Thursday, 18 June 2009

Actor Network Theory and Journalism Studies: 'clearly' incompatible???

Can Actor Network Theory have anything to say about journalism? Joost van Loon wants to open up a discussion about the place of ANT in media, communication and cultural studies.

‘Actor Network Theory is clearly unsuited to the field of journalism studies; in fact, journalists themselves will find it strange… This theory is clearly out of place in trying to explain and explore the cut and thrust of newsroom dynamics’ (anon).

The downside of anonymous reviewing of proposals for research funding is that reviewers can exercise judgment without being held accountable. This statement, taken from a review of a research proposal of a friend of mine, is able to invoke the adjective ‘clearly’ twice without having to reveal from what light this clearness comes. In addition, the knee-jerk reaction that ‘journalists will find it strange’ was very revealing. Having spent about 7 years around practicing journalists I can safely state that many journalists find most things that academics write at best ‘strange’, but more often pedantic, pointless and irrelevant waffle. On that count, perhaps being found merely strange is a huge compliment!

But on the bright side, we have blogs now and the gauntlet has been laid down. Journalism studies, claiming to be a ‘field’, has nothing to learn from actor network theory. Why would this be the case? What is so special about journalism studies? What is so unique about ‘news room dynamics’ that these can be granted a priori immunity (because this was only a research proposal) against empirical philosophy? Where are the empirical studies that tell us that ANT has nothing interesting to say about journalism? In what court have the advocates of immunity made the conclusive case for their special status?

I have been making some preliminary enquiries amongst those closer to cultural studies and they stated that whereas there was perhaps not much interest in ANT (outside a few places in the UK), there were some areas where closer contact is easier to facilitate, for example in the area of material culture. There seems to be less of a sense that ANT is ‘clearly’ unsuitable.

I, for one, would welcome an opportunity for an open, rather than semi-anonymous, debate about this. Perhaps a blog such as this one can kick something off; as I suspect that the irritations invoked by ANT have not only ruffled the feathers of those colonizing a field with the name journalism studies, but probably also dwellers of the wider constituencies of communication studies, cultural studies and media studies. We would like to hear from you.

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