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Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change

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Reframing the Nation

This research focuses on the changing meanings of the nation in contemporary societies characterised by shifting patterns of migration, diaspora formations, social diversification and transnational flows of media, ideas, objects and symbols.

Convenor: Prof Marie Gillespie
Email: marie.gillespie@open.ac.uk

What do we study?

In this new phase of our CReSC research we will continue to reframe questions about the changing place of the nation state in a global world in the light of theories of transnationalism, migration and diaspora.

However, we are extending our recent focus on British international institutions (BBC World Service, British Council) to develop a series of comparative projects exploring issues of citizenship, security and diplomacy in new contexts via these three following intersecting strands of research. 

International News and Global Citizenship

These projects examine the intersections of geopolitical, technological and organisational change via promising new partnerships that we have recently established with France Media Monde, Deutsch Welle, Al Jazeera and Russia Today. We will continue to use our distinctive ‘critical events’ framework to explore how political, religious and cultural conflicts are framed and negotiated in the contact zones of international news. We use mixed, mobile and experimental methods (including collaborative and organisational ethnography, audience research, social media monitoring and big data analyses, image and discourse analysis).

International Cultural Relations in a Digital Age

These comparative projects examine the changing investment in, nature and value of (economic and cultural) of international cultural relations work carried out by the British Council’s European counterparts (The Alliance Francaise and Goethe and Swedish Institutes) and Rising Powers (Russia and China and their Russkiy Mir Foundation and Confucius Institutes).

The Public life of Methods

This strand of research develops our work on digital social science methods in order to understand how research methods and uses of data shape organisational strategy and practices. It looks at how publics are brought into being, managed and regulated.

Partnerships between academic researchers at the OU and broadcasters have proved to be a particularly fertile ground on which to develop new methods appropriate to new media and communications that deliver insights around, for example, balancing economic and cultural value.

Building on new partnerships we hope to develop a nascent but potentially transformative digital social science.

What concepts do we use?

Transnationalism offers an analytical vantage point to further our comparative and historical research on national multicultures, avoiding the essentialising pitfalls of studies of ‘race relations’ and ‘ethnic communities’. It assists our historical enquiries by enabling us to study imperialism, post-colonialism and cosmopolitanism ‘in reverse’, contesting simplistic conceptions of cultural or media power as plain domination, or cultural change as reducible to technological innovation.

Such critical perspectives can produce a nuanced picture of transnational cultural exchange in and around national institutions, at different historical moments and in relation to critical events and policy challenges associated with migration, citizenship and securitisation.

Cosmopolitanism is increasingly important in debates about nations, human rights, and global citizenship. Critiques of methodological nationalism call for a cosmopolitan sociology. We bring together biographical and qualitative methods, with forms of quantitative and institutional analysis to investigate the politics, aesthetics and ethics of invisible and emergent cosmopolitanisms. We mobilise multiple, multimodal points of entry into understanding the complexity of national, diasporic and transnational identities and cultures as they evolve over time, place and space.

Convergence provides a lens through which we analyse the rapidly eroding distinctions between national and transnational media platforms, devices, forms of content and information, and the bodies, identities and social practices that help constitute and frame them.

We argue that while convergence is radically changing the character of the social, it is not without precedent, and must be theorized in its social and historical contexts. Using a range of methods rooted in biographical, narrative, quantitative, anthropological, documentary and historical analysis we analyse how converged digital media, culture and transnational communication networks, regulative regimes and forms of cultural and expressive work, play crucial roles in the production, circulation and consumption of the (trans)national.

Recent events

The Paris Attacks and Eyewitness Media, Legal and Ethical Issues for International News Providers (PDF 385KB). 

In March 2015 The Open University and Eyewitness Media Hub hosted a closed forum for invited journalists to discuss the main challenges of using eyewitness media during breaking news events. With a central focus on the Paris attacks in January 2015, the event was conducted under the Chatham House Rule and was attended by around 40 journalists working in international news organisations and academics.  Participants were encouraged to share the ethical, legal and logistical issues that they encountered when handling photographs and videos sourced from the social web.

Key research questions

How do media make the national and the transnational?

The concept of transnationalism provides a frame for analysing how flows of people, ideas, symbols, commodities and objects constitute the shifting territories and (re)configurations of the social.

In particular, the role of the media in creating, transforming and representing the contours and patterns of transnationality is central to our enquiries.

Through a range of research projects we are concerned with fundamental questions of meaning, belonging and participation in - and through - media, and in the possibilities and limits of the national in the face of emergent and destabilising social dynamics.

