Interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies: A symposium-1

Centre for Culture, Media & Governance organized a symposium on Interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies on 6 November 2013 at Tagore Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The following scholars made presentations in the symposium:

1. Prof. David Deacon, Professor of Communication and Media Analysis and Head of Department for Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK

2. Dr.  Laura Stein, Associate Professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas, Austin, US.

3. Prof. Biswajit DasProfessor and Director, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

4. Prof. Graham Murdock, Professor of Culture and Economy, Loughborough University, UK

5. Dr. Emily Keightley, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, UK

6. Prof. John Downey, Professor of Comparative Media, Loughborough University, UK 

7. Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas, Associate Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, Australia

8. Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, Professor, Azim Premji University, India

The Indian Medialogue presents transcript of the proceedings moderated by Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas. Below is the first part.

Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas

Associate Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, Australia

Let me begin with the notion of interdisciplinarity. It would seem that the field of Communication Studies has always been interdisciplinary. How could we describe Communication Studies without referring to all the other disciplines that we take part in? If you look at universities offering Communication Studies, you will find that most of their courses are pretty interdisciplinary in any case. So I would like to know, and am keen to understand, what is new about interdisicplinarity in today’s world. I strongly feel that we have always practised interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies. Communication Studies has never had its own home in that sense; it has always been a mixed field.

But I wait to hear the experts, and the proceedings are as follows. We have three speakers. Prof. David Deacon and Dr. Emily Keightley will start with their presentation of about fifteen minutes. This will be followed by Dr. Laura Stein, who will do the same thing, and then Prof. Biswajit Das. Once we have heard the main speakers, we will have a discussion. We will also have Prof. Graham Murdock, who will come online for about seven or ten minutes. Then we will have Prof. John Downey and Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, who will also say a couple of things.  Let me begin by asking David and Emily to make their presentation.

Prof. David Deacon

Professor of Communication and Media Analysis and Head of Department for Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK

 Good morning. It is a great honour to be here, and thank you very much for the invitation. We are going to do a joint presentation, which we are going to keep very general. I should explain that this is very much the view from the UK and our take on the way things are over there, so forgive me if perhaps if it seems a bit parochial.

The first point I’d like to make is that, in my opinion, Communication Studies is a field of study and not a discipline. I think it has always been a site of interdisciplinarity and sometimes multidisciplinarity. In the UK, we can see the significant influence of Sociology, Social Psychology, Political Science, Economics, Literary Studies, History and Anthropology, and we can carry on listing the disciplines and their contributions to the field. Actually, Communication Studies is an extremely controversial field of study in the broader body politic of the UK. It is often the subject of quite negative critiques from journalists and politicians who revile Media Studies, which they do not see as a legitimate academic discipline. This is a source of extreme frustration and annoyance for us. And the criticisms are singularly uninformed, based on one hand on a certain elitist attitude (”Why should we take Cultural Studies very seriously anyway?”), and secondly on a certain anti-intellectualism.

Anyway, I do not wish to get into that particular topic, and I’d just like to say that given that Communication Studies is a field and not a discipline (and others may disagree), interdisciplinarity is a core aspect of the field. It is a field that has always welcomed what a colleague and I always refer to as ”indisciplined thinking”, which is not meant in a negative way. The advancements of the field have always been achieved through the creative usage and fusion of different research and intellectual disciplines. At the moment, we have in the UK a major exercise called the Research Excellence Framework, which is a periodic assessment of academic excellence or otherwise of various departments which happens every five to six years, and my responsibility as the head of the Department of Social Sciences is to organise our response to it.

One thing that strikes me is that interdisciplinarity is endemic across the academic sector in the UK, and in many respects Communication Studies is ahead of the curve. When I started studying this area, there was a huge interdisciplinary war between a political-economic perspectives and Cultural Studies, and the thing that struck me at the time was that it was difficult to find common ground between these polarities. It was also a field in which there seemed to be a lot of methodological purism about. You made choices, and it seemed that implicit in that war was the notion that epistemology and methodology are somehow indivisible – that you can read off from epistemological positions to methodological choices. So you can characterize this as a period of paradigm wars within the field.

I think that has changed to some degree. My ex-colleague Alan Bairner, who has retired now, has spoken more generally about interdisciplinarity within the social sciences, human sciences and methodology. He talks about an emerging period of paradigm peace, and I think we can see aspects of that within the UK. When I think back to some of the trenchant controversies and disputes between political economy and Cultural Studies perspectives in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, they seem to have receded. There now seems to be a period of uneasy truce. This peace is a good thing, I suppose – in fact, I know it. But how is it manifesting itself? Well, in the UK there is far more methodological pragmatism, as seen in multi-method approaches, especially involving the free combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, and so forth. It seems to me that the conflation of epistemology and methodology is no longer so freely evident.

