Ingrid Bachmann - Decentralizing Western Research from Being “A Universalizing Norm‽”

This episode features Ingrid Bachmann. She and two guests, both feminist media scholars, discuss the importance of decentralizing Western research and the intersection of activism and scholarship.

Noshir Contractor 0:02
ICA presents.

​​The noise you just heard is the sound of the "interrobang." A non-standard punctuation mark, the interrobang’s appearance is its explanation: an exclamation mark superimposed directly on a question mark. The theme for the 2022 International Communication Association annual conference – "One World, One Network‽" – ends with an interrobang. The symbol simultaneously celebrates and problematizes the "one-ness" in the modern age of global communication. This podcast series features episodes hosted by the six co-chairs of the conference theme. In this episode, co-chair Ingrid Bachmann talks with two guests she selected: Radhika Parameswaran and Akane Kanai. They discuss finding academic commuities, making feminist and non-Western scholarship more mainstream, and the relationship between research and activism. Here’s Ingrid.

Ingrid Bachmann 1:13
Welcome to this episode of One World One Network, a podcast series from the International Communication Association. I'm Ingrid Bachmann, an associate professor at the Catholic University of Chile and your host in this episode. We have very remarkable scholars today, I’m going to let them introduce themselves.

Radhika Parameswaran 1:29
Hi, I’m Radhika Parameswaran. I'm at Indiana University, Bloomington; I'm the Herman B Wells endowed professor here. My research interests are gender, media and globalization, feminist cultural studies, and South Asia. I'm delighted to be here with Ingrid.

Akane Kanai 1:47
Hi, my name is Akane Kanai and I'm a researcher based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Similar to Radhika, I— my interests are in gender and media. I'm really interested in the politics of identity in digital culture and popular culture with a focus on the politics of emotion. So thanks very much for having me.

Ingrid Bachmann 2:09
So to start, this whole idea of network, this is the theme for the ICA conference this year. And the whole concept of network is quite polysemic — it might mean different things. But I wanted to ask you about academic networks and academic paths. How did you find your academic community— like, the place where you say, “This is where I fit in, this is where I can do the things that I want to do.”

Akane Kanai 2:32
I'm Australian, you know, born and raised in Australia. So I think in Australia, there’s definitely a context of cultural cringe here where there's so much attention given to the United States and to the UK as our colonial heritage. So, there's so much emphasis on that kind of media as opposed to even local media, I would say. I think that's been interesting for me, sort of reconciling that, as well as becoming a scholar in the space of say feminist media studies and feminists cultural studies, where we know a lot of the conversations about feminism definitely are driven by a lot of developments in the US as well as in the UK. And I did my post-grad in London. And I think maybe that inflicted my interest in the kind of cultural studies that I do there in terms of their British tradition. But, I've increasingly been wondering about how do we find that community and where do we orient our attention.

Radhika Parameswaran 3:35
To me, part of being in networks requires acknowledging upfront: what are the networks of power and privilege that we are embedded in, what are the networks that we seek out for sustenance and that comes from our identity positions. But also being careful to acknowledge that our identities are fluid and that we go in and out of these networks. There are networks of power within which we all are embedded in, in various ways. In some ways, India, for example, was a colony of Britain. I grew up middle class with educated parents. And that helped me get embedded within the networks of English language culture. Whether it be speaking English or, as Akane pointed out, being immersed in English language popular culture from the UK and the US — it gives you cultural capital and points of entry. But once we get past those sort of historical networks of power, I then had to find my way within these other networks of activism — of political ideologies, right, that sustain you and give you nurturance. And so for me, in many ways, my pathway into feminism and feminist scholarship, given some of my own experiences as a woman — bicultural, both in India and here — that was definitely a community I wanted to belong to. So within the academic spaces of ICA or NCA or AEJMC, finding that was very much a way of embedding myself in those networks of sustenance. And so that was important. But also then finding my way to networks that involve women of color within the US — that has also been very, very empowering. On the one hand, I am a non-Western feminist, a women of color. But nevertheless, I came into the US, I want to point out, embedded within the sort of postcolonial network of privilege.

Ingrid Bachmann 5:38
Yeah, that was a very good answer. And it got me thinking that we stand on the shoulders of many, many scholars before us that lead the way in very important ways. And we have privilege because of those scholars before us. I mean, we are building these communities — it’s an ongoing process, and we should acknowledge the work done before. So I want to stress that, too. We often study people that are very different from ourselves. I mean, less privileged — sometimes, for example, I study people who doesn’t speak English or Spanish. How do you deal with doing research and respecting those communities who are not necessarily familiar with the kind of work we do, that will not likely benefit from the research that we do? I mean, to an extent, it's an exploitation.