The media provide the context through which we seek to understand the reframing of the nation in relation to migration, global communications networks, changing identities and conceptions of cultural work, mutable conceptualisations of citizenship and transformations in political culture and community.

Amongst the questions we ask in our projects are:

  • How are publics and communities formed around media?
  • How are different religions mediatised?
  • In what ways is it possible to talk of mediated ‘cultures of diplomacy’?
  • How do international broadcasters and media institutions function as contact and conflict zones and/or agents of cultural brokerage?
  • More broadly, how are we to understand the role of the media in conflicts and debates over cultural, ethnic, religious and political identities

How are cosmopolitanism, community and citizenship being reframed?

The apparent supercession of the national by a transnational, global or cosmopolitan cultural outlook has prompted much discussion and controversy in social science.

In order to propel the debate we have formulated projects that examine more precisely how, and in what terms, the ‘cosmopolitan’ might be usefully employed as an explanatory concept in accounting for social change.

Further, the utopian idea of a post or supra-national citizenship based on a benign global sensibility is being challenged by empirical work that examines the diverse conflicts underpinning citizenship in an age of accelerated (but patterned) migration, residual and emergent military conflict, and heightened concerns over (apparent) threats to national security. Debates on the cultural and creative boundaries of race and nation have particular salience here also.

The questions we ask in our projects include:

  • What is role of international cultural and media organisations mediating questions of national/transnational identity and citizenship?
  • How does convergence transform national and transnational spaces of debate? Do social media open up or constrain possibilities for international understanding and reflective citizenship?

What we mean by convergence

Convergence can be understood as the integration of different media technologies and platforms, the formation of networks for the production and transfer of media content and communications, cross-sector or institutional mergers amongst media providers and attempts to create and manage regulatory and legislative regimes.

It may also refer to the individual who is positioned by, or able to manipulate, various digital/media affordances and contexts in acts of cultural and economic production.

While much recent work by social scientists takes an overly optimistic view of the potential of convergence to solve traditional problems associated with informational drag, social and economic exclusion, mundane and alienating work or even volatile nationalisms and oppressive regimes – such claims are examined in the context of work that seek to qualify empirically, and expand theoretically, sociological understandings of media convergence in the digital age.

Questions we address include:

  • What forms of regulation are appropriate for national and transnational media?
  • What are the impacts of convergence for professional practices and organizations in the cultural and creative industries?
  • To what extent is convergence implicated in the remaking and transformation of the nation-state, citizenship, security and diplomacy?

Project outlines

International News, Public Diplomacy and Global Citizenship: The struggle for influence and attention in the Digital Age

This comparative study examines of the relationship between international news organisations, public diplomacy and global citizenship set in the context of declining European powers and rising BRIC powers and digital media. It builds on a decade of multi-disciplinary Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) research on the BBC World Service, including the development of a new approach to digital social science research. This approach aims at understanding how publics are created and discarded, managed and monitored, empowered and silenced by international organisations via digital media and the mobilisation of new forms of ‘big data’.

The proposed study brings recently developed new research partnerships between The Open University, France Media Monde and Deutsche Welle, Russia Today (now RT), Al Jazeera and China Central TV (CCTV) in order to provide the comparative analytical focus of our research on understanding the difference that the digital makes to:

  • empowering citizens to participate in a global public sphere;
  • providing governments with new opportunities to attract and influence overseas publics for diplomatic and/or global development purposes;
  • producing, circulating and engaging audiences in international news.

This is a timely study with great potential to strengthen partnerships and public engagement between academic and non-academic organisations.

We will work with broadcasters in situ. We will undertake organisational ethnographies and gather diverse sources of qualitative and quantitative data.

We will share data, concepts and analyses with corporate researchers.

And while ‘researching the researchers’ we will also work with audiences and citizens, as well as policy-makers and security analysts in order to capture competing and conflicting perspectives using established and new methods.

The overarching hypothesis is that the struggle for influence and attention is intensifying and that this has important consequences for global citizenship, conflict resolution and global development.

Influence is a shared concern not only for established broadcasters and governments but also for citizens/publics who are also legitimate news providers via social media.

In order to grasp the big picture as well as the structuring processes underlying international news and relations in a digital age, this study proposes to develop and refine digital social science methods in order to tackle questions of influence, political participation and the meanings and enactments of global citizenship around international conflicts and development issues.

Context of the research

The field of international news is changing rapidly under geopolitical, technological, market, governance and funding shifts. Understanding precisely how publics and public engagement with international news are being reconfigured across new kinds of contact and conflict zones is an urgent task if we are to grasp the complexities of international relations in the 21st century. War and conflict, global development and diplomacy, citizenship and political participation are all shaped by and they also shape news media ecologies. However, there are significant gaps in our knowledge about the nature, scale and scope of change in the production, circulation and consumption of international news, and the implications of these changes for questions of influence and attention, and for citizenship and global development.

