Nico Carpentier is Professor at the Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University in Sweden. He also holds two part-time positions: Associate Professor at the Communication Studies Department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Belgium and Docent at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at Loughborough University, United Kingdom and Cyprus University of Technology. He is an executive board member of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). Between 2008 and 2012 he was vice-president of the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA). His theoretical focus is discourse theory, and his research interests are the relationship between media, journalism, politics and culture, especially in social domains such as war and conflict, ideology, participation and democracy. He published numerous monographs, edited books, journal special issues and articles. Some of his recent publications include a special issue of the journal Javnost (co-edited with Julie Uldam) titled ˝Publics, Discursive Struggles and Political Agency˝ (2015), an edited monograph ˝Culture, Trauma & Conflict: Cultural Studies Perspectives on Contemporary War˝ (Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2015) and a monograph ˝Media and Participation: A Site of Ideological-Democratic Struggle˝ (Intellect, 2011).
1) What got you interested in media and communication studies in the first place and how did your interests change over the course of your career?
There are many answers to that question. My first answer would be that I come from a totally different set of fields. I did my bachelor in philosophy and applied economics and my master in international relations. I then worked as a researcher in a project about sexual behavior of Belgian youngsters, which was grounded in health sociology. So, intellectually, I come from a diverse background. Maybe that explains why I’m still sometimes half inside the field and half outside of the field of media and communication studies. In my defense, I did my master thesis on a media and communication studies related topic – community media. But at that time, there was no master in media and communication studies at Antwerp University. Nobody was doing research within this field so I was clearly outside of the comfort zone. At the same time I was working for an alternative radio station. I was producing different kinds of radio shows trying to be different from what the mainstream media were doing. I was trying to develop new formats that were not so streamlined as a lot of mainstream journalism news programs were, and still are. That was translated in an academic interest in media, and later in communication. The other thing, related to your question, is that I’m not sure if I always look at media in a very media–centric way. I tend to prefer a society–centered approach, which sees media organizations and content as a part of a broader societal playing field. I’ve always been looking at societal phenomena and used media as a very good place for finding different ways of thinking about particular social realities. An even broader answer would be that I’m basically interested in power. Media are simply a very good location to study power. But I don’t think you could study power by only looking at the media. You have to have that broad perspective. That sometimes puts me a bit at odds with people that use a media-centric approach. Obviously, everybody is perfectly entitled to their research agenda, but I see media as very much interconnected with different societal spheres and not as an isolated little island where we travel to in order to do research. It always has to be, for me, about society as a whole. The emphasis on discourse in my work actually made me shift more and more towards communication studies. Ironically, we often find ourselves in a position of doing media studies and not looking at communication processes. For me, discourse studies are a part of communication studies. Discourses are, after all, vehicles of communication. The ways in which we structure our thinking, communicate to others and circulate it in a particular cultural configuration matters. Slowly, but surely, I developed an interest which was more communication studies than media studies based. I do think that we need to spend more time thinking about what communication studies are, and what makes this field different from media studies. If we refer to our field as media and communication studies we should reflect more about what communication studies are actually about. Often media and communication studies means just media studies and we politely add another component to it. I started to put more emphasis on this leftover, this appendix for many, because I think we need to give more attention to the study of communication processes, within and outside media organizations and the entire media field. That also answers your question about change in my interests – the change is the shift from media studies to communication studies, linked to a discursive approach.
2) You are interested in power relations which are reflected in media and communication processes. I guess this is why you got interested in the theory of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. What contribution does their theory bring to the field?
There are a couple of things. What I appreciate in academic life is paradigmatic clarity. Researchers too often, and that sometimes includes myself, don’t make it really explicit how they think about the world, about knowledge and their values. In other words, their ontology, epistemology and axiology is not made explicit. We don’t specify, and that’s actually a part of the power struggle. Realist paradigms often prevail and leave out references to realism because they presume that’s the normal way of thinking. One of the major benefits of the more radical constructionist perspective, to which Laclau and Mouffe belong, is that it is clear. It allows you to position yourself as a researcher in relationship to these different paradigms. And that’s a luxury. They provide a clear paradigmatic position. My opinion here is that paradigms are about how you feel, not so much about how you see or think about the world. In order to find our own paradigm we have to look at our social reality through our emotions. That brings you to your paradigm. That allows you to function in an academic setting. There is this moment of recognition when a researcher finds his or her paradigm. I wouldn’t call it love at first sight, but at that moment, there is an emotional, affective relationship with that paradigm being created. And the poststructuralist, social constructionist paradigm is mine. That is where I belong. A related reason for appreciating Laclau and Mouffe’s work is that they tend to focus on conflict. This is also one of the paradigmatic choices that I make, because this is how I feel that social reality works. This concerns the balance between consensus and conflict, and the question about how society functions. Either as a permanent struggle that sediments and stabilizes, but can always be uprooted, unsedimented; or as something harmonious, stable, where once in a while something goes wrong and then consensus and harmony need to be restored. These are two fundamentally different ways of looking at our social realities, and