Radhika Parameswaran 6:28
I think this is very difficult territory, and I don't think we're going to come up with any neat answers or resolution today. In some ways, what we hope, even if we can't change those people's lives immediately, that we have started a process towards some transformation. And the idea of the transformation when we work with communities that are less privileged than us has to be a transaction. It can't be sort of a top down vision of what we think is good for them, because that is what produced colonialism. The idea that we can be benevolent saviors of a community. So I think at the start, we have to acknowledge that, to some degree, we do this work for our own survival in the Academy. Pretending that we do research that is divorced from our own gains and benefits from doing that is simply not okay. So we have to start from that position, but if we only stay in that position, it becomes self indulgent, right? “Oh, you know, I'm just, I have to acknowledge my privilege,” and then you can move on — that is not useful either. If there’s ways to spread your research beyond the narrow publications that the Academy requires, if you can do some public intellectual work and make sure that you're reaching out to larger communities — if you can use your research in your teaching to go beyond your biography — I think there are ways in which we can think about embedding our research in networks that go well beyond our own promotion.

Akane Kanai 8:08
I really agree with what Radhika was saying in terms of trying to ensure that we think about our research as having a public and social benefit in some way. It’s important to remember that we can't individually negate our privilege. As Radhika said, I think teaching is a really great way that we can do that. I think that’s one of our primary social impacts.

Ingrid Bachmann 8:31
Yeah, that, those are very good points, and that's the kind of reflexivity I like seeing in research. Like, we have to think about how we do things, why we do them that way, and to whose benefit. You all do research that is very relevant and important. But I, if I am honest, some research tends to be more popular or mainstream and some other topics, for lack of a better word, more peripheral. I’m talking about studies on gender, marginalized communities, race, ethnicity, from the global South. What is your view on the impact of such research in the last 10 or so years? My impression is that it has gained visibility, but there are ways to go.

Akane Kanai 9:12
There is work published in feminist media studies that is from non-Western settings. But I think there's something about what work is seen as local, in particular, and what work is seen as more general. And it’s kind of clear that often in Western settings there's not the same need to — well, there’s not perceived to have the same need — to particularize, to say, this is a particular context, is this is the national political structure. And not to say that — obviously there are scholars who do this. But I've been thinking, have I done that enough? It's not enough for me to acknowledge this other work that's been done. Because if different Western settings don't do that, then they'll still always have this position of incorporating the non-Western into this larger narrative, which is still dominated by this Western structuring of the world.

Radhika Parameswaran 10:06
Yeah, Akane, you’ve raised some very good points. In many ways, even as we try to make our field more cosmopolitan and to be more inclusive of different parts of the world, there is a way in which knowledge about the Western world functions as, what I would say, a universalizing norm. When you think about work, say, on Europe, Australia, the UK, there's a way in which you don't need context, because we all are supposed to just understand it. We all are assumed to have a common base of understanding as to what this is. So in a sense, America can function as America writ large as opposed to talking about a region of Appalachia — or are we talking about the American South, are we talking about the American North, or the American Midwest? We don't have to, because all of America, it's just America, right? It has the power to function as just something we all should know about. On the other hand, knowledge that is produced on the global South to a large degree — in the US, at least — is produced by scholars from the global South. It becomes somehow their responsibility and their work to do that, whereas other scholars just study the global North. And I have a running joke that I just wish there were a few more white people interested in what's going on elsewhere — right? While that work is becoming more visible, Ingrid, I agree with you, the responsibility of producing that work often falls upon the bodies who appear to embody what that work is. And then you make space for that work, but it's not brought into what, I would say, the main arteries of the discipline. What might it mean and how can we think about ways not to compartmentalize, not to provincialize, but to make it part of mainstream conversations?

Ingrid Bachmann 11:59
It’s funny because I think I felt that the feminist scholarship division was my field because that's the one place where I’ve never gotten a review saying, “Why should I care about Chile?”

Radhika Parameswaran 12:12
It's interesting, I've gotten that same question to some degree: “Oh, so you're doing a case study." And I want to go, "Uh, why is India a case study and not the US?" And so these strange ways of saying that knowledge from certain parts of the world are to be given their place as sort of a special zone, but not just function in the same way that knowledge from the Western, you know, part of the world.

