An Agreeable Mess: Embracing an Emic Sensibility in Digital Communication Research (Inaugural Lecture)

Peters, C. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationLecture and oral contribution


When cultural observers, public intellectuals, political pundits, and the like articulate concerns about social transformations in the digital media era, what often seems to be driving their disquiet is fears about the public. They fret about people not acting as well-informed citizens, worry about unruly masses on social media, lament the dearth of media literacy needed to distinguish truth from disinformation, and so on and so forth. In short, many fears about changes in the digital communication landscape are anchored in concerns about the unpredictability of audiences. It is striking, then, how often research tends to render audiences implicit – indeed, oftentimes invisible. This talk departs from the premise that, while audiences should not be viewed as determinative in the first instance, their relationship with communication is always meaningful in the last. Specifically, I address the challenge of understanding change in digital communication research by discussing the value of adopting an audience-centred, emic sensibility. To illustrate, the talk builds on examples from my recent work into news audiences and visual media cultures, to articulate how an emic sensibility can help recast familiar assumptions about the complicated relationship between digital communication and civic engagement in public life. The first story I tell – an emic tale of journalism history – traces the rise of the news industry through the perspective of audience cultures (as opposed to popular accounts that typically focus on illustrious media barons or the maturation of democracy). The second story – an emic tale of political communication – looks to the challenge of ‘fake news’ through the lens of audience media literacy (as opposed to popular accounts that typically focus on global disinformation networks or the power of social media companies). The final story – an emic tale of civic engagement – interrogates the significance of citizen journalism from the point of view of audience visuality in everyday life (as opposed to popular accounts that typically focus on the diffusion of technology or ubiquity of digital imagery). Taken together, these stories are intended to evoke reflection on the origins of communication as an academic discipline, a scholarly field that emerged and established itself through a promise to make sense of public flows of information. Although much has changed in the century or so since, I propose that the discipline is still at its most convincing when it provides explanatory purchase on the myriad ways people interpret meaningful messages. I argue that when we lose sight of this ‘agreeable mess’ – in other words, the complex but oftentimes pleasing and patterned meaning-making practices of audiences as people, publics, and citizens – we give up the epistemological basis that makes communication research valuable to ‘outsiders’ in the first place. The talk closes by considering the pressures, possibilities, and perils of embracing an emic sensibility in digital communication research.
Period4 Dec 2019
Held atDepartment of Communication and Arts