I choose the former. I belong to that conflict tradition. I don’t see world as a harmony. I see it as an endless struggle at a minute and macro level at the same time. Communication is an intimate part of this. There is an endless set of power struggles where power is not something evil, but simply unstoppable in penetrating these communication zones. For me, this very strong emphasis on conflict is important and that is where Laclau and Mouffe are situated as well. What interests me is how ideas function within that struggle, which is the focus of communication studies. Relevant questions are: how we think and how our thinking is actually structured. In mainstream media and communication studies we still don’t focus that much on ideas, ideology or discourse. Granted, there is a substantial group of people doing this kind of research, but they are often only with one leg in our field, and not always visible. We, as media and communication studies scholars, often shy away from the discursive if we look at policy, decision making processes, legislation, regulation or industry. Communication and media studies are very materialist in its basic approach and I want to move more towards the discursive, to see how this ‘other’ reality functions. How one little broadcast can contain traces of discourses that allow me to speak about culture, for instance. On the other hand, recently I’m trying to go back to this more materialist part, and I got more theoretically interested in how the discursive and the material interact. In my view, the discursive is always necessary to provide meaning to social practices, but somehow the material, through its own logic, disrupts the discursive. Sometimes things happen in a very material way and require discursive orders to adjust themselves. But also, material realities invite discourses to make sense in a particular way. I’ve been playing a bit more with the material, but still firmly from within discourse theory. I continue to argue that the paradigmatic really matters. For me, this means the choice of a paradigm where there’s conflict, contingency, the fact that we don’t live in a fixed world and that the world is created through a human intervention. We need to look at the role of ideas, ideologies and discourses to complement the emphasis on the material processes. These are the things that I find particularly attractive in poststructuralist theory and the discourse-theoretical approach that Laclau and Mouffe are writing about.
3) In Croatia, where media were important for the democratization process and in which the role of public broadcaster was emphasized the most, there is uncertainty about what alternative media are and what their role should be. Could you give us your opinion about the position of alternative media and their role in a media system?
It is connected to the discussions about power. Some of my work is very much about democracy and participation and, in the end, that’s about sharing power. The alternative media debate is a part of that bigger debate on how to distribute power more evenly throughout society. You will find that debate in every possible field of society. For instance, in the medical field, within a discussion about the patient–doctor relationship and how we can avoid the doctor hijacking the entire process so that the patient becomes only a body and has no say about her or his future. This debate can also be found in the media where the old idea that particular experts should maintain control over the communication processes prevails. In the end that was what mainstream media have become – whether they are state media, public media or commercial media. They are all based on the expert model. Media professionals, employed by media organizations, take care of the communication processes, and externals such as ordinary people, amateurs – whatever you want to call them – are in a position of being guests, or visitors. If they are invited into the mainstream media, they have a very weak power positions and in most cases, none whatsoever. Sometimes, in television talk shows or audience discussion programs, they do have some sort of a power position, but that’s what we could call minimalist participation. Alternative media provide a structurally alternative model. What alternative media voices are saying is that ordinary people can also organize themselves to communicate in, and with their communities, with the outside world, with other groups. They can control the communication process, become experts themselves, and reconfigure the power relationships with experts. And then we go into a very complicated debate of how this is done with alternative media. There’s a huge diversity within the field of alternative media, and I argue that this diversity characterizes alternative media – they are all different and unique. But on the other hand, they share a number of principles. First, the principle of participation, giving voice, allowing non-professionals to communicate with others. Second, they address communities directly and invite them in. They are connected to civil society, and they are also interconnecting civil society. I use the notion of the rhizome as a metaphor to capture that latter idea. One way or another, at the heart of alternative media is the participatory project, which is what I think really defines them. In a lot of countries it had turned out to be very difficult to implement this model. Unfortunately, Central and Eastern Europe is one of the areas where this has turned out to be quite difficult. There are exceptions of course. One of the first community broadcasters was in Slovenia, Radio Študent, which was established in Ljubljana in 1968, if I remember correctly. In Hungary, you also have a very famous example of Radio Tiloš. Because of the Hungarian governmental policies, this radio station is not in the most comfortable position these days, but it’s still quite a nice example of the alternative media model. However, Central and Eastern European countries in general have been very slow in finding spaces for these media organizations on a regulatory level. This is made worse by the following argument: “we don’t need alternative radio and television broadcasters, because we have the internet, so everyone can organize themselves in their own ways; we don’t need legislation”. If we follow this argument we could say that we don’t need state or government television, or public or commercial television channels either. The internet is indeed used as a valuable space to organize alternative media, but alternative media can, and should be allowed to use any technology. I think there’s still quite a lot of work to be done, in Central and Eastern Europe in particular, to open up the airwaves and to allow for more space for civil society groups and organizations to take charge of the airwaves. How they actually go about this, in practice, is always different, that’s what characterizes them. But at the same time, diversity is their strength and this should actually be protected. We don’t want to streamline them and say that they should all be the same – that’s not how participation works. They should develop their own model in a maximalist participation manner of community involvement. They should try to find alternative ways of broadcasting and connecting civil society.
Interview conducted by Dina Vozab