalists as well, which can be amply illustrated with an example. A Dutch
columnist, renown for his meticulous vigilance of public abuse of the denotative
meaning of language, disclaimed once in reproach to a correspondent: The pursuit of
the journalist is 'voorlichting', and 'voorlichting' does not want to leave the reader
in the dark (Heldring, 1992). However, the author must have had something quite
different in mind when he wrote two years later about the professional fulfilment of
a 'voorlichter' who had succeeded in selling a product (Heldring, 1994). So, although
no scientist, even the staunchest of language-critics appears to find himself at a loss
regarding the noumenon of this noun in relation to the phenomena of the
professions of journalist and 'voorlichter'. But, from research we know that
'voorlichting' is understood by either and others to be something quite different
from journalism (cf. Stappers & Nillesen, 1985). Moreover, quite unlike the
journalist, the professional success of the 'voorlichter' has come to be judged by the
extent to which the (delivery of the) message evoked the intended receivers to
think, act, or perform in compliance with the message. This seems to be quite rightly
so, as 'voorlichters' have been appointed to pursue just this very same purpose. The
institutions who hire these people, or run a department under this epithet, do so in
the name of the common good. According to their policy, particularly adults and
grown-ups have to be taught and/or persuaded to do this or leave that. Messages
have been constructed, ranging from 'Use this fertilizer', or 'Use that contraceptive',
to the visual message for men (buttressed with an English [sic!] lyric that collides
with the intended meaning of the message1): 'When women say no they mean that


to mean no'. These messages have alluding intentions, ranging from improving
production and the prevention of the clap, to raising moral standards by trying to
surpass sheer stupidity. Obviously, the immediate interests and stakes involved can
be substantial for society as a whole, e.g., the boosting of food-production
immediately after the war, or the prevention of the further spread of AIDS. But, that
still does not explain why nowadays nearly any perceived societal problem seems to
be accompanied with a cry for more 'voorlichting'. Particularly policy makers, who
want to show off their laudable intentions, seem to consider 'voorlichting' as an
instrument which is the most viable (and cheapest) panacea to induce and achieve
change, or correct and prevent abarration. The prominence of this concern can of
course be seen as a message by itself, but does not necessarily have to be concurrent
with the actual message thas has been offered. Nevertheless, the increase in
popularity of 'voorlichting' remains puzzling, as it seems not at all to be retarded in
the light of an unequivocal lack of apparant previous success.
Aid and support to facile exhortation was sought and found in academe, when
research funds were made available. Since then, several academie disciplines have
acquired and reserved a prominent place for 'voorlichting' in their curriculum. The
study of 'voorlichting' has been institutionalized at several universities with
Professorships in: 'landbouwvoorlichting' (extension education), 'agologische
voorlichting' (adult education), and 'gezondheidsvoorlichting en opvoeding' (health
education). In general terms one might say that agricultural extension education is
studied by rural sociologists, adult education belongs to the study of andragology,
and health education is mainly studied by social psychologists. Next to these three
'fields' of 'voorlichting', we can distinguish 'overheidsvoorlichting' (public
information from government), but in contrast to the others, there is no particular
science responsible or Professorial chair avalaible. Quite an extensive range of other
scientists like jurists, sociologists, administrative scientists, and communication
scientists have played this field too.
The art of 'voorlichting': founding fathers
For reasons of brevity the remainder of this article will have to be restricted to the
core of the ideas of the founding father Van den Ban (extension education), with a
short side-step to the other founder Van Gent (adult education). Van den Ban
(1965), who had the honour to be appointed as the first professor in the
'voorlichtingskunde' (= the art of 'voorlichting') stressed in his inaugural the
importance of helping people to help themselves. With this observation he firmly put
the intended receiver in the focus of his field. Van den Ban (1980) defines
'voorlichting' as consciously granted help by means of communication, with the
forming of opinions or the taking of decisions. The importance of the receiver is
further stressed in another hallmark of 'voorlichting', namely: the receiver is
supposedly left free to decide for himself. This provides a way out of the evident
predicament in case the current forming of opinions or the taking of decisions, is not
considered by the sender to be in accordance with what is supposed to be to the best
interest of the receiver. The reasoning goes something like this: Although the
intended receiver initially will have to give way to the initiative (on his behalf) of
the sender, he will afterwards be left free to make up his own mind and decide for
himself. But, one wonders if not any offer is an intrusion upon his freedom in the
first place, and moreover, whether the freedom to make up his own mind is so typical


