by Declan Fahy
A strength of international media as an interdisciplinary field of study is the way it can bridge seamlessly academic research and professional practice. The Capstone Seminar in International Media at American University, which had its first class session last week, allows students to create original scholarly and professional works that bridge this gap – and contribute to the wider body of knowledge.
Students are beginning work on a diverse range of projects, with examples including a study of the representation of Arab identity in newspapers pre- and post-Arab Spring, an examination of the lives of political refugees in the United States and an international comparison of how journalistic values are inculcated among students.
Coming up with original research ideas to pursue can be one of the most challenging issues for beginning researchers. But there are some methods that can help students develop the knack of seeing the world as researchers do: as problems that can be described, analyzed and explained using abstract ideas.
One method that I’ve always found useful is examining contemporary media coverage of issues, and building research ideas around them. For example, the Financial Times has recently been running an informative and provocative series, “Capitalism in Crisis,” featuring opinion pieces by some of the world’s most influential commentators, including economist Jeffrey Sachs and former President Bill Clinton.
A recent piece (registration required) I liked was from Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, which examined the growing income disparity that has followed the rise of a super-rich class in India: in a nation of 1.2billion, the country’s 100 richest own assets that equal a quarter of gross domestic product.
Part of her analysis described how the media and creative industries in India have largely failed to criticize the new wealthy class after being subtly co-opted into the agendas of the super-rich (readers of Antonio Gramsci will recognize elements of cultural hegemony here).
Roy wrote: “Corporations have their own sly strategy to deal with dissent. With a minuscule percentage of their profits they run hospitals, educational institutes and trusts, which in turn fund NGOs, academics, journalists, artists, film-makers, literary festivals and even protest movements.
“It is a way of using charity to lure opinion-makers into their sphere of influence. Of infiltrating normality, colonising ordinariness, so that challenging them seems as absurd (or as esoteric) as challenging ‘reality’ itself. From here, it’s a quick, easy step to ‘there is no alternative’.”
This would, for me, be an example of a promising research topic: how various forms of media have failed to challenge what Roy called the “gush-up gospel” in India. Often, having the germ of an idea is enough to begin thinking systematically about how such a topic would be researched. For example, what established theories about the role of media would be useful here, about media, culture and society in India, about media ownership in India? There are pragmatic issues, too: what kind or kinds of data would help answer this question, how would data be collected, can data be collected?
In their book The Craft of Research, Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams advise beginning researchers to examine the history of their topic, its structure and composition, as well as its categorization, as a means of sparking research ideas.
Of course, not all ideas work out. Sometimes an initial literature review will discover that this topic has been done before. Sometimes the data cannot be obtained. Even if the data is available, sometimes it’s not pragmatically possible to gather the necessary evidence. But the important point is that going through these exercises regularly, especially at the beginning of research, will develop the methods of thinking necessary for research. There is no better way to find a good idea than having lots (and lots and lots) of ideas.
Class members will be blogging about their ongoing work here in the coming weeks, so check back regularly to see how their original international media research is progressing. In the meantime, let’s hear reader suggestions about international media topics they would like to see researched.