‘Media studies: where are we now?’

Sonia Livingstone

Keynote address to the MeCCSA conference in Bournemouth 2014.
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There’s no one answer to the question, ‘Where are we now?’ Indeed, the first act of any media studies scholar is to deconstruct the ‘we’ – in terms of academic tradition, politics or generation. Yet there is some kind of ‘we’ in this room, and as the new year starts, doubtless we all have hopes for what it may bring to media studies.

In his ‘Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back’ speech at MECCSA last year,[1] James Curran defended us to our journalist attackers. It’s depressing that, as he showed, The Guardian has called media studies ‘puffed up nonsense’, a ‘turn-off to employers’, that Today described our field as exploiting gullible youth hoping for fame and fortune and that, perhaps in consequence, Russell Group Universities’ entry requirements won’t accept the media studies A’level.

But I’m heartened by James Curran’s analysis of HESA statistics – namely, that more media studies’ graduates are in employment than the graduate average. And if he’s right – that media studies undergraduates can be weak in their first year but graduate with skills to be proud of – then all the more credit to them and their teachers.

Much of our funding comes from teaching, so this really matters even though, I suspect, it is our critical scrutiny of journalists that makes them so paranoid about us. Insofar as their misrepresentation of us is indicative of their coverage more broadly, that’s all the more reason for more, not less, media studies and media education.

But I would like to focus on where we are in our research, because I am concerned about our multidisciplinary neighbours in sociology, political science, geography, modern languages and information sciences who, far from doubting our project are pulling the rug from beneath our feet as they take up (take over?) our objects of study.

As I see it, we are riding the crest of a wave in which media and communications have never been so important, or of interest to so many. So I’m interested in how we can respond to the challenges of abdication and poaching, as Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz put it, in the recent debate in Media, Culture & Society.[2] Can we turn a threat into a positive?

In my remarks today, I want to suggest that we should worry less about how others see us, and think more about what we have to offer to the analysis of an ever more complexly globalised, commercialised individualised and mediatized world.

Let me unpack these points in turn.

When we worry about whether media studies as a field is coherent or fragmented, superficial or worthy, who are we comparing ourselves with so disparagingly? In meetings and seminars with colleagues from other fields, I hear the historians worry that they have no coherent theory. I heard a recent talk from a Yale economist who said, not only do they not ask if their ideas work but they wouldn’t much care about the answer if they knew. I left psychology because it seemed to give up on the social in its desire to qualify as STEM. Sociologists seem in turmoil everywhere. Political science departments don’t seem very happy places either.

Moreover, we’re not doing so badly by comparison with all other fields. Peter Golding sent me some depressing statistics showing how small we are (in HEFCE terms, one tenth the size of engineering or management) and how little research funding we get – 4% of AHRC awards, 2% of ESRC – art & design gets five times as much and sociology nearly ten times more. Ofcom spends twice our annual research budget on consumer research.[3]

But it depends who you compare us with and how. My LSE colleagues recently published figures showing that – for the parts of our field classified by HESA as social science rather than creative arts or humanities, although we have one third the numbers of research staff as sociology, we have as many as in social policy, human geography or anthropology.[4]

Moreover, our research is mentioned outside the academy – by think tanks, media, civil society, government and industry – more than in sociology or political science or management. However, we undersell our links with outside bodies on our university websites – perhaps internalising the negative perception of ourselves (perhaps even preferring to see ourselves as outsiders – more South Park kids than Mickey Mouse?).

My point is neither to envy or to criticise these other fields. We draw upon them a lot and we also contribute to them, though not as much as any of us would like. But I take heart from Craig Calhoun’s claim – at the 2011 ICA conference, that ‘communication is the most important field for the study of many key dimensions of social change’.[5]

I see us as now making a pitch for this term, communication, along with media. And I see us doing this by becoming increasingly multidisciplinary. I was trained as an –ologist, and had to learn by myself about the many other disciplines that, historically, have fed into media studies. But that experience, in itself, shows also that we are multigenerational. Scholars younger than me – often trained in media studies – take for granted an interdisciplinary sphere of debate. We should ask them, ‘where we are now?’ (This panel is a bit old for that!).

