While my primary research interests have lead me to explore popular and community communication in Latin America, the volume Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa caught my attention. As part of the Internationalizing Media Studies series from Routledge, editor Herman Wasserman brings together a wide-ranging collection of comparative research dealing with popular media iterations spanning the continent. With 55 countries, Africa is home to more than one billion people and has the highest linguistic diversity in the world with more than one thousand spoken languages, making this is no small feat.
As a Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, Wasserman is well positioned to bring together research on popular media in Africa. He has published widely on media ethics, African and global media and the intersections of traditional media systems and popular culture. He also serves as the editor of Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies. In addition, the book’s 20 contributors bring expertise and first-hand experience in Africa’s media and alternative cultural manifestations to the collection.
Coming as a response to Daya Kishan Thussu’s call for expanding the “discourse on globalization of media and communication beyond Northern perspectives,” the book is organized in four parts, dealing with theoretical implications, democracy and development, audiences, and mediating identities locally to transnational (p. 7). Wasserman states that the goal of the volume is to turn a critical gaze to how popular media in Africa embody these discourses.
Wasserman rightly points out in the introduction that communication theory has long been dominated by Western theory. However, even by setting the scope of the volume to center on discourses of “democracy” and “development” is to take modernization theory as the point of reference, as well as international aid framework of “development.”
This raises questions regarding what constitutes academic knowledge, along with what are the metrics and processes by which such knowledge is generated. As the saying “standing on the shoulders of giants” illustrates, norms of what counts as “science” leads to scholars continually orienting to preexisting scholarship to the point that even a work such as this which, while it breaks important new ground, is rooted in the very theoretical traditions the authors seek to break free from.
This is a much deeper issue but African scholars have the greatest difficulties in getting they work to a global audience. A report from the Oxford Internet Institute found that publishers in the United States and United Kingdom produce more indexed journals than the rest of the world combined, while Switzerland alone is home to three times more than the entire African continent (Graham, Hale, & Stephens, 2011b, p. 14). In addition, English is the lingua franca of academic publishing, with 86% of the journals included in the Thompson Reuters Web of Knowledge database appearing in English (Graham et al., 2011a). Clearly African scholars face huge challenges in disseminating their work even within the continent, and even more so in the United States and Europe.
These widespread global disparities in academic knowledge production make Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa even more of a critical addition to the effort to “De-Westernize” media studies. The chapters included provide comparative perspectives on African popular media, either between African nation-states or against the backdrop of media globalization. They are intended to take a non-essentialist view of the shared “lived” experience of Africans, within the context of local and global power relations, as well as histories of colonial ascendance and potentials and realities independence. This is a tall order; one that the volume measures up to for the most part.
The book’s main weakness is the fact that the majority of chapters rely heavy on summarizing previously published literature at the expense of original empirical material. Notable exceptions are chapter seven, which brings in the experiences of street poster vendors in Ghana, and chapter nine, in which Sean Jacobs analyzes post-apartheid South African cinematic representations of the HIV/AIDS and housing rights social movement organizations. However, even Jacobs contribution could have benefited from the inclusion of interviews with on-the-ground activists.
In addition, as of yet the volume is lacking an overarching framework for defining “popular” media and conceptualizing its relationship to “journalism.” The text implies that encompasses the indigenous cultural traditions of African peoples and as sites of resistance to the cultural hegemony of the West. For example, in chapter six Winston Mano argues that coming out of orality traditions, popular music can serve as form of journalism as a channel for the transmission of non-mainstream “news.” Like the ideal of journalist institutions in the Western tradition, he posits that music can act as a site for the “contestation of power in African society” (p. 102). The shortcoming of this theorizing is that while Mano draws on Western principles for measuring the success of a journalistic institution, he does not explicitly state the standard he uses to assess it. Is it to “inform and mobilize” or to be a watchdog to power? The answer is not entirely clear.
On the whole Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa is a rich and much needed contribution to international communication studies. The authors cover a diversity of African experiences of popular media while contextualizing them within the realities of globalization and a political-economic system that is stacked against the agency of African states and peoples to control their media representations. The attention to media projects outside of the mainstream is particularly important given the continued patronage structures and self-censorship cultures of the mainstream press across the continent. It serves as a reminder of the importance of studying the whole media ecology of the object of interest, be it a community, nation or “imagined community” of a different scale.
Graham, M., Hale, S. A., & Stephens, M. (2011a). “Academic knowledge and language.” Retrieved from http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/vis/?id=4e3c0291
Graham, M., Hale, S. A., & Stephens, M. (2011b). Geographies of the world’s knowledge. London: Convoco! Edition. Retrieved from http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/convoco_geographies_en.pdf