Ingrid Bachmann 12:38
I've been asked by reviewers to put the country in the title of the paper, because apparently I have to specify that there so it's clear this is not Europe or the US. And, I mean, by now I have a response to that, but I remember the first time that it happened that I didn't know what to do. Like, I mean, I didn't want to do it, but, on the other hand, I wanted to get published. There is that tension, and I mean, in addition, I have to educate this reviewer on these things? And that's quite tiresome indeed. You mentioned earlier this whole idea that activism is part of what we do. But not everybody understands that in a good way, so perhaps you could expand on that idea? What do you mean by doing activism as a scholar?

Radhika Parameswaran 13:22
Definitely, yes, our work is activist in orientation. Because, to a large degree, the topics we address, the communities we engage with, tend to be marginalized in public culture. The ways in which they want to change the world often does not get the hearing it deserves. You know, we are responsible to do that, but at the same time I'm careful to say that I'm not a full-on, frontline activist who's engaging in that work full time. And so I try to navigate that. And I think we have to convince people in the Academy about how our work is connected to those types of goals that activists also have. Because, in a way, the University is becoming more accountable to the world. A lot of the activism that's in the Academy has produced this, and so we should embrace it, but at the same time also be careful not to conflate what we do.

Akane Kanai 14:18
When you are kind of a feminist media scholar, you're always thinking about this in the back of your mind in terms of change and effecting change. I’ve been reflecting on it more I guess because I’ve just been doing a lot of interviews and focus groups with people who identify as feminist and who really engage regularly with digital culture. And there's a real spectrum of some who are, sort of, they’re organizing all the time. They're doing events, raising awareness of different marches you can go to, you know, all of those things. Whereas others are kind of looking at what's happening in terms of keeping their feed socially conscious and engaged. And a lot of participants say to me, “I'm not really an activist." And I think we often talk down the activism that we do. Especially with digital culture, sometimes activism is really conflated with visibility and voice. I think a lot of the work and the activism that we can do is that kind of care work that Radhika was talking about in terms of investing in our students, in providing that support, in listening, in doing all of those things. Because without that, we can't go on. It’s kind of been interesting for me to reflect on because I've never thought of myself as a really activist person. I'm very interested in conflict, but I hate conflict myself. I have to confess when I go to protests, I feel awkward. But I think there are different ways, small ways, that we can effect change in our local settings. And I think from speaking with my participants it's making me think, “Oh, well, maybe I'm not as useless in terms of activism as I thought I was, if I actually take seriously the things that my participants are doing.” It makes me think, oh, there are things that we're doing even within our institutions, that, as Radhika was saying before, can push us in certain directions and how we engage with others, who we speak to, how we connect with them. I think institutions themselves can really radically shape what is possible for us. And I think sometimes even negotiating that is a form of low key activism, I guess.

Radhika Parameswaran 16:31
Yeah, Akane, I really appreciated your delightful honesty about how we negotiate — because if you're in feminist media studies, the default expectation is you are an activist. And it's important not to take these categories for granted and to deconstruct them. You know, what does the term mean to different communities, what does the term mean within the Academy, and what does the term mean on a very personal level?

Akane Kanai 17:01
I think that's how we have to approach things. Because it's just been interesting seeing what activism means also as it has been kind of popularized to be an activist. It's worthwhile reflecting on our own personal circumstances and our local contexts.

Radhika Parameswaran 17:17
Yeah, and I don't know if you both here have heard this term called virtue signaling? There's this whole frantic, frenetic pressures to do this public virtue signaling and therefore announce oneself as an activist, whether it be through hashtag culture or other types of digital cultures. And then there are others who are not doing any of that, but quietly making change in their communities. We want people who are working in different ways to be acknowledged as opposed to just one mode of claiming oneself an activist.

Ingrid Bachmann 17:53
Yeah, I would say that we are all part of this collective world. And we are building community, friendship, sociality, and addressing — and some cases even challenging — different life experiences. And I think that's the important part. We are connecting people's experiences, people's circumstances, and I think that's a very beautiful challenge nowadays, and a very needed one. But we are all doing it convinced that it needs to be done. On that note, thank you very, very much Radhika and Akane for this awesome conversation. I'm looking forward to meet you in person.

Noshir Contractor 18:38
One World One Network ‽ is sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication at both the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. This podcast series is presented by the International Communication Association as part of the lead up 2022 ICA Conference, which will take place from May 26 through May 30. In the next episode, we will continue exploring the conference’s theme from the perspective of each of the other conference theme’s six co-chairs.

This episode was produced by Lucia Barnum. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero. Our theme music is by Jon Presstone. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, and the history behind the interrobang, be sure to check the show notes in the episode description. Thanks for listening.

Ingrid Bachmann - Decentralizing Western Research from Being “A Universalizing Norm‽”
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