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Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire
© University of East Anglia
“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Participatory approaches to using media for development have often been inspired by the work of Paulo Freire. It is useful, therefore, to understand some of the key ideas within his work – especially the concepts of ‘praxis’ and ‘problem-posing’.

Freire was a Brazilian adult educator who developed a critical philosophy of education (pedagogy) based on his experiences of working with poor, illiterate communities in Brazil in the early 1960s. Although his radical pedagogy was originally developed for education, the basic principles have also been used to think about the role of media and communication within international development.

The starting point of Freire’s arguments is a belief in the existence of an unjust social order which produces both the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’. This unjust order can be challenged, Freire argued, by promoting critical thinking amongst the oppressed. Freire refers to this awakening of critical consciousness as a process of conscientização or ‘conscientization’. The ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (1970), which he outlines in his book of the same name, is a pedagogy designed to promote conscientization. Two key features of this pedagogy are praxis and problem-posing.

The term praxis refers to a process of ‘reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it’. Freire argues that this process ‘makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation’. Within this process, the two elements of (1) reflection and (2) action are always working together. True reflection, Freire claims, is necessary for identifying the causes of oppression and will always lead to action. Equally, action without critical reflection is ‘pure activism’.

The role of communication in this cycle of action and reflection is highlighted by Freire’s discussions of the importance of dialogue. He argues that critical dialogue among the oppressed is central to ensuring their liberation. But precisely what form should this dialogue take?

A second, key feature of Freire’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is a ‘problem-posing’ dialogue. In this form of communication, open and thought-provoking questions are used to invite participants to reflect critically and collectively on their own experiences in order to unveil the true reality of their oppression and its causes. Once their oppression is revealed through dialogue, it can become a site of action. In this way, a problem-posing dialogue is crucial for driving the cycle of praxis – because it prompts initial critical reflection and because it subsequently maintains a cycle of action and reflection.

The question is, though, what kinds of media, if any, are appropriate for such a participatory, problem-posing style of communication? The tendency of mass media, such as television, billboards and newspapers, to favour one-way communication severely limits their relevance. Instead, such critical dialogue is far better suited to media that are widely accessible and do not require certain levels of expertise, resources or (media) literacy. Such media should be able to promote local group interaction and reflection and should be owned and controlled by the community rather than by the government or elites. Appropriate media may therefore include community radio, suitable forms of video and photography, interactive posters, visual aids and traditional folk media.


Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books.

© University of East Anglia
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