The impressions of a tourist who became a migrant in the academic hut

Reflecting on two Faculty Workshops and an international conference on Contours of Media Governance held under Media Policy  & Law Project, Dr. Kannamma Raman feels in this write up that they provided her ‘time to pause, think, recharge and go back with optimism’.

In the public lecture delivered by Prof. Francois Heinderyckx in the inaugural session of the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity” organized by the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance (CCMG), he highlighted the difference between “communication native”and“communication migrants’. The former are those who have studied communication, probably earned a PhD in the same and then kept on studying communication while the latter are those who have studied disciplines such as political science, computer science, psychology or whatever else and are working in areas which fall within the ambit of communication and hence consider themselves as communication scholars. This set me thinking; did I consider myself, a student of political science for well over three decades, a communication scholar. This in turn led me to mull over my experiences in the  Faculty Meets held  in Bangalore and Kishangarh and the international conference on  Media Governance.

A lot of tanks, but not much think

When I look back, the first faculty meeting that I attended in Bangalore was more like that of Alice in Wonderland; mercifully no one uttered the unforgettable “off with your head”. I felt an alien as the language, the idiom and methods were so unlike what I was used to.  I was there to speak about the course on Cyber politics that I had designed for the MA (Hons) course of the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai.

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To be very honest, when the course was designed all I had in mind was a critical evaluation of how cyberspace was redefining the political terrain both at a conceptual and practical level. As I heard speaker after speaker the panic level reached a point where I felt I had no business to be in the faculty programme. In the quietness of the guesthouse I started thinking and rethinking much of what was discussed and with a start woke up to the fact that the issue of news social media was so central to Cyber politics and yet it had completely slipped my mind.  The more I thought of it the more I realized that political science as a discipline in India had not really accorded communication its due centrality and this was the major learning outcome for me. Worse still, despite according media the status of the fourth estate we had reduced it to a fringe element.

Some of the issues that came up for discussion included how political concepts like identity, nation, public/private, voting, political campaigning, citizens’ participation are being redefined. The issue of using information and communication technology to teach the course was taken up. It became clear during the lively discussion that efforts must be taken to fill in the lacunae of a Master’s programme in Politics not giving adequate attention to the role of media. This once again drove home the point how the insularity of various disciplines is suicidal and it is in the interest of all that more such faculty programmes are organized.

By the time I went to the second faculty workshop in November 2012 I was no longer the wide-eyed tourist. I was  a bit more surefooted, familiar and comfortable  with some of the participants. This time my focus was on teaching public policy – a course that I have been teaching passionately for more than 15 years. Based on my experience as, if it might be so said, a pioneer in the field in the department this was an apt forum to share my angst. Hearing Dr. Anindya Chaudhuri map the way public policy was being taught or rather not taught in the country gave a sense of déjà vu. It also reinforced Jean-Pierre Lehmann’s view that in Asia there are a lot of tanks, but not much think. Without a doubt the academic world has completely neglected teaching public policy, a discipline often described as a “sunrise industry”.

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At least the proverbial blind persons asked to describe an elephant had something to grasp or feel—a sharp tusk, a rough hide, or a quivering trunk. A sighted person asked to describe the field of public policy analysis has a far more difficult task. The field is ever-changing, with multiple strands, practitioners, goals, and audiences. Unlike most academic fields, it does not spring from a single discipline and is not the exclusive province of academia. A turf war between different disciplines has actually led to this sorry state of affairs and it is hardly surprising that a faculty workshop that was so interdisciplinary became a forum for some very spirited debates.

The Policy science par excellence’: Political Science vs. Economics

The enthusiastic debate and the possibility of newer perspective emerging led to my reworking the presentation for the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity”. The paper sought to trace the emergence of the discipline in the 1960s when Harold Lasswell noted that political science was “the policy science par excellence.” According to Lasswell the three distinct characteristics of science of policy are that it is:

  • multi-disciplinary,
  • problem solving, and
  • normative.

