3. ‘New Media Cleavage’ Hypothesis

A working definition of ‘new media cleavage’ hypothesis in its concise form states:

In the large-scale transnational communicative activity leading up to the WSF, convergence and fragmentation take place as mutually exclusive processes, which tend to exist in a state of ineffective symbiosis to each other, engendering negative spaces of affinity described as ‘spheres of communicative dissipation’.

As a phenomenon of communicative activity, particularly in the sphere of the WSF, this process neither comes close to Fraser’s model of multiple spheres or Downing’s concept of radical media (although at times one can see fuzzy and diffused affinities) nor does it complement the version of Habermas’ public sphere. Instead, it assumes an illusive, inactive, demobilizing state – ‘an opaque sphere’ – lying between the insurgency-from-below and hegemony-from-above, existing in a highly diffused form as a ‘phantom sphere’ unable to formulate an effective symbiosis of horizontal communications.

The effort towards bridging the above-mentioned gap is vital to engender an inclusive field of ‘discursive contestation’ (Fraser 1999: 129) for the so called ‘subaltern counter-publics’ (Ibid: 128) engaged in a historic struggle to wage an affirmative counter-hegemonic movement through the platform of the WSF.

While analyzing the media ecology of the WSF in relation to Habermas, Fraser and Downing, this study further attempts to elucidate the above-mentioned pathology of ‘new media cleavage’ described as ‘spheres of communicative dissipation’ through a critical analysis and appreciation of methods and tools of mediated communications that are trying to activate a sphere of participatory democracy at the WSF. While doing so, it also enunciates fissures and ruptures embedded within the WSF, which are acting as impediments towards the realization of a pluralizing sphere of democratic participation in the WSF.


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4. Research Methodology

WSF is not a site of consistent pattern but an evolving, dynamic and fluid field where the process of participation is varied and not based on a set of guiding principles. Given the scale of ‘the social and cultural complex within which (this) project of inquiry is understood and conceptualised’ (Deacon et al 1999: 371) I accept that the methodology used is insufficient and may not lead towards answering all the questions or effectively testing hypothetical assumptions. I would rather prefer to leave it like this while following a modest path to the subject of inquiry as a ‘social act’ (Deacon et al 1999: 386) which may not lead to a dramatic resolution. However, I do contend that the observation and analysis follow a critical trajectory, where the aim is to identify gaps and raise issues that need to be explored and researched further.

Despite the fact that one can always find cookbook recipes and methods to guide our sense making practices, I strongly believe understanding always comes in moments of fragments and glimpses that compel us in certain interpretive directions (Descombe 2002, my emphasis added). Furthermore, my objective is not to diagnose pathologies to confine, impede or incarcerate the overwhelming nature of the movement. I believe that following a standard prescription of researching communications and democratization in the WSF may not do justice to the stage where the movement finds itself at present. It is an interim, transitory chapter in the life-cycle of a project that needs to harness a creative path to scale-up and transform the inertia of a momentary lapse of direction into reliability of impact. A reformatory process needs to be launched to recover a robust sphere of communicative action. To this end, however, the methodology does intend to offer alternatives for course-correction in exploiting the available mediated spaces of participatory communicative action at the WSF.

Nonetheless, in this highly dispersed terrain, the methodological challenge is to situate the study along some particular points of reference without swaying in multiple directions. The approach is two-pronged. It tries to look at the WSF from the top and also from the periphery, that is, through the lens of a ‘counter-hegemon’ or the subaltern to understand the dynamic of convergence and fragmentation. I also believe it is important to situate, explore and analyze the role of media and mediated environments at micro, meso and macro level (wherever possible) to arrive at an objective and cumulative understanding of transnational communicative action and forms of participation. For this, we also need to enlarge our understanding of ‘local-global-local’ trichotomy to diagnose when, where and how, gaps and fissures arise and what methodologies and processes may alleviate discrepancies of post-national communicative struggles, offering participatory realms of inclusive and plural dialogue.

This study is partly inspired by my own engagement with communities at the grassroots level in isolated, harsh and hostile environments – a condition where sometimes subtle and delicate variations of community media (e.g. radio) offer life-enhancing opportunities. Very often the fights for inclusion at local level are radically different than the global field of contestation. However with the post-national paradigm onrush, the intertwining intensity between fragmentation and convergence must be understood at local, regional and global level.

With this background, research methodology takes cues from theoretical overview and the issues and bottlenecks that came up while researching the literature. It employs a Dip- Stick Survey approach - a type of qualitative research - that sets out to combine & triangulate elements of desktop research, analysis of documentation, online questionnaire, one-to-one discussion and evaluation of tools (e.g the WSF website) and methods of communications used for participation in the WSF as an aggregate unit of analysis.

Regarding sampling frame rationale, instead of using large generalized samples, it is better to reach out to a few but critical and knowledgeable audiences to solicit quality of participation. This approach is particularly important in building a better participant pool through the use of the Internet. Therefore, while executing online questionnaires, I deliberately approached a ‘stratified sample’ (Fowler 2002: 16) of a ‘cohort’ of professionals representing a cross-section of civil society from geographically dispersed backgrounds (for more information see www.lead.org). The sample belongs to a global network of a fraternity of professionals, tied together through a shared vision of a sustainable world. An interactive online community (LEAD-NET), they employ internet as a space for peer learning through sharing of experiences and ideas. In other words this sample served as a microcosmic laboratory of a transnational epistemic community. This heterogenic sample base was further appropriated by approaching respondents outside the LEAD family from a cross-section of colleagues and peers.