We are also multinational. I was trained to study British media and teach about them to British students. Like others, I’ve learned to interrogate what I think I know in terms of whether claims refer to Britain or the world, or something in between. In a few decades, the academy has become much more international, and research is much more comparative, and that’s not only welcome but necessary as media and society become more globalised.[6] Again, generations of scholars will carry forward change in a positive way.

But I fear that some of us are, perhaps, undermined by our difficult institutional histories. As it’s the 10th anniversary of our department, and 20 years since I first proposed teaching media and communications at LSE, I have been thinking about this recently. I vividly recall the phone call I received at home – while on maternity leave – from a senior colleague accusing me that my degree proposal isn’t serious and threatening to pull it. Each of us will have stories of defending our field against ‘Mickey Mouse’ claims, in our own or in other institutions, with varying success, but the effort is significant.

Collectively, we have made something happen, a relatively new field – more so in some institutions than others – that we generally believe in, that we identify with, and that continues to develop. So what that we have different answers to the question: ‘who are we?’ They overlap enough for us to be here, and to want to talk to each other. We don’t all read the same journals or go to the same conferences. And we disagree about theory, methods, politics and direction. Yet any network analysis of our activities, or our patterns of citation, would reveal a dense node of intersections that, in the world of big data, pinpoints ‘us’ pretty accurately.

What drives and directs what we do? To my mind, this is a more interesting question. Since, again, there can be no one answer, let me give an illustration.

Those here who are familiar with the world of media literacy will know how it has long been riven by debate. What is media literacy? Is it plural? Should it become digital literacy? Is about critique of media institutions or defence against media effects or contributing to mediated participation, or keeping safe online, or something else? Who should do it – governments, teachers, parents, industry, media educators, the academy, regulators, etc.?

The result is often construed as incoherence – if even media literacy scholars can’t agree on a definition, why should policy makers or educators or research funders take note? But, instead, consider the many efforts – on part of academics, teachers, NGOs, industry and others – to respond to what I see as the real media literacy challenge, however they label it: working out what people need to know about their mediated world to participate in it as citizens, and finding ways to support them. I don’t say enough is happening, or even that all that happens is good. But as Kirsten Drotner, Divina Frau-Meigs and others have argued, diversity needn’t mean incoherence, and it can be fruitful.[7]

So too with the question of what drives and directs what we do. I’m glad there are people examining the history of radio, or the future of European film, or emerging forms of audience participation, etc. Need one distil a single essence from this? I’d be more worried if we were all doing the same thing.

So, let’s ask again, where are we? Well, last year was pretty eventful. Leveson. Edward Snowdon. Prism. The BBC Trust. Twitter. Big data. Too many wars for journalists to cover. The problems that they neglected or misrepresented. Etc. You will each add your own preoccupations.

For me, it was that the Prime Minister – reportedly worried about the female vote, not to mention toddlers getting access to an iPad for Christmas  – suddenly took up the seemingly-marginal question of children’s internet safety with unexpected vigour.[8] Responding to his agenda was, for me, about finding a critically-independent yet evidence-based way to advance wider concerns with how people engage with media, since media are everywhere, and how they engage through media – since media increasingly mediate the path to all spheres of life, and inseparable from them.[9]

In short, the growing importance of media and communications in society – perhaps in tandem with the dreaded word, ‘impact’ – has sent us spinning in many directions. But I am inviting us to see this as productive diversity not confusion.

