A coffee break with Maria Bakardjieva and Peter Dahlgren: discussing media studies

Dr. Maria Bakardjieva is Professor of Communication at the Department of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary in Western Canada. She teaches courses that deal with the interplay between new media and society and studies the internet and digital media in their social contexts and applications. She published a book „Internet Society: The Internet in Everyday Life“ (2005, Sage) and numerous journal articles including „Subactivism: Lifeworld and Politics in the Age of the Internet“ (The Information Society, 2009),  „Reconfiguring the Mediapolis: New Media and Civic Agency“ (New Media and Society, 2012), „Web 2.0 Technologies of the Self“ (Philosophy & Technology, 2012) and „New Media and Civil Society in Bulgaria“ ( Europe-Asia Studies, 2012).

Dr. Peter Dahlgren is a media and communication scholar educated in the USA who worked in Sweden for most of his academic career. He is now Professor Emeritus at the Department of Communication and Media, Lund University. His work focuses on media and democracy from the horizons of late modern social and cultural theory. More specifically, he address the theme of democratic participation, in particular in relation to the digital media. His recent publications are Media and Political Engagement (Cambridge University Press, 2009), the co-edited volume Young People, ICTs and Democracy (Nordicom, 2010), Online Journalism and Civic Cosmopolitanism: Professional vs. participatory ideals (Journalism Studies, 2013), Tracking the Civic Subject in the Media Landscape: Versions of the Democratic Ideal (Television & New Media, 2013).

(1)    What got you interested in media and communication studies in the first place?

Peter Dahlgren: I was enrolled in 1968 in the masters program in international relations, but the teacher quickly shifted it to the study of international communication and I got very excited about the whole media and communication perspective as applied to the developing nations and applied to advanced industrial nations. When I got my degree I ended up working for two years as a research assistant at a Swedish broadcasting research department in Stockholm where we were doing audience studies and the discrepancy between what people were actually doing- Intellectual visions of high culture got me interested to the extent that I wanted to do a doctorate in that. I went back to the USA and ended up getting a doctorate in sociology with a specialization in media but also with elements of sociology of knowledge and critical theory. I never regretted my choice of the field of study because I have a feeling that there is a specific media angle to all the societal phenomena and increasingly so with digital media. Through media comes an exciting fruitful way to understand the historical presence of contemporary society. The field itself is sufficiently broad and eclectic and has a basic core that makes it viable to that kind of enterprise. It imports a number of things from sociology and psychology which is a reason why it’s not rigid and tight and that is one of its advantages. It allows for the pluralism, eclecticism and intellectual excitement.

Maria Bakardjieva: In my case, I graduated with a degree in journalism in Bulgaria during communist times. It was a very strange educational program because part of the objective of that program was to make us loyal bards of the communist idea – people who would skillfully indoctrinate the population into the communist ideas and propagate the benefits of socialism. It was a program where we studied party congresses, about which party congress made which decision about journalism, newspapers, television, etc. And we studied other subjects as well which were mostly oriented towards the skill of writing and treated journalism as a craft. From the larger perspective, it was an understanding that we have to help spreading the word of the party. I was coming from a very rigorous high school program and this course of studies intellectually somehow did not do it for me. I graduated and got a job as a journalist in a marginal magazine of the time because I didn’t want to be pushed to propagating party ideas. I situated myself in a smaller magazine called Family and School where we were left alone to write about family and healthy lifestyles. That went on for a certain period of time and once again I felt it was more like a craft. I  always had an interest in the big picture of how media fit into how people see their life and how they affect their beliefs. We did not have media and communication studies at that time but I found that there was a research group section on sociology of mass communication at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Sociology. My future mentor, Todor Petev,was one of the pioneers bringing the understanding of the discipline of media and communication into the Bulgarian context as sociology of mass communication.I decided to go in the direction of intellectually more interesting questions, a broader understanding of what goes on with media and what role they play in the society at large, and so I started a PhD program there. But then, the Berlin Wall went down and for my generation that was the first chance to try to get exposure to the rest of the world. As a PhD student in sociology for a year, I had not been able to find the academic books and journals I needed. Before the fall of communism these books and journals were considered bourgeois propaganda or bourgeois pseudoscience so they were not imported. After the fall of communism, the economy crashed and we didn’t have money to import anything, so we were again left with nothing. I remember writing to people in North America asking for copies of articles and my sister bringing back a whole pack of photocopied books from Italy that I somehow had realized were important for my area of studies. I wanted to enroll in a PhD program in communication in a place which could offer me adequate access to literature in order to write a decent thesis. I applied at several American universities, as North America was the popular destination for people with academic interest, but for me as an Eastern European at that time it was critical to get accepted with funding and the only university that offered me funding was Simon Fraser in Canada.

