This week, we zoom in on the role of research.  Let’s look at two different aspects: Researching movement/s and researching for/with movements. — And perhaps we will see where the two might coincide?

1.Researching movements

Let me kick the conversation off with Piia’s comment from last week:

I already thought I knew what media reform means, but now I´m lost. I tried to do this weeks task, but with no luck. When reading about reforming economic transactions I thought that yes, this is going to be an easy one. I found many interesting mobile apps and services but started to think what those has to do with media reform? Help me, I got lost!

Indeed. There is no one definition. What we have seen is a rise of loosely related movements that are not (only) using the media as a tool for democratization, but addressing the media. During the 1980s and 1990s, even early 2000s, the big fears entailed was globalization, entertainization and ownership concentration of mass-mediated public communication. The major riff between people who cared for media democratization activities was that of mainstream mass media-related policy advocacy and grassroots social justice that would engage also issues of race, gender, and other such aspects. In 2009, Robert McChesney was challenged by two young scholars to rethink his “mainstream liberal, US-focused” approach to Media Reform. Read his response from Google Drive, excerpt below:

We need far more research into how social movements have engaged with media and media reform.

There is a difference between an overarching worldview and a sweeping critique of the existing order on the one hand and the strategy and tactics of a social movement on the other.

The sort of critique some of their favored theorists make about democracy should not be and cannot be effectively transmitted to a specific critique of the strategy and tactics of the media reform movement.


One cannot necessarily infer one’s tactics directly from their overall critique and vision; nor can someone assess one’s tactical actions and necessarily grasp their overall perception of democracy and justice.

A European commentary on this debate was provided by Peter Dahlgren:

We all understand that ‘democracy’ in the world today is relative — even in the most ‘democratic’ countries it still remains a project that is struggling to be fulfilled. The concept of democracy, no doubt, embodies a mythic dimension: it is our name for the good society, and as such can probably never be fully attained, yet we must never cease to keep struggling for it. The question becomes at base practical: how best to go about this struggle.   …

[T]here is no reason that the kinds of community-based challenges to media power and social injustice that they both advocate cannot be pursued, and why links to global circumstances cannot be established. Such forms of politics abound on many fronts. Moreover, my own guess is that many such efforts would benefit by enhancing the focus on the media. Likewise, explicitly media-oriented projects are also underway; these too can be further developed. Not all of it need fly the flag of the established media reform movement.

… This recalls the necessity of parallel tracks for serious political work: activist movements, groups and parties need to continually generate relevant knowledge about the world from which strategy can be derived. Much can be and is done internally, and the indefatigable Robert McChesney looms large here. Yet, as we see, outside input is also imperative. Such critical solidarity is important in the life of a movement, offering opportunities for self-reflection. And as circumstances evolve, previously generated knowledge may be activated and incorporated for strategic purposes. In this relationship, it is important for both the political activists and those intellectuals not involved in immediate strategy that there be an optimal, comfortable distance — that sympathising intellectuals can do their work and offer their critiques in a positive atmosphere without feeling they have to capitulate to the views of the strategists.

Now, back to last week(s) and Piia’s comment. Look at our lives today. The more mediatized our lives have become, the more complex the question: What are the media? Where is the difference between reforming the media, or social justice with the help of the media. That’s what I tried to convey last week. Is Ushahidi a new (plat)form of public media, or a tool for a political democratization movement? One could argue both ways: It is a hub for crowdmapping / citizen journalism. Or, it is a techie platform for whatever activities; not specifically focused on certain content. Is Blockchain a form of communication about value, or a decentralized form of financial technology? Where do we draw the line when many movements are about platforms and technology, not content? Wouldn’t it be the role of researchers to begin to grasp the interconnectedness of issues and stakeholders?

As McChesney noted, this is one important aspect of research of the field:

To understand these intersecting issues, stakeholders, and related movements, we need to track their developments.

(To make some sense of this I drew this simple mind map).


