New Technologies, Greater Diversity and the Future of Communication Studies

Arienne Ferchaud 0:02
ICA presents.

Welcome to this episode of the Growing Up Comm. Podcast series, a production of the ICA Podcast Network. I'm Dr. Arienne Ferchaud, an Assistant Professor in the College of Communication and Information at Florida State University, an ICA Student and Early Career Advisory Council member and one of your hosts for this podcast series. This series covers topics that are particularly relevant for current students and early career scholars. Today we'll be discussing the hypothetical future of communication studies as a field. Joining us in this conversation to offer illuminating insight are two women who I adore very much. First we have Dr. Srividya Ramasubramanian. Dr. Srivi is a Newhouse Professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. Dr. Srivi is also currently the editor-in-chief of Communication Monographs, the founding Director of the Difficult Dialogues Project and CODE^SHIFT as well as the co-founder and Executive Director of Media Rise. Dr. Srivi's commitment to contemporary global issues and teaching excellence has been recognized through several awards including ICA Applied Public Policy Research Award. Also joining us today is a well-known member of the ICA community, Dr. Marybeth Oliver. Dr. Oliver is a Donald P. Bellisario Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Film/Video and Media Studies at Penn State University. She is also a Fellow and past President of ICA. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

Mary Beth Oliver 1:25
Thank you.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 1:26
Thank you.

Arienne Ferchaud 1:27
When we think about the future of comm. research, I think it's important to talk about what's going on now. If the future is about change, that only makes sense in reference to whatever's happening at the moment. So, my first question is, how do you see the field of communication right now?

Mary Beth Oliver 1:44
Right now is a time of mind blowing expansion, because changes in technologies, challenges to democracy, a growing awareness of and concern about issues of equity, accessibility. Right now, we are on a treadmill that is full speed and I don't really see that changing too much in the future.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 2:14
I agree. I think we are in a very important moment where people have understood the importance of communication and media, to a large extent, because social media's relevance has been very clear, as well as the role of media and technologies during this global pandemic. There are a lot more inequalities that have happened during this time and the role of information and media literacy, they are very relevant. I think there's a lot more awareness about these things.

Arienne Ferchaud 2:49
For better or for worse, we're in sort of a hyper-connected world, at the moment. There are areas of less access, or in some cases no access, but we're able to see, through media, a lot of things that we would not have had access to.

Mary Beth Oliver 3:06
When I first started, we would often talk about media in one space and the real world and another. Do what we see in the media, do we think it's happening in the real world? But that whole distinction is super blurred at this point. The other thing that's happening is the blurring of the audience and the creator.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 3:27
Even that understanding professional versus amateur is changing, like when you think about fields like journalism or filmmaking. Now, it's hard to talk about these specific subfields without thinking about the mediated aspects, but also the distinctions between interpersonal communication versus mediated communication. All of these getting blurred in this new scenario that we are in.

Arienne Ferchaud 3:54
I thought of this example of things that are old becoming new again as well. If we think about the classic theory, the two-step flow model of communication where some information is communicated to an opinion leader that then disseminates things. But then once television came around, you don't see as much opinion leader work. But now we have influencers. Is that a return to this two-step flow? So, moving forward is bringing back older models that we have discarded?

Srividya Ramasubramanian 4:25
The mass communication theories is not something we talk about much these days but still they do operate at some level, in terms of influences. And then the corporatization and consolidation of big media platforms, in some ways, works. Propaganda research is popular again. It used to be something we read only in the history chapter. Now, it's very relevant.

Arienne Ferchaud 4:49
We're siloed in our research areas; you've got those critical people over there and you got the quantitative scholars over here, and never shall the two mix. Those lines are not necessarily super rigid anymore. So, as media's become more interconnected, so has research?

Srividya Ramasubramanian 5:07
When me and Tayo Banjo proposed the critical media effects framework, as well as the new book that Erica Scharrer and I have written on quantitative research methods, "The Power of Numbers for Social Justice" - these speak to the ways in which we're seeing some bridging work happening across subfields. We are seeing critical cultural perspective influencing a lot of work in more traditional media effects or quantitative research framework, which we've called quantitative criticalism as a new movement. It might be important to take all the tools available, different methods, and different theories, to bring about those large-scale changes that we want to see from the work that we do.

Mary Beth Oliver 5:57
Bridging different approaches is also partially reflecting the kind of data that we work with now, thanks to changes in technology. And so, these traditional ways that quantitative scholars would design an experiment and it would have 200, 500 people in the sample, that's still going on. And that's still valuable. But, if we think about scraping social media posts, testing that in these traditional ways is ridiculous when you're talking about a million tweets. In many ways, we've left the realm of null hypothesis significance testing, in those context, to start looking at the patterns and the flows of data, the groups of people situated globally, and how those patterns manifest themselves.