of 'voorlichting', as any act of communication without a real threat can not forsake
this option.
Van den Ban introduced the term communication in his definition to restrict the
meaning of help, because not all forms of help e.g., warm clothing or subsidies,
although offered as aid for the benefit of the receiver, are supposed to be
'voorlichting'. However, he equates a particular form of pursuant public
communication with the general term communication implying an instrumental use
of communication. Nevertheless, the interest of the so named clint lies clearly at
the heart of the matter, and is explicitly intented to set 'voorlichting' apart from
propaganda, advertising and public relations. From a communication science point of
view this centrality of the potential receiver, together with the explicit mention of
communication is rather intriguing. But, unfortunately his conception of
communication is relinquished from this source. Elsewhere Van den Ban (1963)
defined communication consistent with Hartley and Hartley (1952), or elaborated on
it using the explicit linear 'SMCR-model of the ingredients in communication' of Berlo
(1960), which he called the 'SMCRE-model' (Van den Ban, 1974, p. 60).
The study of andragology should, according to Van Gent (1989), concentrate
exclusively on adult education, and strive to become an interdisciplinary science
'capable of helping different types of adult educators to solve at least some of their
riddles' (p. 25). His main theoretical interest, which can also be recognized from his
definitions (Van Gent, 1973; 1985), seems to be the ethics of 'voorlichting' (cfr. Van
Gent, 1994). Along to the already stated primacy of the interest of the clint, and
the freedom of the clint to make his own decisions, he also considers (in contrast
with education) the limited time-character of the granted help in regard to a specific
problem as a hallmark of 'voorlichting'. He appears to be well aware that the freedom
of the clint to decide for himself, may also lead to less favourable consequences for
himself and/or society as a whole, but that can not be helped. Van Gent does not
use the term communication, but speaks instead of granted help by means of the
supply of information. It becomes evident from his explanation, that he considers
information to be equivalent to the factual content of the message, and not as
something what a receiver has gained from the message, Moreover, the editors Hake
and Morgan (1989) remind us that Van Gent as well as other contributing Dutch
androgologists, regard adult education, not from an educational or learning
paradigm like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, but in terms of theories of
communication. Communication theory, regarded as the study of the diffusion and
adoption of knowledge and social innovations (p. 5).
So, in line with the notion that 'voorlichting' is a pursuant public offer, we are left
with what looks like a momentous contradiction. In theory 'voorlichting' is
considered to be an aid by means of communication or information for the benefit of
the clint. But, from the implicit notions about communication and information, as
supplied by these founding fathers, one has to conclude that their central
conceptions are apparantly understood to operate in a linearly fashion from the sole
perspective of the sender.
As Van den Ban was rooted firmly in the science of rural sociology, it is not so
strange that he made abundant use of knowledge derived from the studies of the
diffusion of innovations. However, at first sight it seems less clear why also the
andragologists (cfr. Van Gent, 1990) still appear to rely on this source. A possible
reason might be, that these particular studies have always been primarily designed

