During a week in January, the SSRC Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellows gathered in Lusaka for a bi-annual development workshop. I am part of the 2015-2016 cohort, awarded for the dissertation research section.
“The Next Generation Social Sciences model responds to an emerging dilemma within higher education in the global South caused by the extraordinary emphasis on increasing undergraduate enrolment without proportionate investment in faculty development. This situation erodes the ability of universities to produce the next generation of researchers, leaders, and practitioners.”1
All Fellows, 25 of us in total, arrived on the Monday in a humid and stormy Lusaka. I’d never visited Zambia before and was surprised by the openness and greenery of the countryside. Our 2.5 hour journey from Kenneth Kaunda International Airport to the Protea Hotel Safari Lodge in Chisamba gave us time to get to know each other. Most fellows knew each other from the July 2015 workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but I had missed that gathering for the IAMCR conference in Montreal, Canada. After 2 hours of giggling and chatting with the other fellows – who originated from many African countries including Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Kenya – we finally arrived at the lodge.
Our agenda was packed with activities, starting early on Tuesday morning. After a working breakfast, the programme director Thomas Asher welcomed us and asked us each to introduce our research and progress made since winning the fellowship. Most fellows in this cohort focus on economic stability of various African countries, the impact of conflict on democracy, pre- and post-election violence, and security issues ranging from food and water, culture and identity, as well as democratic prospects. I found that my own research – the news media representations of South African elections – overlapped with many of the fellows’ own research and findings. After the welcome session, we split into groups to discuss our glossary of key words/phrases.
My first group contained Fellows from Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, and South Africa, looking at a range of topics including state fragility in South Sudan, Somaliland identity, and post-election conflict in Nigeria. I found that I had to explain very basic key words from media studies, simply because most of my group were unfamiliar with the genre of study. It strengthened my resolve that the role of media in democracy, in elections, and in promoting hegemony must be acknowledged when researching state fragility and political science in general. Most Fellows considered journalism as a static, one dimensional occupation that was only ever on the side of the politician. The rational-critical form of the media was not examined. I often felt the need to justify why I was focusing on the role of the media in a democracy, even though the reasons were plain to me. However, in doing so, I deepened my rationale for my PhD.
During our second meeting the following day, we split into another group. We then discussed our methodology paragraph within our groups and gained feedback from the Workshop Facilitators and other Fellows. I found that my methodology was extremely different from the other Fellows, because I am not conducting an ethnography but rather an exploratory content analysis with semiotic theory as a basis. Therefore I had to explain the difference between semiotic evidence versus actual occurrences: for example, my working title for my thesis is From the “miracle” to the “mundane”, and various Fellows responded to that democracy isn’t mundane, especially not in South Africa, and why was the first election a “miracle”. Their line of questioning showed that I was not clear enough in my description of the broadcasts, that I treat the broadcasts as simulacrum rather than the referent. However, I also acknowledged that semiotics and narratology does not intersect with political science – at all. Therefore the amount and quality of feedback I received on my methodology was limited, but useful nonetheless.
On the fourth day, we spent many hours in the baking heat and under thunderous clouds discussing our abstracts. It was during this discussion circle that I had a momentous lightbulb turn on above my head. I was struggling with the nature of my thesis: that I would present a new (possibly more efficient) method for analysing television news or any convergence journalism, while at the same time creating a narrative about South Africa’s democracy based on the 5 election periods. This struggle was obviously visible in my abstract as the Fellows picked up on it immediately. We spent a long while discussing this problem, and one Fellow said to me “well then just say you’re giving two things”. It was so obvious I smacked my forehead. It was this moment that invigorated me and made me want to leave the discussion circle and get writing immediately.
After this last group meeting, we had a plenary about transposing our theses into the public good. I took away from that session an important idea: the data collection I’ve amassed is probably in the region of 5GB worth of news broadcasts. I’ve spent over 6 years collating news packages and inserts from the last 5 South African general elections on the SABC and global news. To keep these to myself would be extraordinarily selfish: I know for a fact there are other scholars looking to research the same kind of thing as me, and I couldn’t let all these broadcasts go to waste. After my thesis is complete, I will be donating this data set to the University of Cape Town in its entirety. Secondly, the key note speaker mentioned translating your thesis findings into accessible reader-friendly information. I thought about the Cushion and Sambrook research: a strong content and semiotic analysis of the 2015 UK election television news coverage that was cleverly translated into many Guardian articles. I want to do a similar thing with my research, but I need to practice the different writing styles – and writing quickly.
On Friday, we said our goodbyes and had a long intricate conversation under the heavy rain storm before traveling back to the airport. I left Zambia with a head full of changes that I wanted to make to my thesis. While my supervisors are some of the best I have ever encountered, this Zambian experience has changed my perspective on how media studies is perceived in Africa, and globally. That what we do, as media scholars, is simply not understood on the ground and by people who would benefit the most from collaborations with media scholars. It’s a challenge to intersect our research with that of political science, but the resultant partnership would be more powerful combined than apart.