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The challenge of BRICS to the field of communication

The paradigms of communication studies have been covered above from a Latin American and Brazilian perspective but at the same time this discussion is valid for the rest of the world. The field has historically common roots in Europe and the United States and these have been adopted by dominant research traditions in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

However, communication as a subject of study has experienced several formative stages in its evolution as an academic field. ‘Ferment in the field’ became a concept in communication research in the early 1980s, when George Gerbner, the legendary Dean of Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, as editor of Journal of Communication mobilized a large number of colleagues to review the field from the point of view of research paradigms and their challenges, commenting on the significance of the field by stating ‘If Marx were alive today, his principal work would be entitled Communications rather than Capital’ (Gerbner, 1983: 348). A new assessment of the ‘ferment in the field’ was made by the same journal ten years later, but it turned out to be little more than an overview (Journal of Communication, 1993), followed by another review by the journal a quarter of a century later charting the progress of the field, with a more diverse group of voices - unlike the previous two special issues which had no representation from the global South - but without any grand or coherent theoretical narrative (Journal of Communication, 2018).

Outside the dominant variants of American stream of communication scholarship, there have been more critical works to examine the ‘ferments’ and their histories. Surveying the evolution of the field from the 1950s to the first decade of the new millennium, Nordenstreng (2004) listed six ‘ferments’ in the field of communication studies, one for each decade. According to this schema the 1950s was the formative stage of modern (mass) communication research, when the field had emerged and established itself in academia, as well as in the media industry, mainly in Europe and North America. The 1960s saw a greater emphasis on social relevance and political economy as well as challenging the hegemonic status of logical positivism as an approach to the world.

In the 1970s, the intellectual offensive of the 1960s often brought the Left into an established position as the main challenger of hegemonic powers in media as well as in academia. Strong support for progressive thinking came from international institutions, above all the Non-Aligned Movement, advocating decolonization and a new international order in economy and communication. In the 1980s, the field was increasingly challenged externally by commercialization in media and culture and internally by the growing claims of cultural studies and feminism, while communication studies in the post-Cold War world of the 1990s was heavily influenced by neo-liberal and populist-conservative politics on the one hand and by new information and communication technologies on the other. Globalization and digitalization led to ICTs becoming conceptual tools in the construction of a new network theory of society.

In communication studies, critical research, primarily from the Left, has been understood as an anti-hegemonic critical force making a difference in a predominantly bourgeois-Western field. Naturally this is just one angle, which nevertheless serves as a reminder of how the notion of critical is absorbed by the political tendencies of the day. In any case the successive ferments in the field should be seen against the background of communication studies having proliferated throughout the latter part of the twentieth century perhaps more than any other academic field apart from computer science and biomedicine.

In its expansion, the field has become increasingly diversified different media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television, cinema, etc.) and different aspects of communication (journalism, visual communication, media culture, media economy, etc.) have emerged as more or less independent branches of the field, prompting some scholars to suggest that communication had become ‘a post-discipline’ (Waisboard,

2019). This proliferation has not been halted by the convergence brought about by the digitalization of media production and distribution, with new social media, games, etc., becoming further specialities in media studies, often gaining the status of another major subject or even a separate discipline.

As the field has gradually been consolidated in the global South - as university programmes and research institutions have proliferated, particularly in countries such as China - it has begun to articulate its own national and regional identities, typically related to the context of decolonization and attempts at cultural autonomy. It is natural, then, that communication research in the BRICS countries - not only Brazil but also in Russia, India, China and South Africa - has an ambivalent relation to the Western mainstream research tradition: its origins cannot be denied but it is increasingly approached with a critical eye. However closely the BRICS countries might be associated with the processes of globalization, they are understandably resistant to the imposition ofWestern patterns and, further, can offer visions for a ‘post-American’ world order.

Beyond a critical approach to Western mainstream, BRICS countries have a lot of potential to broaden the critical paradigms in the evolving field of communication. Russia has a rich cultural tradition, especially in literature, which waits to be elaborated for the theory of communication in the digital era. India with its unique civilization offers unlimited possibilities for developing concepts and theories of communication, and the same is true of China. South Africa with its pan-African heritage likewise has much to offer.


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