As I’ve noted, this has meant that we’ve had to talk to others in other disciplines, with different things to say. And this, I think, is where the action really is. As Peter Lunt and I have argued recently, not only is the seemingly unstoppable flow of “new media” leading researchers to look back over the history of previously new media (contra John Corner’s worry that new media are leading us to neglect history[10]) – encompassing forms of mediation that precede mass broadcasting – but equally, it seems that the study of new media is demanding that research becomes more interdisciplinary.[11] As we are drawn to look across the diverse fields of society in which these are proving significant, even influential. We are working more with political scientists to examine the mediation of politics, with psychologists to understand the mediation of the family, with theologians to understand the mediation of religion and so forth.

I think many of us are already working in multidisciplinary teams, or at interdisciplinary interfaces. For example, my current project on young people’s lives in the digital age with brings me into collaboration with educationalists, sociologists and economists, and I’m learning a lot. What do I hope to bring to the mix? An awareness of how media institutions, technologies and practices increasingly contribute to the infrastructure for all spheres of social life.

As I see it, in whatever field of society we or others are interested in, whenever the textual, technological or institutional dimension of communication is in some way important to the unfolding action – for example, whenever the symbolic, representational or cultural aspect of a situation is complex, its power influential or its strategy or purposes contested – we will have something to say.

In taking this forward, I see our strengths in our history of media analysis, our theoretical and methodological openness, and our practical, professional and political commitments. Although I think our strengths lie less in being any one particular thing than in being many things, this does not – and should not – make us so dispersed as to disengage from shared debate.

As Nick Couldry suggests, in responding to John Corner’s recent lament for a fragmented field, the coherence of media studies lies less in what we agree on substantively than in what we agree is worth arguing about.[12]

Last, since we also know a lot about processes of communication, deliberation, contestation and community-building, wouldn’t it be timely to draw on this knowledge reflexively, to construct a more robust infrastructure to sustain media studies – not through consensus but through collaboration, dialogue and contestation, as Craig Calhoun argued at ICA?

After all, despite being dubbed the age of convergent media, we are grappling with a media and communication landscape that is increasingly divergent. Long gone are the days of national broadcasters addressing a mass audience on a limited number of channels, rivalling only the local cinema and, for sure, a range of newspapers. So, with a more diverse and unpredictable landscape, diversity and flexibility in our approach is surely increasingly vital and – insofar as we see this around us – increasingly welcome.

Thank you.

[2] Gray, J., and Lotz, A. (2013) A robust and dynamic field. Media, Culture & Society, 35(8): 1019-1022.

[3] Personal communication, data from 2008.

[4] Bastow, S., Tinkler, J., and Dunleavy, P. (2014) The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference. London: Sage.

[5] Page 1479, Calhoun, C. (2011) Communication as Social Science (and More). International Journal of Communication, 5: 1479–1496.

[6] See Livingstone, S. (2012) Challenges of comparative research: Cross-national and transnational approaches to the globalising media landscape. In Esser, F. & Hanitzsch, T. (Eds.), Handbook of Comparative Communication Research (pp.415-429). New York: Routledge.

[7] As they argue in Bulger, M., and Livingstone, S. (2013) Media literacy research and policy in Europe: A review of recent, current and planned activities. Report of a seminar organised by the COST Transforming Audiences, Transforming Societies Action, Brussels, September 2013. Available at https://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/documents/MPP/COST-Media-literacy-research-and-policy-in-Europe-final.pdf

[9] As I argue in Livingstone, S. (2009) On the mediation of everything. ICA Presidential address 2008. Journal of Communication, 59(1), 1-18. Available at https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/21420/

[10] Corner, J. (2013) Is there a ‘field’ of media research? – The ‘fragmentation’ issue revisited. Media, Culture & Society, 35 (8): 1011-1018.

[11] Livingstone, S., and Lunt, P. (in press) Mediatization: An emerging paradigm for media and communication studies. In Lundby, K. (ed), The Handbook on Mediatization. Mouton de Gruyter.

[12] Couldry, N. (2013) If not a single field, then what? Media, Culture & Society, 35(8): 1023-1026.

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