Arienne Ferchaud 6:54
One thing I want to point out here for listeners who may not know us, or our work specifically, is that the three of us are all traditionally media psychology, media effects folks. Traditionally, we have used quantitative methods, experiments, sometimes surveys and content analysis. I would recommend for students and early career folks, branch out a little bit. Try a method that you haven't done or at least have conversations with people outside your main area, because I think that's really going to be the way to push the field forward. One thing that I love about Srivi and her work is that it bridges those two areas. It has been somewhat rare to see social justice work from a quantitative lens.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 7:36
A lot of it also has to do with the changing demographics of the field, the leadership, and some of the larger work that has happened with the hashtag "#commsowhite". We became more conscious about the ways in which the theories that we have created were very specific to some context but we assume that they are generalizable globally. So, how do we know that unless we test them across different contexts? And I think that is just also good science to be able to do that.

Arienne Ferchaud 8:10
If we look back to the beginning of comm. research, which is not as old a field as some, a lot of those foundational theories were created by white men, with all the biases therein, and we sort of assumed they're universal, which may not be the case. You can make a whole career just looking at those old theories and being like, "Are these universal? Let's find out." I should also point out some of the things that ICA is doing. Mary Beth, if you wanted to chat a little bit about what ICA is doing at the moment to sort of address some of those issues as we move forward.

Mary Beth Oliver 8:44
We've got so far to go. And we need input from as many people as we can. In order for people to participate and find ICA to be a valuable home, there are resources involved. That's one thing that we are really working hard on. We moved to a virtual environment. What that meant was that a lot of people were involved that wouldn't have been able to be involved in the past. We want to keep that momentum going to make sure that people can find value, and can find a home for their work, and colleagues for their work much more accessible than in the past. I would say that our largest membership has tended to be from the Global North - the United States, Western Europe. But if we want to grow, become more nuanced and inclusive in our theories, we got to get away from that model. We have a committee, the idea committee, that is instrumental in helping us brainstorm ideas, start initiatives, rework things that really weren't working for people.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 9:56
This year, we have some 10 or 11 regional hubs. Could you tell us a little bit about that, Mary Beth? What is a hub? How does that work?

Mary Beth Oliver 10:04
The idea of the hubs arose because when we were doing the conference completely virtually, you have to have pretty good internet infrastructure in place and a lot of people don't have that readily or it's in localized areas, often at universities, within different countries. What we wanted to do was provide funds for people who would be able to participate, should they go to certain spots around the world and hook up with other scholars who are also going to be coming to those hubs. We're going to continue those. And I have to give a shout out to Noshir Contractor about his work in that regard. We also want to make sure that if people are going to participate in the conference virtually at a hub, that experience is valuable; that they have access to the talks, and the panels, and other people can see their work as well. So, as we move forward, this will become much more than norm.

Arienne Ferchaud 11:07
I seem to have this memory of when ICA was in Japan and they had way more submissions from Asia, generally, then in other years; makes total sense a lot easier to get there than to get halfway around the world.

Mary Beth Oliver 11:20
In some ways, the pandemic encouraged greater exploration of the possibilities that these technologies afford. But on the other hand, these technologies have allowed us to continue on with our scholarship, with our collaborations, and our international alliances more than ever. I'm grateful that we were able to use these.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 11:43
And I think also there might be other advantages that we had not considered, that helps more people - people with disabilities, or those with small children, or with elderly parents that have care work - to participate in these different modalities. It's great that ICA is experimenting and being a leader in trying to figure out the best ways to include more people from around the world and truly be international.

Arienne Ferchaud 12:12
There are some other initiatives as well, there's not enough time in the day to go through all of them, including submissions in different languages. ICA is trying to sort of be more inclusive and sort of prod the field of communication into a little bit more inclusivity.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 12:30
I told my students in class this time, if they're bilingual they could submit in multiple languages and a couple of them have taken me up on that. We have some of the technology available these days to make those things possible.

Arienne Ferchaud 12:43
If you had asked me to write a dissertation in a second language, that'd be tough. But, how many people have to do that every single year, right? So yeah, we've had lots of conversations so far about what the field is looking like at the moment and how people are trying to push things forward. What do you hope the field will look like in 10, 20 years?

Srividya Ramasubramanian 13:04
We've been steered towards what I consider more meaningful, socially relevant direction in the field. I'm already beginning to see submissions as an editor from around the world for journals and started making friends from around the world that I look forward to meeting every year or listening to their work. I hope that in 10-20 years, we see a lot more work that is collaborative, that is connecting with other disciplines as well. We are in a position as a discipline to be like a nodal point that connects social sciences, art, humanities, and sciences together. I think we are really in a great position to be able to do that.

Mary Beth Oliver 13:49
Yeah, I hope that the leadership that we see in ICA is much more diverse. I would really like to see our diversity reflected in the leadership and the awards we give. To really make it happen, we need people to be involved. And so, that is how I really hope to see that shift and change. And here you are Arienne, you're an assistant professor but here you are doing this podcast. You're like a great example of somebody who is young, who's energetic, who's stepping up, and who's going to be the face of the organization in the future. So, that's really key as we move forward.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 14:29
That's a great point. I think that people should sign up to participate from around the world. Because it's a great way to learn about the organization and about the discipline. That's how I made a lot of my friends through being part of ICA, reviewing, panels, or signing up to do this, that, or the other. It's a great way to connect with people who have shared interest but might be from different parts of the world. It will be wonderful, especially for early career folks getting more involved through service to ICA or any other organization that you feel connected with.

