The 20th annual conference of the Singapore-based Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) held in Hyderabad in July 2010 devoted a session to ‘The West and the Rest: media and soft power in a digital age.’ That the session followed the inauguration flags the significance of the issue. Recounting his experience on returning to Indian academia from a post doctoral stint in the London School of Economics (LSE), an academic recounts the dismissive attitude of a member of the interview panel towards Western theories and the advice to understand ‘the grassroots reality’ (Aram, 2011: 243). In a note inviting participation in the conference titled Research Methodology in Journalism and Mass Communication: De-westernizing Media Studies, organised by Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University in late 2010, the organisers lament the indifference and non-acceptance of Indian academic output by international (read ‘Western’) journals.
The ‘West and the Rest’ debate is not new. It dates back to 1978 if not earlier, when Edward Said published his seminal work on ‘Orientalism’ in which he argued that the Eurocentric view of the world has justified colonialism and Western imperialism over centuries. It was given a fresh lease of life in the early nineties when ‘Asian values’ encompassing some tenets of Confucianism gained currency in China and South East Asian countries to justify the curbing of civil liberties and foregrounding communitarianism. Of course, the debate was pushed to the background by the East Asian financial crisis in the late nineties. But nevertheless it still has its votaries as also its ardent critiques, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen
featuring notably among the latter.
The East vs. West dichotomy in media studies and research is not new either. Indeed most academics who have returned to work in Asia after a stint in the West have had to defend their knowledge or appreciation of Western theories or worse, be apologetic about it as Aram details (2011: 243). However, the debate is now making its presence felt more in academic circles with ‘de-Westernising media education and research’ becoming regular sessions in conferences in Asia. The validity of the claim apart, one cannot help wonder at the reasons for its current emergence in India. Perhaps, it is the effects of accelerated globalisation that has impacted upon not just the Indian media, but also upon media education. Or perhaps, it is the stress on research by the University Grants Commission in an attempt to correlate its standards and criteria to those elsewhere and the consequent realisation that research in India is not taken seriously within the country or without. Whatever, the argument that the East is indeed different and that Western models and methodologies fail to explain adequately or address the issues in the media and communication sectors in Asia, now reverberates more often in the corridors of Indian universities.
The argument is not without merits especially when one considers some of the paradoxical developments in Indian media. While on the one hand, Indian media seems to borrow from the West, more since the liberalisation of 1991, on the other, it also exhibits markedly different trends. Unlike in the West, the traditional medium of print has not declined in India
but in fact registered 10 per cent growth in 2010 and is expected to continue to grow in the next five years with the regional print media poised to grow at a rate of 12 per cent; the proliferation of television has led more to ‘glocalisation’ rather than homogenisation with Western formats being adapted to suit the Indian milieu and propagate traditional and cultural values as a solution to the ills and challenges arising out of globalisation and consequent Westernisation (Ranganathan and Rodrigues, 2010); unlike in the West internet penetration is yet to reach significant levels but the social media is catching the imagination of the young
in a spectacular way.
Many of the developments can be traced to the social, economic and cultural factors that are peculiar to India. Hence, media research calls for a more insightful and holistic exploration of the Indian media and communication sector. The dilemma that confronts media researchers is this: in the Indian context are Western theories inadequate or, are they irrelevant?
First, the question leads us to epistemological considerations of the ‘West vs. East dichotomy’. Is the language based on the East/West divide still valid in an age that has witnessed changes in communication flows, that is seeing the purported rise of Asian powers, and is witnessing the emergence of media giants that dominate more than one region? Can the cultural boundaries that defined the grouping be considered immutable in this era of hybridities? More significantly, as Hall (1996) stated, do we not implicitly acknowledge Western superiority when we position ourselves as a ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ nation, on the path to ‘modernisation’, and affected by ‘globalisation’?
Secondly, this leads us to the basis of the classification ‘Western theory’ or theorist. Does having steered the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies to great heights make Stuart Hall, who pioneered studies on ‘representation,’ a Western theorist? Could New York-based Arjun Appadurai’s work on ‘differences and disjunctures’ in the age of globalisation where he details the challenges posed by Asian countries to globalisation and hegemonisation, qualify as a Western theory? After all, ‘De-westernising media studies,’ that takes a very critical view of the dominant Anglo-American perspective of media studies has been edited by Australian-based academic James Curran with Myung-Jin Park. And one of the most significant works on Indian television, ‘Politics after television: Hindu nationalism and the reshaping of the public in India,’ has been authored by Arvind Rajagopal, currently Professor in New York University. One of the authors of ‘Communication for Development in the Third World: Theory and Practice for Empowerment’ Srinivas Melkote is based in the Bowling Green State University, Ohio. To go back to the AMIC conference mentioned at the beginning of this article, the panel of four on ‘West vs. The Rest’ comprised two researchers employed in the University of Westminster, UK and the World Bank Institute, USA. The boundaries that determine East and West have been mutating. If indeed the classification is made on study of and theorising of Western media, the argument becomes more complex. Because, for the Indian media, now increasingly professing a commercial agenda, to borrow Hall’s expression in another context, the ‘West’ provides the model toward which the ‘Rest’ must strive.
Appadurai, Arjun, 1990, ‘Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy,’ Public Culture, 2 (2), pp.1-24.
Aram.I., Arul, 2011, ‘How to and where de-westernize media research?,’ Journal of Media and Communication Studies
Vol. 3(8), pp. 243-247, August 2011 Available online http://www.academicjournals.org/JMCS
Curran, James and Myung-Jin Park, 2000, De-Westerising media studies, UK: Routledge.
Hall, S, 1996, ‘The West and the Rest: Discourse and power’ inn S. Hall, D. Held, D. Hubert, and K. Thompson (eds.) Modernity: An introduction to modern societies. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Melkote, Srinivas.R. and H. Leslie Steeves, 2001, Communication for development in the Third World: theory and practice for empowerment, New Delhi, London, New York: Sage.
Ranganathan, Maya and Usha M Rodrigues, 2010, Indian media in globalised world, New Delhi: Sage.
Rajagopal, Arvind, 2001, Politics after television: Hindu nationalism and reshaping of the public in India, UK: Cambridge University Press.