The call for de-westernising media research and education in India has been made largely on the basis that media reflects a peculiar situation which is so unlike the conditions elsewhere, particularly in the West, making application of Western theories and methodologies to study Indian media inadequate and even inappropriate. The political, economic and socio-cultural conditions are fraught with complexities making it difficult to counter the argument for de-Westernising media education and research. However, two issues that demand attention are first, what exactly can be classified under ‘Western theory’ and secondly, if the classifications of ‘West’ and ‘East’ are immutable.
The third issue is that much of the work on media in the West so aptly describes the state of media in India today. Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business’ written way back in 1985 could well be a commentary on the present 24/7 news in India that has become a form of entertainment programming precluding serious consideration, an issue repeatedly discussed in The Hoot’s columns. The form of content in media is moving towards a standardisation based on commercially viable models, tried and tested in the West. Interestingly, when newspapers decide to go in for a make-over they employ Western ‘experts’ who have ‘successfully’ remodelled newspapers in the West. For instance, Mario Garcia drew from his vast international experience of redesigning newspapers like the ‘Wall Street Journal,’ to give the ‘The Hindu’ a ‘contemporary-classical’ look. The Indian mega serials may be in different languages within the framework of the impossible-to-define ‘Indian culture,’ but still follow broadly the format of successful soap operas of the West that have been studied in depth within the framework of feminist studies. In the context of the intertwining of politics and media one is unable to completely discount the validity of Iyengar and Kinder’s ‘agenda-setting theory’. Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’ seems more relevant now than ever. When Indian media apes or borrows from the West, the question that begs an answer is whether media education and research can/must tread a completely different path?
Fourthly, media education curricula, particularly those of privately-funded institutes and universities adapt, when unable to adopt Western models. A tie-up with a Western university allowing an exchange programme is seen as a means to attracting students. This has necessitated concerted efforts to match the curriculum with the university abroad. A few students who thus end up with an exposure to the West and its education system --both form and content-- and are supposedly much sought after in the media market. The general perception seems to be that a ‘foreign’ (read ‘Western’) degree gives one a leg up in the media industry.
It is worth noting that the ‘de-Westernising of media studies’ is a call not confined to India alone. In 2007, Takahashi stated that some Western concepts in social sciences “may fail to capture an adequate sense of Japanese people’s social and communicative time-space in their everyday life” (333). Takahashi’s argument was that Western academics researching Japan miss out on the elements that are uniquely Japanese and suggested that these factors first be isolated as a step towards ‘de-Westernising media studies’ in Japan. While the argument holds good for research in India too, unlike in Japan, the issue is compounded by the fact that India comprises diverse communities often torn asunder by language, religion, caste and social status. Just as the ‘East’ does not allow for the diversities that exist within the countries of the ‘East’, the ‘Indian perspective’ does not account for the various and sometimes vast regional differences.
When such is the case, eschewing Western theories in an attempt to de-Westernise would impoverish research in India rather than enhance it. The solution perhaps lies in “an integrated framework based on various media studies which have been developed within different cultural, social and historical contexts in the West, but also on the ‘interpenetration’ of Western theories and concepts with those of the rest of the world in the context of globalisation” (Takahashi, 2007: 335). This implies that the attempts to de-Westernise media education and research in India must begin with an understanding of Western theoretical knowledge, evaluation of its effectiveness to explain and address issues in the Indian context and the consequent development or abandonment of it. In an impassioned plea to shake off the colonial mindset Kalinga Senaviratne of AMIC pointed out the limitations of the Libertarian media systems theory
in explaining even the Western media. Ironically, works critiquing Western theorists abound in the West. In an interesting paper, Biltereyst argued, “that not only public discourse on Americanisation, but also (the use of) scientific research on the issue, has been to a certain extent normative, ‘politicised’ or 'parti-pris'” (2002). However, critiques of Western theories backed by empirical research are hard to come by in India. In an article titled ‘In between paradigms: perspective on communication theory in India,’ Peggy Mohan argued for a theory that would ‘look at and be fascinated by spontaneous order in less ‘developed’ groups of people,’ in ‘villages, workshops and marketplace’ (1992: 775).’ Aram has argued that de-westernising must begin with bridging the urban-rural divide (2011: 243-247). There are a few works on Indian rhetoric and communication theory, but theorising in the area of media studies remains nascent.
The reasons for the lack of such work have been highlighted in anecdotal accounts made by Indian academics. In his paper Aram (Ibid.) has lamented the disregard for research output by peers, indifference to theoretical knowledge among students, the dogged issue of achieving balance between process and skills in media education and the inability to keep abreast of theoretical developments in the West and elsewhere. In his key-note address at the conference in Tezpur, Kiran Thakur, a self-professed media professional-turned-academic laid bare some of the common problems facing media researchers in India (2011: online). While confessing that his knowledge of communication theories was wanting, he stated that besides the structural inadequacies in the education system in India, Indian academics were unable to publish their research in international refereed journals as the journal editors and referees were based in the West with very little understanding or appreciation of “the research topic, the methodology and sample size mentioned in the abstract or research proposal.” This however leads one to the question if well-respected refereed journals in India would solve the problem and the reasons for the absence of many such.
The reasons cited above however catapult the debate to another plane. Is the preoccupation with ‘de-Westernising media studies and education’ a sincere effort to rid ourselves of being trapped in ‘Eurocentric view’ or is it indicative a deeper malaise in the area of media education and research? Either way the answer seems to lie in looking inward, at isolating factors that are uniquely Indian in the education system, society and media.
Biltereyst, Daniel, 2002, ‘Globalisation, Americanisation and politicisation of media research. Learning from a long tradition of research on the cross-cultural influences of US media,’ paper presented at the 23rd Conference and General Assembly of the IAMCR, Section ‘International Communication’ 21st to 26th July 2002, Barcelona, Spain.
Herman, Edward.S. and Noam Chomsky, 1988, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media, US: Pantheon Books.
Iyengar, Shanto and Donald Kinder, 1987, News That Matters, in Theodoulou and Cahn (eds)Public Policy: The Essential Readings, pp. 295-305.
Mohan, Peggy, 1992, In between paradigms: perspective on communication theory in India,’ Economic and Political Weekly
, Vol 27, No 15/16, April 11-18, pp.773-779, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25733581
, accessed on 16th
Postman, Neil, 1985, Amusing ourselves to death, New York: Viking Penguin.
Takahashi, Toshie, 2007, ‘De-westernising media studies: a Japanese perspective,’ Global Media and Communication, 3 (3), 330-337.
Thakur, Kiran, 2011, ‘Media research: let us think Indian,’ Journalism Online newsletter, March, available at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/journalismonline, accessed on 17th November 2011.