However, of the benefits of using LEAD network as a sample for internet-mediated research was the enhanced opportunity to get across vast and diverse sample through minimal time. Since it is already an established network, one can automatically avoid the ethical issue of spamming and approaching respondents unnecessarily. It also helps avoid the issue of ‘informed consent’ (Hewson et al 2003: 52) and maintain data validity. Participation was voluntary and only those participants responded who have a personal interest in the subject. Mode of communication was both synchronous and asynchronous. The questionnaire (Annexure I) is inspired by the prompts and issues raised while researching relevant literature and theory. The choice of design was multiple-choice, which offers a convenient route to solicit focused responses and data analysis. The online survey was administered over a period of 3-4 weeks, whereby the rate of response is close to 60%. The survey findings have been collated (Annexure II) and used in the analytical review of media ecology of the WSF.

The methodology further incorporated observational study and evaluation of tools, methods and alternative media genres found in the WSF, particularly the WSF web site in terms of its contents, functionality and relevance. Apart from this, some baseline information is also derived from Stefania Milan’s, Peter Waterman’s research studies and evaluations of the communications apparatus at the WSF and report of the WSF’s Communications Working Group (2005). These papers were useful as supporting evidence in undertaking descriptive mode of analysis of relevant documentation in identifying specific media ecological apparatus within the WSF. The methodology is conceived with the objective to combine and aggregate methods to test the assumption of new media cleavage hypothesis on fragmentation and convergence thesis.

While an effort was made to integrate a mix of various appropriate research methods to allow room for objectivity, the constraints of this space do not allow in-depth data presentation and analysis. Therefore, a website: www.mediademocracyproject.org has been designed and hosted as an additional component and tool for consolidating and building on research capital. Media Democracy Project is therefore meant to serve as a repository of information on the study and I hope to maintain the web-site beyond the life of this mini-project.

Some of the research questions that formed the basis for survey were: What methods and tools are helping to reinvigorate environments of inclusive public debate at the WSF? Are electronic media, airwaves, digital signals and cyberspace shaping and strengthening the process of networking in actualizing the WSF? Are alternative media truly facilitating inclusion of the marginalized voices at the WSF? Is there enough of an evidence to justify activation of an alternative sphere of participatory democracy at the WSF? Taking lead from such overarching questions, the study challenged and questioned new media technologies as tools for participatory democracy.


5. In Search of a Media Narrative

This project has grown out of many concerns and paradoxes. The exploration on the role of mediated communications in promoting democratic spheres of participation at the WSF remains an academic deficit of sorts. Sadly, one finds a scholarly disconnect while locating the ‘centrality’ of communications in social or political science literature on the WSF. Apart from some anecdotal evidence and emerging voices (Waterman, Escobar, Savio, Milan), the role of mediated communications has not been articulated as a sufficiently ‘inclusive narrative’ in the discourse on the WSF. This gap calls for attention, primarily for the reason when there is a growing body of contemporary literature anchored in ideological debates on the WSF, encompassing critical rethinking of various social, cultural and political paradigms leading up to the politics of resistance, global civil society, democratization so on and so forth.

There is also a growing atrium of intellectuals, activists, scholars and practitioners, who have established a canon of resistance discourse on the WSF. With timely and important contributions, they are making a quantum leap in creating significant ripple effects in reinvigorating an alternative field of ‘intellectual-activist-practitioners’ lobby. It constitutes an impressive array of names like: William F. Fisher, Thomas Ponniah, Peter Waterman, Arturo Escobar, Immanuel Wallerstien, Hardt & Negri, Tom Mertes, Sonia E Alvarez, Chiko Whitaker, Teivo Teivainen, Jai Sen, Bouventra de Sousa Santos and many others. One also finds a cluster of popular voices of dissent like Naomi Klein, Arundathi Roy, Naom Chomsky, Tony Negri, George Monbiot and Susan George engaged in exploring society, politics and citizen strategies to neo-liberal globalization. These are just a couple of handful of people amongst a sporadically growing mosaic of versatile and multiple collective actors who are communicating, connecting and sharing literature quite organically through alternative spaces of social action such as the Internet. In addition to this, the online laboratories and academic initiatives such as the Transnational Institute (TNI), Amsterdam led by Susan George, Choike (an online portal of academic papers on Southern civil societies) and Znet are playing a significant role in the integration of an alternative pedagogical paradigm of the intellectual left.

It is however surprising to note that there is little emphasis in the available body of discourse on the role of media and mediated technologies in facilitating participation and democratic dialogue at the World Social Forum. The quandary becomes more intense when one observes the apathy of the global/mainstream media towards representing the WSF. The role played by alternative media and communications technologies in the realization of the Forum, even if diffused and scattered along various trajectories, has not been consolidated and critiqued well. This also raises the question about perception and reception of media discourse in relation to the WSF. Why do mediated communications and the WSF exist in episodic encounters to each other?

As mentioned earlier a few encouraging voices trying to step out of this deficit include: the seminal research undertaken by Peter Waterman (2005) on ‘Communication, Culture and the WSF’ that offers empirical and base-line evidence on the existing communications capital of the WSF. Stefania Milan’s (2004) paper on ‘Civil Society Media at the WSF’ develops a diverse classification of the available inventory of the alternative media at the WSF evaluating its performance. Escobar has made a significant contribution in unpacking the nature of complexity and self-organisation through the decentralized intelligence of cyberspace. In addition to this, Roberto Savio has made tremendous practical efforts in configuring internal and external communications dynamics of the WSF. These are just a handful of interventions that are trying to perform preliminary rites of initiation, preparing a palette for some painstaking critique on a well-deserved subject, which is in desperate need of further scholarly enunciation.


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Copyrights © 2005 Sumaira Sagheer Toor
Masters Dissertation, MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication, School of Oriental and African Studies, London