What are the reasons for this? I think there are several. To consider the situation of Cultural Studies, I think it has now established its position within the firmament after fighting a significant battle through the 1960’s, ’70s and ’80s to assert itself. That is part of the reason.

But I do see areas of concern within the field: all is not great. If we take Cultural Studies, for example, we see not only a predictable external critique of that discipline, but also emerging immanent critiques among many Cultural Studies theorists about the direction or traffic for that field. For example, we see concerns about the loss of critical engagement in some aspects of the field. Is the field celebrating cultural populism or critiquing it? There are often significant questions about the extent of its engagement with the critical issues that are defining its development. Coming to political economy – and I would fully acknowledge Prof. John Downey’s contribution at this point – we can see concerns about conceptual developments within the area of political economy. To what extent is the analysis being advanced, and to what extent is the political economy of communication connecting with broader questions of political economy? Are such questions becoming increasingly specialised around communication to the exclusion of this broader engagement? Now, at this point I would like to hand over to Emily, because she is going to say something more particular about recent multidisciplinary developments within the field in the UK.

Dr. Emily Keightley

Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, UK

???????????????????????????????When I entered the field in the early 2000s, interdisciplinarity was taken for granted as a guiding principle. When looking for Research Council funding for projects, and even within universities, the principle of interdisciplinarity was taken for granted, given that it was particularly important for Media and Cultural Studies. But you’ve heard a long history of this anyway. In contemporary Media and Communication Studies, we started to see the large number of thematic subfields – for example, I work in the area of memory. Memory Studies, Border Studies, Conflict Studies emerged as hybrid subfields of  Media and Communications Studies. We have indications of this in the proliferation of journals and conferences that emerged around specific thematic issues: we have the Memory Studies Journal launched in 2008, for example. These subfields are characterized by interdisciplinarity: we also have, for example, Military Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology and Media and Communication, which is dominant. People are coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and this is an opportunity for dialogue between disciplines and much more sophisticated analytical ways of dealing with some of these themes.

But somehow the value or the potential in the formulation of these subfields has not quite been realised. I think some of that is because interdisciplinarity has been taken for granted as a guiding principle, but what that actually means in terms of analysis is less clear. The ways in which we actually do interdisciplinary work is unclear, particularly within these thematic subfields. So we get two emerging problems that are associated with this. I am particularly giving examples from Memory Studies, which is the area I work in. Although we have the presence of multiple disciplines, what tends to happen is conceptual appropriation. So the conflict emerging from one very specific disciplinary strand within the thematic subfield is picked up and used in ways that obscure, or do not really reflect, its basis and the place where it originated. One of the prime examples for this is the use of the word ”trauma” and how that concept has expanded and circulated into usages that prevent looking at the processes behind that: for example, it has been circulated from the individual to the collective in a fairly straightforward way without very much interrogation of what that transportation means. So that is just one example of the way in which this works.

And this leads to the second set of problems, which has to do with things methodological. Because we have got little common ground to speak from theoretically or epistemologically, there are problems in defining what we mean by the themes which these subfields attempt to deal with. For example, in Memory Studies, there is a large gap: an awful lot of theorizing but fairly little empirical research, because we have not developed a shared set of tools with which to do that. This is primarily because we have not developed an idea of what it really is that we are investigating, and how to have a clear discussion about what that is. For example, we have a very unclear relationship with history as a method and as a way of thinking about our relationship with the past. We have a complete exclusion of quantitative methods, along with an assumption that that is okay. Political economic approaches are very rare, and we see an increased focus on textualism which does not require broader theories necessarily – certainly, in the way it plays out it does not seem to require broader theories of social and cultural life. And we have issues around context. So what we left with, in some instances, is contexts which obscure rather than illuminate analytically, and a lack of empirical research. So the emergence of all these subfields provides us the possibility for interdisciplinary work. We really need to go back and think about what we really mean by interdisciplinary engagement, and to try and move from multidisciplinarity, where there is a presence of multiple disciplines, to interdisciplinarity which is premised on analytical conceptions and methodological dialogue.

(To be continued)

This entry was published on March 17, 2014 at 12:22 pm. It’s filed under Communication Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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