Peter Dahlgren: The theme of the establishment of departments in media and communication is an interesting district. In the USA you had on the turn of the century the emergence of schools of journalism. I think in the 1960s you could start to see the first departments of media studies. In Britain in 1970s , 1980s, in Sweden 1990s. The establishment of these departments was partly determined by the exit from mother disciplines of a number of scholars from sociology and political science who constituted a new department. The problem was that as media scholars started to get their degrees in media studies, the contact with mother disciplines sometimes became very loose and my feeling is that media departments still have to manage a sense of how society works, how politics works etc. And now in the Internet era you have media studies carried out in all the social sciences and humanities disciplines. But I would say that we in media studies have a clear edge because we have grounding in the analysis of institutions, organizations, messages, audiences, users in the whole communication process. I think we do make a better job, although concern over the Internet has spread all around the academia, and in the technical sciences as well. I’m going back to what I’ve said earlier, that media and communication is a central link to other social institutions and social dynamics. I will use an awkward word, mediatization, which points to how other social institutions and practices adapt themselves to the logics, demands and imperatives of the media. The world of politics adjusts itself, the world of sports, etc. The media are no longer peripheral, they are central to a modern society and I think that asks us to actively deal with this.

(2)    You both shifted between disciplines, but also geographically, from Bulgaria to Canada (in Maria Bakardjieva’s case) and from USA to Sweden (in Peter Dahlgren’s case). How did these shifts influence your current work?

Maria Bakardjieva: For me the decisive moment was when I moved from Bulgaria to Canada. Firstly, because I could not believe that I could walk across these stacks of books and take out any book that was there. Then I realized that I was in the home of McLuhan, Innis and the Toronto School of communication studies, which wasn’t so clearly institutionalized at that time, but that tradition is the pioneer in showing how important media are for the rest of the social institutions and practices. I realized that I was in exactly the right place and that Canada had more of a critical interpretative tradition closer to the British cultural studies rather than the American positivist tradition. I don’t know if I’ve been predisposed by my beliefs already, but I liked that – I could have ended up in a place that valued the positivist tradition where I would do surveys and measure how many women do that, how many men do that and then make something out of it. I was fortunate to end up in a place with a strong history of media studies, but also with a more qualitative critical tradition. This intellectual environment that I moved into played a tremendous formative role for me. I do retain a lot of respect for sociological aspects of media studies and I found many sociological theories extremely valuable. After all, Habermas´ work is not considered media studies, it’s social theory. The same applies to many other approaches. I consider the curiosity for broader social thought valuable and I’m grateful for my tiny sociological education which peaked my interest in these ideas. In terms of disciplinary movement, I think communication is quite lucky to be a recipient of many different inputs from broader social theory and cultural studies. It is helpful to work across disciplinary boundaries without worrying much about belonging to a certain discipline.

Peter Dahlgren: Sociology department at the City University of New York was very open and eclectic so there I could pursue topics on critical theory, cultural studies, hermeneutics, semiotics, etc. I was very happy to have a sociological background. The irony was that with moving back to Europe in 1980s, Sweden at the time was very oriented towards American quantitative social science models. I was perceived as a rather strange bird because they had an anticipation like this: „He’s coming from New York , he can probably do SPSS and all the good stuff.“ I don’t make a great distinction between quantitative and qualitative, i think good research is based on good research questions, but I didn’t have a good background in quantitative study. However, when Sweden became more pluralistic and cultural studies made entrance I no longer felt so marginalized. Additionally, European arena was opening up more and more and it got much better in various aspects: easier to get funding, to do networking, and so on. From Sweden I was connected to British critical media studies and after a while I tried to open up more to France which has a different and interesting intellectual tradition. I think the eclectic quality of media and communication studies is one of it’s assets even if occasionally it ends up with soul searching about the core subject and boundaries. I think it’s sufficient to make institutional boundaries and to institutionally bind the field with journals, networks of departments, etc. I think the academic world today is in a tough situation, but within this context media studies are doing quite well, there’s growth, intellectual engagement, a lot of enthusiasm.