For eight decades, European powers UK, France and Germany dominated international broadcasting in their former colonial territories and/or in places and among people that they have sought to influence. Citizens in countries like Sudan, Kenya, Afghanistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for long relied on international European broadcasters to provide reliable and trustworthy news. Some still do but now they also have their own national and local news media outlets and a plethora of available alternative news sources with social media opportunities where they can project their voices and send images and stories around the globe with immediacy, and sometimes an authenticity, that is posing challenges to established broadcasters.

Governments too face significant difficulties in communicating with their citizens at home and abroad – and indeed these very distinctions are breaking down. They no longer control the message (if they ever did). Like international broadcasters it is very difficult for governments to mould messages and target them at specific regions and audiences. They struggle to attract and influence overseas publics as they did in the past, and the battle for attention has intensified considerably with the emergence of a host of new international news media outlets tied to public diplomacy endeavours among rising BRIC powers. This has created a much more competitive market place in the arena of international news in which the almost instantaneous circulation of ideologies, narratives and images compete for the attention of audiences. This is transforming the very nature of what we understand to be news, who produces it, and who consumes what, where and when ad with what consequences for conflict, diplomacy and development?

Audience and market research conducted by broadcasters can give us some insights into shifting configurations and practices of audiences but there is a need to overhaul established methods for a digital and social media age. Of course this is already happening but bridges need to be built between academic and organisational researchers. Partnerships between academic researchers at the OU and broadcasters have proved to be a particularly fertile ground on which to develop new methods appropriate to new media that deliver insights around, for example, the cultural value, not just the monetary value of broadcast, web-based and social media outputs. This project will build on develop such partnerships and develop its nascent but potentially transformative digital social science.

The proposed research is timely because rising BRIC powers are busy investing huge sums of money in their public diplomacy media while declining European powers (UK, France and Germany) are disinvesting in their multi-lingual international new services. Rising powers are also proving to be adept at using social media, while European international broadcasters are more risk-averse.

They fear that their hard- won reputations for delivering trusted and reliable news might be damaged by hasty, ill-thought through forays into social media. This opens up opportunities for RT (formerly Russia Today) and China Central TV (CCTV and Al Jazeera to provide alternatives to BBCWS (WS), France Media Monde (FMM) and Deutsche Welle (DW). At the same time, social media and citizen journalism are challenging persistent attempts by politicians and policy-makers to manage the message. Citizens across the globe can now attract attention and, albeit in limited ways, shape news stories and images.

The study will involve the following.

  1. A comparative organisational ethnography in each of the three broadcasters in London, Paris and Berlin. In so doing it will explore the creative and destructive tensions between government, policymakers, funders, broadcasters, audience/market researchers in managing these relationships and in delivering the remit of each organisation. Each has a distinctive approach to soft power and public diplomacy, and to the public diplomacy media of rising powers
  2. Case studies on global media events Only through concrete detailed empirical case studies of major international news events (pre-planned events like major sporting events alongside ongoing crises around terrorism (ISIS), pandemics (Ebola) (the Middle East, Africa and Russia will be our regional foci) will we be able to glean how broadcasters negotiate the complex cultural and political fields that they co-create and occupy
  3. Audience and Market research and Big Data Analysis
    We have already developed strong relationship with audience researchers in our chosen organisations who have agreed to partner with us in this study. They will give us access to their data and we will use cutting edge big data analysis tools – tried and tested on previous studies – to analyse the intersections between radio, TV, web and social media and how competitor media, specifically RT, CCTV and Al Jazeera fare with audiences.
  4. Government and Security Policy Makers
    We have established good relations with the FCO’s Middle East and Russian desks and their public diplomacy staff

International broadcasting and public diplomacy in a post-cold war context: a comparative study of BBC World TV, Al Jazeera English and Russia Today

This project compares and contrasts BBC World News (BBCWN), Al Jazeera English (AJE) and Russia Today (RT).

BBCWN is one of the largest international broadcasters in the world, reaching audiences in 100 countries, while AJE and RT were launched precisely in order to challenge the global power of such ‘western’ Anglophone media. We have secured unprecedented access to these broadcasters to research their histories and current work.

The post-Cold War context has profoundly reshaped diplomatic and media relations between Russia, the Middle East and the UK, as is apparent from the ongoing conflicts in and over Syria and Ukraine which are having global repercussions.