2. Researching for/with the Movements

But then there’s the issue of engaged scholarship. Evidence/data-driven decision-making is en vogue. As you have seen, many media reform groups do plenty of (applied) research work to make their case in courts and in public. But relatively few have significant resources to do so. And, given the abundance of data but lack of solid analytical expertise — where is the “fact-checking” in this field? (Just remember our observations of PolitEcho.)

Beyond this, it is interesting that participatory action research (PAR) has been an established practice in anthropology and sociology, development research — in researching, e.g., social movements — but to a large extent absent from communication research.

Engaged scholarship is an art form in an of itself. Media activist and evaluation expert Catherine Borgman-Arboleda has written a great blog post (originally for an earlier version of this course) about why scholars and activists should collaborate.

Why should you care about researcher and activist collaboration? To start, are you concerned about who reads or is influenced by your work? If we look at the number of research citations as a proxy for relevance, most research published in peer-reviewed journals is largely irrelevant! (One study found that papers published in management journals were cited on average of .82 times per year.)  This speaks to the need to find other ways to make sure that academically-produced knowledge has other venues for distribution.

But effective engaged scholarship goes beyond dissemination, to thinking about how to make audiences understand research, and even more so how information can lead to a change in action or behaviour, that can lead to new approaches and innovation. Even if a scholar is less interested in contributing to political activism around media and communications and more concerned around building a career (and who isn’t, at least on occasion!) I’ve found that researchers often report that an engaged scholar is simply a better researcher. Researchers often report that the quality of their research improved through collaboration with practitioners.  They find that questions asked are often more relevant, precise and interesting. They notes that the process of talking through the “abstraction” and “jargon” that characterizes academic communication helped the clarity and quality of the writing

A central strand of my work over the last ten years has been about decreasing the divide between research and activism, and finding ways to make knowledge useful for and usedby practitioners. This focus began at the Center for International Media Action CIMA) , where I was focused on bringing together different sectors to strengthen the media democracy/reform/justice and communication rights movements. As I moved into actually doing  (rather than translating or facilitating) research and evaluation to strengthen social justice work (expanding outside the media/communications field), I’ve found myself struggling with this theme on a daily basis.  These issues of relevance and use can’t be just addressed through dissemination, but through actual co-production of knowledge.

In thinking about what might be useful for this course, I thought I might put together a list of key themes that I’ve found to important to consider for anyone interested in doing or supporting engaged scholarship and mobilizing knowledge for use in media and communications change movements.

  • Collaborative research is not second nature. Experienced engaged scholars havelikened the process how porcupines make love, very carefully! Collaborative research in general takes more time, and that attention to process is important. Practitioner groups have much different (generally shorter!) timelines, and often many competing priorities that need to be attended to in advancing their agendas. Compounding this, they also generally have fewer resources, and don’t have the security of an institutional job, or access to the benefits a university can provide. Given this, academics need to think creatively about providing support in other ways besides just activities directly related to their research project – such as helping with fundraising proposals, or even in some instances providing transportation to meetings.
  • Balancing power. Nearly all researcher/practitioner relationships are characterized by traditional hierarchical power imbalances, especially when scholars are working with marginalized groups. University researchers are often perceived, and often see themselves, as the “experts”. They have access to university resources, and are compensated for their work. It is important the contributions by both academics and practitioners are viewed as equal, although necessarily different, which requires more than just good intentions and paying lip service to equality.  It requires creating space and a process for activist communities to engage at their speed and level. This does not look like throwing them a report, or a proposal brief and asking for any comments within the week. The sharing of resources is essential, and shared compensation is one of the most fundamental means of addressing a need for parity. The traditional hierarchical power arrangements in academic/practitioner engagements can also  be counteracted by both parties collaborating on the planning and design of a project.
  • Engage groups on the margins. Groups that represent or reflect the interests of constituencies that could be considered new voices for a movement. Scholar-activists often highlight the importance of involving marginalized communities and other under-resourced groups. Moving beyond the issue of rights, this is where the new claims from for social change will come from, creating new ways of doing, new perspectives, new innovative approaches.
  • Approaches to dissemination and mobilization of knowledge. I’m always struck by how little time and how few resources are put into thinking about how research will be transformed into knowledge that is accessible to and used by the audiences who will act on it. There is this underlying assumption that we will write it and they will come. This is especially misleading when it comes to long reports written in obtuse and, let’s be frank, boring academic language, with the key finding buried 10 pages in. This final form/product that the research will take, and the strategy for dissemination are key components of any engaged scholarship research design.  It might be a colourful 1 page of research highlights with key citations that can be lifted for advocacy purposes, or a u-tube video, etc.  The questions that should drive planning for research mobilization are:
  • How will the world be different because this research exits?

