Media and Communications Studies in the Knowledge Society


The market place of knowledge society: Who’s buying the results of media and communications studies? Source: http://bit.ly/HFHr9U

The “knowledge society” belongs to a group of buzzwords which are often being criticized for their blurriness. It comes with equally vague synonyms such as “knowledge economy” or “information society” and, in the eye of most people, it only says that knowledge has become a highly critical strategic resource these days. In order to get rid of some of this blurriness, I wanted to know whether this argument also holds true in the concrete case of media and communications studies.

I want to find out whether the knowledge produced by media and communications studies is considered to be a strategic resource by communications professionals. While it is too early to present my findings here, I just wanted to share some interesting insights, which I came across in the theoretical part of the study.

At first, I have to say that I find the concept of the knowledge society to be a highly valid background frame in order to assess the relevance of any (social) science for professionals in the public or private sector. Of course, the concept is broad and has been defined differently by many authors. On the one side of the spectrum, there are the optimistic ancestors of this theoretical tradition, arguing that science will lead to a “better” society, whatever that exactly may be. On the other side, there are critics of this view, pointing out to the dangers and downsides of a growing rationalization of society. Yet, what all views have basically in common is at least the perception that processes in professional life are increasingly based on (semi-)scientific insights instead of pure gut feeling. My specific question is: Is that also true for the communications sector?

My study is by far not the first one dealing with the relevance of media and communications studies for professionals in this area. However, I contend the view that it is the first time that such a study is thoroughly rooted in this theoretical framework. Based upon the general concept of knowledge society, I started to develop my own model, which had to adapt and specify the general assumptions of the knowledge society to the sphere of knowledge transfer in the field of communications.

What was also important in this context, was to realize that the transfer between social sciences and non-academic professional spheres (e.g. corporations, agencies, public authorities etc.) cannot be considered to be linear and hierarchical. At least that’s what the German sociological research on knowledge transfer revealed by the end of the 1980s already. According to many authors, universities are facing increasing competition from other “knowledge producers” such as market research companies, think tanks etc. At the same time, each subject has competitors within university as well. And finally, many practitioners in any industry often have an academic background themselves, enabling them to critically reflect (socio-)scientific research results – or to even transform their institution into another knowledge producer.

These insights are largely in line with what has been called the mode 2 of knowledge production by Gibbons et al. in the middle of the 1990s (in these days it probably would have been called ‘science 2.0’). Together with the insights provided by other authors, one could summarize that the context of knowledge production is changing rapidly and that science does no longer hold a monopoly in this market. Instead, collaboration between industry and universities has become more and more common, that there is a certain pressure to consider possible fields of application for academic findings. Some authors simply call this phenomenon commercialization.

When reading about “monopoly”, knowledge “production” and “competition” in the knowledge “economy”, it appeared more than reasonable to build a theoretical model based on some kind of market logic: On the one hand, there are the producers of knowledge, such as universities (within which the respective disciplines compete against each other in certain areas; in the context of communications: management and media and communications studies), thinks tanks or market research firms. On the other hand, there are the users of knowledge, looking for information for their field as a strategic resource (in the context of communications: e.g. PR professionals looking for communications concepts such as “agenda setting” in order to legitimize certain strategies). At the same time, it has to be kept in mind that the users (or consumers) could easily become knowledge producers themselves, if they strive for (semi-)academic research on their own.

What my study aims to reveal is, in a nutshell: When, under which circumstances, and to which extent do certain communications professionals make use of knowledge “produced” by media and communications studies? Which knowledge are they particularly interested in? And: Who are these people? Is there a pattern, i.e. is there a certain group of professionals who regard academic knowledge about communications to be more of a strategic resource for their own targets than others? Briefly spoken: Which role do media and communications studies play in this realm of the knowledge society?

Finally, when it comes to packing academic work into a market model, the normative dimension of my research question surely has to be addressed as well: Does (social) science in general, and do media and communications studies in particular, have to be applicable to the working context of industry professionals? Is it desirable to fuel an increasingly commercialized academic system? What should be the consequence if studies like my one should indicate that media and communications studies could be far more useful to the industry than they currently are?
Apart from the fact that, again, it is too early to publish the results of my study, I want to make clear that I conduct my research in order to assess the relevance of media and communications studies as objectively as possible – and not from a normative point of view. Just one disclaimer: While being both a media and comm’s alumnus a communications professional myself, I do surely not long for an academic universe which is only interested in its market value – but in a balance between independent research and usability.

Hopefully, I will come back here, presenting the results next spring!