SOAS University of London


Understanding social change in a digital world

The research of many scholars at SOAS, University of London examines the impact and influence of modern-day communication methods on politics, society and culture.

This strand of work helps to understand the causes and drivers of social change in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The democratisation of media through the internet has created a change in how information and news is generated and shared, ultimately resulting in the creation of new spaces for new voices to be heard and new narratives to be told.

Exploring this ever-increasing space is crucial to understand the shifting power between people and the state, how history is being documented and why scholarly research methods must adapt. This area of work is vital to understand how and why political and social change occurs in today’s world and speaks to a growing interest in the digital cultures of the global south.

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SOAS scholars explore society, politics and culture through forms of communication in a digital world

Professor Annabelle Sreberny’s early research on the politics and culture of Iran during the 1979 revolution gave her crucial insights as to how revolutions need to be understood as communicative processes as well as political movements. Her experiences were recently highlighted in an interview in Times Higher Education. More recently, her research has focused on the complicated culture of politics and politics of culture inside the Islamic Republic of Iran – where the state is a key actor in producing contemporary culture through broadcasting, publishing, public murals and sculpture as well as proscribing alternative popular culture (Cultural Revolution in Iran, IBTauris, 2013) - and between Iran and the rest of the world.

Her recent co-authored book Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran, (IBTauris, 2014) analyses the historical development of the BBC Persian Service and its shift in purpose from being a direct tool of British wartime propaganda to a more independent and nuanced role that struggles to remain free of government intervention. The Persian Services have moved from soley radio broadcasting to include television and a considerable on-line presence and continue to be seen by various Iranian governments, most recently that of Ahmadinejad, as one of the main forces within their ‘soft war’ paradigm.

In 2013, Professor Sreberny gave a plenary address at the International Association of Media and Communications in Dublin, which followed the Snowden revelations about the NSA/GCHQ surveillance. In her talk “From ‘soft power’ to ‘soft war’: International relations refracted through a new PRISM”, she argued that non-commercial cyber warfare, inaugurated by US cyber-attacks on Iranian installations, heralds a new phase of antagonistic global relations.

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Cairo, Egypt. Photo credit: Philippa Chancellor-Weale

Dr Dina Matar works on the relationship between politics, culture and communication in the Arab World, focusing on grassroots movements, non-state actors and everyday cultural practices. Her work is mostly focused on Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. She is particularly interested in understanding the relationship between power and culture, how this is maintained or disrupted and by whom. As such, she focuses on different actors in political communication processes, including ordinary people and non-state actors, while not totally ignoring the role of the state.

Her latest research was on Hizbullah, its image and its use of communication since its inception in 1982.  Her new co-authored book, The Hizbullah Phenomenon, (Hurst, 2014) is the outcome of a Leverhulme-funded research grant to study the group’s communication strategy since 1982. The project involved extensive study of Hizbullah's various media and communication outputs since the group was formed, using archival material and other primary material from the field.

Her previous research used oral history and popular memory methodologies to write an alternative history of the Palestinian people, focusing on personal stories and memories of the period between 1948 and 1993. Based on a 100 interviews with a diverse number of Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, Dr Matar’s book offers a critique of top-down historical constructions and highlights the importance of individual narratives for community building and personal agency.   

Dr Jaeho Kang has explored the relationship between democracy and the development of social media. In South Korea, he observes that since the completion of the transition to formal democracy, many people have become increasingly disinterested regarding conventional politics and have become ever more engaged instead with the issues themselves, ranging from the standard of living, work ethic and the health care system to education and schools, and family life. His research reveals the impact of social change, which is now being documented through internet use and access to social media. He argues that there is an acceleration of the struggle for visibility and that, as the scope of traditional politics decreases, the scope of “politics by other means” in democratic nations appears to be increasing.

Most recently, he has published the first book that analyses the relevance of Walter Benjamin’s writings for media theory and digital culture (Walter Benjamin and the Media, Polity, 2014)

Dr Somnath Batabyal conducted the first in-depth ethnographic study of private television newsrooms in India, exploring the relationship between television audiences, media rating companies and journalists. The findings, published as Making News in India: Star News and Star Ananda (Routledge ,2011) became part of a larger push for media reforms in the country, culminating in a Government of India ruling in January 2014 that proposed far reaching changes to the present day audience rating system. His current work involves looking at elections as performance and its coverage as spectacle, thus potentially altering the relationship between democracy and media.

His well-received first novel, The Price You Pay (Harper Collins, 2013) utilised his extensive journalistic experience to create a fictional exploration of crime and corruption in the police force and media in Delhi.

Professor Michel Hockx has followed the development of Chinese Internet literature since its inception in the late 1990s. His monograph Internet Literature in China will appear with Columbia University Press in March 2015. In addition to providing a comprehensive overview of the history of online writing and its various styles and genres, he emphasizes especially the ways in which Internet literature in China challenges established literary conventions, and how it has brought about major changes in the state regulation of publishing in the PRC. Arguing against a simplistic view of Internet censorship in China, his research highlights the variety of the country's online culture and the complexity of its interaction with the postsocialist state.

Through his research, Professor Hockx highlights the challenges facing scholarly inquiry via the Internet. He argues researching Internet literature is substantially different from research on printed literature, as born-digital literary texts are not stable. Internet articles are often time sensitive, too, which can pose problems with citations and source information. Professor Hockx highlights how academia is facing a new era of research methods and documentation. New approaches and techniques for researchers are essential, as is the importance of digital archiving.

SOAS’ work continues with supporting communication channels for marginalised groups. A media NGO, Radar, co-founded by a former SOAS History student, Kiran Flynn, works with groups who are poorly represented in the media, particularly those with disabilities, women and girls, older people and displaced or traveller communities. Radar supports citizen reporters and media professionals working in low resource environments through mobile journalism training and digital promotion. Radar’s pilot project in Sierra Leone received coverage from both Al-Jazeera and the BBC World Service. Radar worked with 45 citizen journalists to cover the country’s November election, reporting via SMS.

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Radar trainees learning how to report news via SMS in Sierra Leone. Photo credit: Libby Powell/Radar
All these themes and more are explored across the range of master’s degrees and doctoral research in the Centre for Media Studies while the highly contemporary MA Media and the Middle East allows students to focus especially on the relationship between politics, culture and communication in the region through two inter-related approaches, the first thematic and the second through comparative analyses of case studies.