  • Who needs this research in order to make change?

  • What format will most engage them?

  • How can it be presented in a way that will make it easiest for them to use?


3. Is There Middle Ground?

Working outside, or in the margins, of the academic establishment is not easy. I have received my share of criticism for several engaged or PAR projects in my day (neither of them reformist, though: researching Big Brother; co-authoring an annual report of the Finnish TV markets for the Ministry of Communications).

My personal sense is as follows:

  1. Engaged scholarship comes is different shapes and forms. Arguably, it is often linked to 1) community involvement and participatory (action) research. But, it could equally well be considered in cases where 2) scholars create and share policy-relevant research results, whether designed independently or in collaboration/commissioned by policy-makers. Even with policy-oriented research, there are major differences, as this  insightful commentary by the World Bank on the difference between policy-relevant and policy-adjacent research illustrates. And, the same conceptual challenges could be found when collaborating with a civil society, media reform organization.
  2. Collaboration can be a continuum. A scholar can network for information exchange, cooperate, say, in data gathering, or organize more intensive forms of collaboration. PAR does entail some level of integration, in that the researcher and the other stakeholders develop the research questions and methods together (whether the outcomes are for purely academic purposes, or to actually support advocacy/activist efforts). As Peter Dahlgren notes, a researcher can remain sympathetic but does not need to agree with ideologies of a movement. Or, a researcher (like McChesney, like Freedman) can explicitly position themselves as a part of the movement.

So, not to complicate issues any further, but…

Media Reform is a big umbrella concept and if you research it you define what it means to you.

Media Reform issues are so numerous that you, as a researcher, need to define what media democratization and reform means to you.

Engaged research is such a broad concept that if you, as a researcher, want to explicitly be involved you need to define your place in the continuum.

Let me just illustrate what I mean. I included a couple of text in the Google Drive, marked with Week 6:

  • A text by Hannu Nieminen and myself on public service media and communication rights. (It’s in the book on Freedom of Expression by NORDICOM and there are many other interesting texts as well — check out the Table of Contents and see if anything interests you.) Look at our text: It’s clearly normative, suggesting a strategy (albeit perhaps an utopian one)  for public media organizations. Is this media reform research?
  • An article on Turkish everyday citizen’s media activism (I chose this text just because of the recent happenings in Turkey.) Is this research about media reform; can it inform media reform? Whose side are the authors on – is this engaged research? Does this become media reform research when shared with another stakeholder (say, an FoE NGO)? Or?

Lines are blurred, they are shifting. Communication research and media studies are greatly about dissecting relationships between the media / comm tech and the society, whether from the macro, structural perspective, or from the perspective of media organization, of that of the individual. To me, personally, to frame a study around media reform is to make a choice to explicitly position the motivation of the study in understanding, and perhaps informing, change. This is the case whether I would study an issue, or a movement. Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to express your sentiments below if you want!

4. Your Assignment

This week, I would like you just to ponder the above and share below as a comment your current idea/s for your final project. (They can still change… Just a short comment about where you are at right now.)

You know the basics — an essay that can be engaged, opinionated, normative and should somehow address a need for change, theoretical or pragmatic.

This week will help me to formulate our last session on 3 May. (Meanwhile, next week will bring about some strategies and tactics of media reform movements, as well as the finalized, detailed final assignment instructions.)