Arienne Ferchaud 15:04
We talked a little bit about what people new to the field should do. So I would like to expand on that a bit. Both of you guys work with graduate students. What advice would you have for them?

Mary Beth Oliver 15:16
I would just say, have the courage of your conviction. Just follow your passions and get your ideas out there. Don't be afraid to reach out to more senior scholars, because what you have to say is really important. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that most scholars are really open to hearing from early career scholars and learning from that. I'm continually shocked at how much people want to jump in, and help you, and learn from you too.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 15:51
If you're going in person, I'd say go to the receptions and the business meetings. I learned so much by just chatting with people at the poster session. These are all some great ways to connect with people and just even follow up afterwards. I would say that those who are going to conferences, often, can help orient the newcomers; look out for them and help introduce them to others. I have really benefited from such introductions over the years. And over a period of time, you start seeing the same faces at the similar sessions and panels and then you get to know one another.

Arienne Ferchaud 16:28
That's certainly how I've met quite a few people, hanging out at conferences. One of the main missions of SECAC is to help people who are newer to the field to connect with others and feel supported in various ways. With communication research, a lot of our work is based on technologies that are changing all the time. Based on this idea that technology is going to be different next year than it was this year, how do you think that's going to impact communication as a field moving forward?

Mary Beth Oliver 17:01
As a person interested in emotion, meaningfulness, and media, I'm intimidated by all the changes in technology and my inability to keep up with it, frankly. But at the same time, intrigued. I started really thinking about extended reality and what that implies for social interaction and the elicitation of emotion. What is available out there for people to consume is often put together by corporations who don't have social good at heart. I find myself trying to learn how to make those experiences myself so that I'm not tied to those corporate interests that might be really damaging in a lot of ways. It's mind blowing how rapid changes are happening, but at the same time, I feel like certain things are not going to change: the need for love, to have purpose in life, to eat, the need to not be under threat from disease or the police. These are certain fundamental values that are really enduring and I need to make those values front and center in the midst of all the craziness of technology is changing.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 18:25
For me, technologies have to be humanized. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time just thinking about data equity in terms of data justice. What that means to me is that social media platforms or different ways in which machine learning or artificial intelligence, as new technologies, might be shaping a lot of decision-making. The question that I keep coming back to is, what is the role of the people who are most impacted by this technology or this issue? Do they have a voice at the table? Do we have stories about their experiences with the technologies represented in the feedback that's being collected? Who's left out or unheard in that process? Whenever you're creating any new technologies, you have to look at the social context in which that's created. Who is it for? What purposes can we harness from this that can be used for people who might not have access to that technology or do not know how to use that for something that might help their lives in terms of health, happiness, creativity or community. Let's humanize the data. Let's humanize the technologies. That is where I think our roles are going to be really important. Connecting the data scientists with the social justice people and having dialogues about the ways in which these technologies are being used in the future.

Arienne Ferchaud 19:55
So, it's not just the technology. It's also the people impacted by the technology, who use the technology, or even who create the technology. All of those are important to think about. Are there any last closing thoughts that you guys might have about this topic of the future of communication research, especially as it relates to students and early career scholars?

Srividya Ramasubramanian 20:18
I'd say that it's really important to see yourself as capable of being the theorist. You are a scholar, you're a theorist, you have access to your own lived reality that you can theorize about and bring into the conversation in the classroom, your scholarship, your teaching. You're new into the field, that could be an advantage, actually. You're looking at things through fresh eyes. Don't dismiss any of your fresh and innovative ideas, because we need that to keep the discipline fresh, invigorated, and going forward.

Mary Beth Oliver 20:50
It's hard to imagine a more exciting, and intimidating, time to be a communication scholar. And all you have to do is look around your universities and see how many other departments are wanting to incorporate comm. It's an area of scholarship that has just exploded. So, it's hard to imagine a more consequential time to be a young scholar than now. Embrace it, buckle up, but really understand the value of what you're doing.

Arienne Ferchaud 21:23
Thank you guys so much for chatting with me about this topic. I hope you guys have a great day.

Mary Beth Oliver 21:30
Thank you.

Srividya Ramasubramanian 21:30
Thank you.

Arienne Ferchaud 21:32
This episode of the Growing Up Comm. Podcast series is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. Our producers are Christian Elliott and Sharlene Burgos. Our executive producer is DeVante Brow. The theme music is by Will Van De Crommert. If you'd like to learn more about today's guests and their work, please check the show notes in the episode description. Thanks for listening!

New Technologies, Greater Diversity and the Future of Communication Studies
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