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Student Column: Bridging the North-South Gap for the Next Generation of Scholars

Posted By Karin M. Fikkers, U of Amsterdam & David Cheruiyot, Karlstad U, Monday, July 3, 2017
How can students and early-career scholars in the Global North and South find equal opportunities to participate in research and education in the media and communication discipline? This was the central question at the Blue Sky Workshop (BSW) organized at the 67th Annual Conference in San Diego by the ICA Students and Early Career Scholars Advisory Committee (ICA-SECAC).

Debates about “dewesternization” or “internationalization” of media and communication scholarship often end with the pessimistic view that power relations determine knowledge production and may always favor the Global North. The aim of the Blue Sky Workshop was to discuss practical solutions that are often overlooked in debates about bridging the North-South gap. In particular, the BSW focused on the potential of new communication technologies that are still untapped as well as the changing perspectives and/or capacities of early-career scholars in a globalizing world. 

The question that the BSW posed to the participants was: Can students and early-career scholars turn the tide of the Global North-South divide by utilizing the potential of communication technologies? Three panelists shared their personal experiences and insights on this question: Wendy Willems (London School of Economics and Political Science), Tanja Bosch (U of Cape Town), and Toussaint Nothias (Stanford U).  

Both the panelists and the participants engaged in a lively discussion, proving the high relevance of this topic. The panelists agreed that the North-South gap is a pertinent issue for ICA’s students and early-career scholars. They emphasized that young scholars from both the Global North and the Global South have much to offer (and learn from) each other. Although much work in media and communication studies tends to be based on the “wired” and WEIRD (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) nations, there are many theoretical perspectives and experiences from the Global South that are relevant for international research that have yet to be explored. For example, experiences from the Global South can inform thinking about the dynamics of communication in the increasingly multicultural societies in North America and Europe.

Similarly, panelists highlighted the fact that in large parts of the Global South, the use of mobile technology for communication in daily life precedes other uses in the Global North. An example is the use of mobile money in Kenya, where “paying for a taxi ride using your mobile phone is easier in Nairobi than it is in New York.” Knowledge about such experiences and theories would enrich thinking about international media and communication uses and effects, according to the panelists.  

Overall, the panelists and participants agreed that it is important for all scholars, but certainly young scholars, to broaden their view and to think about whether their work is as universal as they think. Stepping out of one’s own context can help one take a new—potentially richer—perspective of research, as well as help to be critical of existing theories. As a strength of scholarship in the Global South, panelists mentioned a strong engagement with international scholarship, as well as a high motivation to produce knowledge that is both locally and globally relevant.

As for digital technologies as a way of overcoming the North-South gap, both optimistic and skeptical views were expressed. On the one hand, the world seems to have become smaller thanks to email, social media, videoconferencing, listservs and other online groups. It seems that this should make it easier to get and stay in touch with people from across the North-South divide, and it is definitely an improvement that people from around the world can tune in on conversations through live tweeting and streaming. 

On the other hand, Willems warned that the “transformational power of these technologies should not be overestimated.” Ultimately, face-to-face conversations are important, especially for younger scholars who could benefit from high-quality mentorship that may not always work well through digital ways.  

This indicates that students and early-careers scholars should aim to complement communication through digital technologies with face-to-face collaboration. For the international community, this does not only mean enabling scholars from the Global South to attend conferences organized by the Global North, and have them participate in workshops, PhD colloquia, and Research Escalators Sessions. It also means the contrary: Scholars from the Global North would benefit from participating in academic activities in the Global South. Ultimately, meeting and talking directly may be the best way to exchange perspectives and understand each other’s work.

Lastly, panelists and participants brought up the issue of the political economy of academic publishing which favors scholarship in the Global North. It was noted that even after years of debates on ways to internationalize knowledge, particularly in the media and communication discipline, scholars in the Global South do not have an equal voice in mainstream global journals. Further, international conferences still feature few presentations from the Global South and thus insightful theoretical and/or methodological perspectives from neglected regions do not get as much visibility globally as those from North America and Europe. Unfortunately, at this point, the BSW attendees also did not know a proper solution to change “the system.” However, one important suggestion that graduate students and early-career scholars can do themselves, is to constantly question what constitutes “good knowledge” and to be open for work that is presented in a way that is different than usual. The BSW ended with the consensus that even though solutions to the North-South gap are not easy to achieve, the debate on internationalization must keep on, especially in forums organized for students and early-career scholars in the media and communication fields in both Global North and South. Thus, we hope to continue our discussions at the upcoming annual conferences!

Karin Fikkers and David Cheruiyot are members of the ICA Students and Early-Career Scholars Advisory Committee (ICA-SECAC). 

Tags:  June-July 2017 

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