Maria Bakardjieva: And I should say that with my move to Canada there was an important thing that happened. Back in Bulgaria I had already started my dissertation on a topic that was pretty much handed down to me from the top of the leadership of my Institute, the Institute of Sociology. My supervisor had intended for me to study media and communication technologies, but in Bulgaria at that time this phrase had almost no meaning. There were some initial experiments with videotex and teletext, those were the new telecommunication technologies that the industry was introducing. So because of their own reasons or because of information they had picked up from international conferences, these professors felt that they should give this topic to the student to struggle with it. And actually, the lack of literature that I experienced so acutely was worse because my topic was so new and weird. This is what helped to propel me out of the country. When I arrived in Canada to start my PhD program, although it was only intended to help me finish the Bulgarian PhD that I had started, I met with the Internet. My supervisor in Canada was studying computers in education and she knew a lot about the Internet, e-mail, servers, etc. Big words at the time. So when I started my program she put me in the hands of another graduate student, my close friend now, David Smith, and told him to take me to the computer lab and to set up an e-mail account for me. The rest is history. Because until that time I had no knowledge, no idea, no signal anywhere on my horizon that such a thing existed. Very few people did, it was not just my East European backwardness. Nobody, or very few people in Canada, apart from computer scientists and engineers or people working in universities were aware of these things.

Peter Dahlgren: So all of the sudden you were on the front lines…

Maria Bakardjieva: Indeed, I mean, the wild girl from Eastern Europe was thrown at the front line of communication technology. And I think that was the big chance of my life, and I’m forever grateful to that bunch of people who almost unknowingly and by chance threw me at that battlefront. There was so much to research that sometimes I put my hands up in the air and say „I can’t do this, it’s simply impossible to stay on top of all this and follow it!“.

(3)    You both deal with media and democracy and you both developed your own concepts, mundane citizenship, civic cultures or subactivism. What is common to them is that they deal with the democratic practices on a grassroots level. What are the main changes that digital media brought in regard to these topics of your academic interest?

Peter Dahlgren: I would emphasize the accessibility of so much information. That’s a very banal point, but I think people now have an opportunity to find just about anything. I think it facilitates horizontal communication between people, citizens, groups, which becomes very empowering, people no longer feel that they are isolated. The sense of psychological empowerment of mastering this kind of technology is also important to a lot of people. I think also that it provides counter points to some of the official news, official pronouncements, official realities. There are alternative versions of reality circulating. Some of them more credible than others which brings them to problematic areas of trust. And there’s the problem with control and surveillance. But with all the pluses and minuses I would say that it’s been absolutely a boost for democratic practices at the grassroots, civic level. It is facilitated so much particularly by among alternative groups and activists. I think many of them would basically not exist without the Web and mobile technologies.

Maria Bakardjieva: I guess I started with my experience of growing up in a communist reality, where it was exactly that horizontal chatter among us, our friends and relatives that sustained our sanity and critical thinking, resistance and oppositional ideas vis-à-vis a powerful system which was all inclusive. And yet totalitarianism, no matter how hard it tried, it failed at fully penetrating and taking over these spaces of horizontal, interpersonal communication. And that’s where we made jokes about the regime, that’s where we questioned the truths that it was pushing with the full power of its media apparatus, and violence sometimes, and sanctions sometimes. I have always held a belief in the resilience and power of this horizontal interpersonal level of chatter among people. And with digital media, with the internet, it could be consolidated, it could be made more permanent and lasting in a sense of leaving a record, forming a space that was always there. It made it so much easier to relate to others in establishing connections to others that have similar concerns and thoughts and are willing to push in a particular direction. So, for me, that gave an infrastructure for these preexisting conversations and criticisms towards the government and consolidated them to become more consequential. This is where my interest grew.

Peter Dahlgren: I think the importance of collective identity, of we makes people feel they can make things accomplished, so for collective action, for counter publics it has been fantastic. While at the same time acknowledging the limitations and constraints and affirming that there’s no technological fix for democracy. Lack of democracy can’t be explained through a lack of keyboards.

Maria Bakardjieva: And it needs an achieved democratic foundation for all these things to be really effective. But we can see that they make a difference even in even in places where democracy didn’t exist. And once again, these are not universal fixes, they can’t solve the problems of Egypt or Afghanistan where democracy has never been basically. However, in political contexts, in systems where the basic democratic conditions have already existed and established themselves, I think there these media could really give a boost to these grassroots level of functioning, to democratic practices, which we are still struggling to label, recognize, define and evaluate. But this is exactly the beauty of our moment in media studies history.

Interview conducted by Dina Vozab.



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