and carried out in an explicit pursuit to improve the world by encouraging people to
welcome, receive and adopt the blessings of the findings of science. In this type of
research it is endeavored to determine, by means of a respondents' self-report on
hindsight, what (in)formal channels have been chronologically used by what type of
adopters in making their decision how soon to adopt a particular innovation. In
other words, instead of studying pursuant public communication trom the goals of
the sender as an interdependent whole with how and why some people get to know
or act and others not, focus has been on the perceived use and influence of channels
according to long-term memory of only adopters. And it is in these studies of
adoption we recognize plenty of impetus to what appears to have become the core of
standard knowledge of the art of 'voorlichting' (cfr. Wapenaar, Rling & Van den
Ban, 1989; Rling, Kuiper & Janmaat, 1994). However, these in very small and
rather tight-knit farm communities conducted case-studies are only concerned with
adopters of particular innovations, and are known for their general lack of
theoretical orientation (cfr. Taves & Gross, 1952). Moreover, the fact that these
results are not very generalizable (cf. Coughenour, 1965; Marsh & Coleman, 1956;
Mason, 1964) does not seem to make them very suitable for the explicit public
orientation 'voorlichting' has, and the variety of general purposes it is thought to
serve. The reason why studies of the diffusion of innovations are continued to be so
popular must be because they are rather easy to perform, and are pre-established to
deliver clear-cut results. However, they have only been carried out to determine the
suggested efficacy of reported utilized channels, rather than an attempt to
comprehend and relate how and why processes of communication might have
contributed to the adoption. When one has to rely on this tradition, there is
another drawback, which only recently came to the fore. The study of adoption of
innovations, which was particularly undertaken with much vigor in the passing of
traditional societies, was for instance based on the offer to farmers of often highly
valued and profitable help, like messages on how to improve production quotas.
Whereas nowadays, similar help consists often out of the offer of messages
concerning legal restrictions on manure-spreading or cut-backs of live-stock, which
are not so eagerly anticipated or particularly highly valued by them. Anyway, the
County Agent of the agricultural extension service seems to have served as a rolemodel for the 'voorlichter' as described by Van den Ban and understood by Van
Gent. According to White (1953) the extension rural sociologist: must help people to
approach their problems and projects in a manner likely to be productive and
satisfying. He must help them to acquire, analyze, and organize pertinent
information and ideas. He must help them to grasp the full meaning of their desires
for activity and change, to develop sound plans, and to carry out those plans
effectively (p. 174). From this job-description as well, it reads as if the helper is the
only active party that really matters. Bauer (1963) was one of the first who posited
firmly the initiative and intent of the audience, vis-a-vis that of the public
communicator. And according to him, the question whether help would be accepted,
is a function of two factors 1) Does one feel a need for help?, 2) Does one have
significant self-confidence to be able to accept help?' (p. 5). And to be able to
determine whether we are dealing with 'voorlichting', these questions might be
preceded by questions like 'Does one perceive it as an offer to help?', and 'Does one
regard the offer as help?' Finally, the question 'Does the receiver get the help he
needs?' remains to be answered. Moreover, to be helped implies that one not only
has to recognize, but also has to trust the helper, and neither of which is

particularly left to the determination of only the helper.

So, in summary there is an awful lot more going on in the transaction called
'voorlichting', then just the offer to help in pursuing the intended receiver to decide
to adopt. And such a new perspective will inevitably have to let go of the view of
receivers as targets in favour of attention for senders, messages, receivers, and
context, as interdependent constituent parts of the public communication process.
Therefore, it is obvious we also have to disagree with the suggestion of Katz
(1960/1964) and his envisaged convergence of rural sociology and communication
science: 'that the [scientific] study of communication will surely profit from their
increasing interchange' (p. 120). The traditional diffusion of innovation studies seem
to restrain the broader perspective which the actual study of pursuant public
communication requires. From a public communication point of view, the scientific
study of 'voorlichting' entails definitely more than what the findings of the studies
of the diffusion of innovations are able to supply.

1 The chorus line of the popular song You can 't always get what you want by the Rolling Stones, is
blatantly followed by ...but if you sometimes try you might find you'11 get what you need.

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