Ultimately public policy is, as Harold Lasswell argued, concerned with “who gets what,” and those choices are a result of intense political activity. This led to alternate conceptions and approaches to policy process. While this did represent some of the richness of the discipline of political science, they also do represent some of the confusion built into the discipline. This is especially a problem if a student is seeking a single “right answer” and finds it frustrating that there may not be one. The availability of multiple approaches and none of them leading us towards a ‘perfect’ answer can be frustrating.  The use of these multiple lenses that seeks to explain that institutions matter, but the exercise of overt political power also matter, provides a richer view of the reality and, while providing no simple answer, does help us to understand how policy is made and what its effects may be. However, it does not please those who are seeking to train policy analysts who can generate the best policy option that can be put into practice.

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Rational Choice Theory: Panacea for all problems ?

Meanwhile as the decades have passed, economics, not political science, has emerged as the preeminent policy science. This is primarily because in the United States many scholars and practitioners believed that all challenges confronting governments, even war, could be solved using quantitative, analytical approaches. It was during this time, therefore, that the study of economics, statistics and other quantitative analytical methods gained prominence in the new discipline of public policy. The rational choice theory seemed to be the panacea for all problems and the neatness of the approach was and continues to be seductive. This seemed so especially in comparison to the rather messy, and some might say incoherent approach, that political science took.

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All this has created apprehensions in the mind of scholars committed to the project of teaching public policy. Some of the questions that they need to address, but they rarely address, are:  what do they teach and how do they teach it? Since public problems rarely fit neatly into the self-contained spheres of academic disciplines, the study of public policy cannot be confined to any disciplinary boundary. But can a scholar switch hats from political science to biology to economics without causing confusion about the area of study and without damaging the credibility of their imparted knowledge? Two inadequate pedagogical orientations have also been demanding attention. These are, to put it in a very broad perspective:

  •  an academically oriented political science that struggles to be relevant to the policy needs of government but is completely  acclimatized and embedded in the larger  political factors that shape government decisions; and
  • the other that seeks  a professionally oriented public policy analysis committed to resolving problems by emphasizing primarily on technical solutions and treat interests, power, and ideology like they do not matter and need not bear on the work of policy analysts.

Reconciling Individual Behaviouralism with post Positivist theories of Public Policy

Given the emphasis on “job-oriented” courses and the neo-liberal framework that permeates the academic environment the second approach is being promoted at various levels. However a ray of optimism for the votaries of the first approach is that over the last two decades, scholars have taken interest in reconciling individual behaviouralism with more contextual, post-positivist theories of public policy. A gradual movement away from the technocratic “handmaiden” approach to a greater recognition of the existence of a “multiplicity of perceived realities” is happening. The increasing complexity of the governance environment – policy making through networks – further demands a shift in policy skills. During the last decade terms on governance, institutional capacity, networks, complexity, discourses, trust, deliberation and interdependence has captured our imagination. Solutions to these problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad (e.g., choosing among divergent risks – using pesticides on crops vs. risking famine; using air bags in cars carrying small children).

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It is in this context that faculty programmes and conferences organized by the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance become particularly vital.  It was also a pleasure hearing so many scholars from across the world sharing their experience and the network that emerged should motivate and help sustain flagging spirits. For me hearing Dr. Daniel Drache speak so optimistically about cyber was heartening as I do agree with the view expressed that probably as academic we tend to focus far too much on the negatives. It is this optimism that was a take away from the conference.

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Personally speaking…

I have pondered over what I have been teaching and the outcome has been both tangible and intangible. The revised Semester IV paper on Cyber politics and the new elective Democracy and Media are direct outcome of the programmes. An equally important aspect of the workshops and the conference has been the amazing camaraderie that I was able to benefit from. It was truly astonishing that within a short period people coming from different disciplines and various parts of the country/world could so effortlessly learn from each other. It was equally heartwarming to learn from scholars across the world that the issues we are grappling with seem to bother them as well. I am absolutely sure that this network is going to be very significant as we will not only learn from each other to appreciate different points of view but also seek support from when things get difficult. These workshops and conference for me has been a time to pause, think, recharge and go back with optimism.

I can now confidently say that the tourist has become a migrant who will hopefully contribute to the multi-disciplinary academic hut.

Dr. Kannamma Raman teaches Political Science and Public Policy in Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. She has designed and offers a course on Cyber politics for the students of MA in Political Science.

This entry was published on May 10, 2013 at 5:53 pm. It’s filed under Communication Studies, Media Justice, Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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