Indeed since the collapse of Communism, new fundamentalisms and conflicts over ideologies and beliefs have emerged which are regularly played out in dramatic contests and 'information wars' in different languages between rival media on the international stage, creating competing spheres of influence. Understanding how these spheres of influence intersect is an urgent task.

This study fills a major gap in research by bringing a much needed Arts and Humanities perspective, deploying sophisticated forms of historical, cultural and digital analysis, to bear on the contemporary understanding of international relations and communications. 

All three organisations are both international news and soft power institutions. They must satisfy their audiences as well as their funders and this creates tensions. They are driven not just by events and political actions but also by long-term shifts in the global ideological landscape, accompanied by far-reaching technological advances, which are reshaping the relations between publics, media and states world-wide.  

In this comprehensive study of the complex dynamics of international broadcasting in the post-Cold War context, a team of researchers, expert in the histories, languages, cultures and conceptual debates at issue, will address questions including: 

  1. In what ways are international news agendas shaped by post-1991 ideological and technological change?
  2. To what extent do states' soft power policies influence the editorial strategies of the international media organisations which they fund? 
  3. How do audiences respond to these editorial strategies and are they becoming empowered through social media? 
  4. What is the contribution of Area Studies expertise to understanding how these changes play out in region-specific media and linguistic cultures? 

We address these questions comparatively by focusing on major international 'media events' of three kinds:

  1. pre-planned state/media collaborations (eg sports competitions, war commemorations);
  2. unexpected, disruptive challenges (natural disasters, terrorist attacks);
  3. ongoing conflicts with recurrent crises (geopolitical, e.g. Ukraine, Syria, Israel/Palestine, or geo-economic, eg the global financial crisis).

In order to investigate how organisations and audiences respond to such events, we will apply a range of combined Humanities and Social Science methods, supported by the tools of Computer Science, and will make significant advances in Digital Humanities.

These methods include collaborative institutional and audience ethnographies; organizational histories; interviews and focus groups; media semiotics, multimodal discourse and textual analyses; and social media analysis. 

The many outputs include a jointly written monograph and a series of reports for the media organisations concerned, and for policymakers and think tanks in the field. The beneficiaries include international broadcasters, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Chatham House and BBC Monitoring.

We will build bridges between journalists, policymakers and academics via a lunchtime seminar series, a major international conference and workshops. Our project will demonstrate the vital significance of the Arts and Humanities for promoting international understanding, peace and security.

See also

Mediating Religion is an international network of academics and interested associates working in the area of religion, culture and social change.

Mapping refugee media journeys: smart phones and social media networks

This project tracks the media journeys of refugees during the current ‘migrant crisis’. It documents the media and informational resources that refugees use from the point of departure, during their journeys across different borders and states, and upon arrival if they reach their desired destination. By identifying the news and information resources used by refugees, and where they experience gaps, we intend to make recommendations for international news organisations about what resources might they might provide to help refugees make better-informed decisions.  We will also create an app that can be used to help plug some of the information and news media gaps.

This is a collaborative project between The Open University, France Medias Monde 

(FMM), BBC Media Action, Deutsche Welle and British Telecom. We will also work with NGOs, lawyers, and refugee support groups who can help advise on the most useful and relevant information and news resources for refugees at different stages of their journeys. For example, our preliminary research suggests that most investment in media resources is channelled into refugee camps close to conflict zones (e.g. in Syria and neighbouring countries). Women, children and older people often get stuck in camps while young men move. Among the most urgent issues to address is the markedly different gendered and generational experiences of refugees in the camps and in the hands of traffickers. UNHCR reports that over one third of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children are lost without trace, many are trafficked.

Social media networks provide a lifeline for refugees on their journeys to Europe. Some arrive with only a smartphone anxious to find a place to recharge it. Facebook is used to crowdsource information— refugees share, maps, contacts and advice in both public and private groups. On Twitter they exchange news from trusted sources – mainly friends and family who send links to outputs of some of the large international news agencies BBC and F24 and DW. But trust in media and information is in short supply among refugees. They also fear surveillance of their social media activities on Facebook and Twitter not just by the Syrian and Iraqi states but by Islamic State. Whatsapp is used because it affords greater privacy and they use it to recruit fellow travellers, contact smugglers, report on their journeys and highlight opportunities and dangers.

It is vital to get a better grasp of the surveillance and empowerment paradox in social media networks in order to identify how best and at which points to help the most vulnerable refugees. Many suffer serious health issues and injuries and require information about where they can receive legal or medical assistance. Others need to know which cities may provide most security, food and shelter, job opportunities, appropriate language teaching. The task is immense. But we know very little about the media journeys of refugees and what their precise informational needs are, from the point of losing their home to the point of claiming asylum in a safe state, and beyond.

Research questions

  • What media, news and information resources are being provided for refugees in general / civil society initiative by international news organisations, NGOs and other relevant actors?
  • What information and news media is being created and exchanged by refugees as citizen producers and journalists and witnesses to their own journeys and those of others?
  • Which media and informational sources and social media do refugees trust?
  • How do refugee communication networks operate? (e.g. What evidence is there to suggest that friends on social media are the main source of news and information – as the big news media organisations are not trusted?)
  • How do English and Arabic news media resources compare? To what extent are multi-lingual patterns of use evident? How might Arabic and English media work better together?

Research context

The research builds on prior research on media for by and about refugees, knowledge of diaspora media and communication networks and practitioner research and experience of providing resources for crisis communication and conflict resolution. However most this research fails to adequately take into the account the intersections between big media (international news broadcasters like FMM, BBC Media Action and Deutsche Welle) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, YouTube among other apps). Nor does it take into account the remarkable role of the smart phone in journey planning, communicating with family in the home country, fellow refugees on similar and different pathways, and connections with the diaspora.

This project takes a media ecology approach in order to better understand emergent relationships between big and social media in refugee communication and information networks.

Objectives

We will:

  • Undertake a literature review of academic, media and policy-related research to contextualise our mapping of refugee media journeys
  • Report on what big media and international news media already provide in English and Arabic
  • Carry out interviews with refugees and NGOs in countries of departure, transit and arrival on resources used and mobilised and gaps in information provision
  • Present recommendations to media and NGOs and policymakers as to models of good practice and how best to help the most vulnerable refugees

The project examines and evaluates the resources provided by:

  • BBC Media Action, BBC Arabic, BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring.
  • France Medias Monde (F24, Monte Carlo Douanie Arabic radio from FMM, Radio France Internationale and RFI clubs
  • Deutsche Welle  
  • Al Hurrah
  • Dutch media – European wide response
  • RT and CCTV – as allies of Syria how are their news media responding to the crisis?
  • Privately funded broadcasters Al Jazeera, Al Arabyia
  • UNHCR, Amnesty International,
  • Refugess Council
  • British Council
  • NGOs
  • Local refugee support groups in receiving countries

Platforms

  • Radio, apps, Facebook, Twitter, mobile technology?

Media routes

  • When is most info provided – in the Middle East before they leave or in camps or on arrival in Europe?
  • Follow the geographical and media journey in parallel, dominant routes, points of pressure/health and security dangers ie. where is there most a lack of info?
  • Interview data could be useful here to elicit stories e.g. BBC and Open University Co production involves refugees filming their own journeys – 3 part documentary series;
  • Citizen journalism and production F24’s Les Observateurs

Content

What info is covered?

  • Situation in Syria – go on or go back home?
  • Info on camps – safety, movement, legal advice, citizenship, access to social and health services; info and links to back home,
  • Situation in Lebanon and Jordan – will they face discrimination?
  • Health, food, living conditions (key issues that need to be solved)
  • Who can offer help to them e.g. UNHCR, Amnesty International, Red Cross?
  • The fate of their fellow refugees on different parts of the journey – communication from those who have arrived but what of those who have dies on the way?

Implications of scoping study

What can we (FMM, BBC, DW and BT, OU) do?

  • What’s missing (given research on what people use and what they need)
  • An app? Text alerts?
  • Not to provide news and political info about security, immediate info on how to live, which places to avoid, conditions in some European camps, health.

Outcomes and outputs

The main outcome of the research is to launch an app to help refugees at key points their journey – from departure to arrival (in Uk, France and Germany). The app would be designed by British Telecom software engineers and French and German equivalents to provide a useful journey planning resource providing two parallel streams of information: (i) aggregator of best big/international news media information about the situation on refugees in different countries; (ii) social media resources. The main aim would be to provide independent (as far as is possible) information about the legal, social and political contexts in which refugees find themselves, where they can find relevant support.

  • Produce a report with recommendations based on empirical work
  • Deliver the report by December 2015
  • Identify what resources are needed where and when and what kind of app might be useful
  • Liaise with other broadcasters BBCWS and DW to see how best to collaborate to fund and create the app with British telecom

Project directors

Marie Gillespie (CRESC/Open University) and Claire Marous Guivarch (France Medias Monde)

Project researchers

Anglophone media: Margaret Cheesman (CReSC Research Affiliates)

French and Arabic Media: Claire Marous- Guivarch and Ali Issa (Researchers at France Medias Monde)