IAMCR 2017 – Welcome to Latin America (english)
A conference report by Kerem Schamberger and Mandy Tröger
July 16 til July 20, 2017, Cartagena, Colombia – right by the Caribbean sea. Some might think of beach and vacation, the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) thought of celebrating its 60th anniversary here. More than 1400 media researchers and scholars from around the world followed the invite for its annual conference. The theme: “Transforming Culture, Politics & Communication: New media, new territories, new discourses.” After thirteen years (2004, Porto Alegre, Brazil) IAMCR took place again in a Latin America country.
Well-known TV-critic, professor and journalist Omar Rincón (Universidad de los Andes, Colombia) gave the keynote, and he left no doubt about the agenda of the conference. Focus of his presentation: the acknowledgement and appreciation of philosopher and communication theorist Jesús Martín-Barbero and his book Communication, Culture and Hegemony: From the Media to Mediations. This focus immediately pointed to our own blind spots, or put differently, to the dominant Western orientation in communication research. Barbero? Mediations? We had never heard of either, nor of any of the following theorists and researchers: Pasquali from Venezuela, Kaplún from Uruguay, Alfaro from Peru, Matta from Argentina, just to name a few. All had their own thoughts on communication related topics but were almost completely off our radar. Added by Rincón’s unusual presentation style (heavily influenced by popular culture it immediately won first price on Twitter), this opening ceremony set the basic tone for what was to come. The focus lay on recognizing communication research traditions in Latin American emancipating it from European und US dominated discourses. This break with Euro- and Anglo-American centrism was not just proclaimed theory but it became lived reality. The introduction of Spanish as an all-present conference language put to shame the assumption that English is and must be the go-to language at such international settings. Having had two spoken languages at panels and sessions did not necessarily make it easier for non-native speakers of either. Still, experiencing an additional central conference language was greatly beneficial to everyone’s experience. It worked not the least because of perfect simultaneous translations at big panels.
With almost 1500 individual presentations, the program of IAMCR represented a variety of communication and media research approaches from around the world. Contrary to ICA, representatives from Germany were rather rare. A telling pattern but still a shame, considering the overall program. Impossible to go into detail, presentations ranged from the dangerous working conditions of Colombian journalists in war zones (Yennué Zárate Valderrama, Universidad Iberoamericana) to the internet use of parents (Lina Salas Ramirez, UNAM Mexico). The teaching department Meyen was the only representative from the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research (IfKW) at LMU Munich. Kerem Schamberger presented two different projects. One was about patterns of media control in post-socialist countries. The other was the presentation of a new media system typology, based on 41 different country reports (for more information check: http://mappingmediafreedom.de/). Particularly interesting: the panels in the sections political economy, and history. With great relevance to, and in conversation with current struggles, different panels showed once again how national research cultures and structures lose importance if the goal is to work problem-oriented bridging the gap between academia and lived reality. This was the overarching theme of topics that all together drew from the struggles that dominate current debates: the changing role and conflicts of journalism, the (digital) exclusion of marginalized groups, and the growing economization of communication structures and networks, as of research itself.
Apart from the official program, the conference created a lively space for conversations with like-minded researchers. And here the IAMCR shared-lunch-philosophy worked: the joined, extensive meal was not only exquisite in taste but nourishing on many levels. Searching for an empty seat, one could, for instance, by chance end up next to senior scholars, such as Bruno Lee Artz, Jörg Becker or Richard Maxwell, to then discuss their work. Especially for junior scholars such informal conversations at eye-level are a major asset and make this conference special.
This, however, does not apply only to conversations with big-name-scholars. One, almost exclusively, only met other humans from different regions around the world who, with passion and critical self-reflection, conduct research of relevance related to the needs and challenges of current communication and media structures on a local, national and international level. Thus, compliments to the conference organizers for their efforts to bring together such scholars, researchers and (often) activists who, open minded and critical, are willing to engage in difficult conversations and common future projects. Yes, this also includes the clashing of national research cultures and traditions, of self-perceptions and “common” understandings of what research should be, but, at least in our experience, this generally happened with a smile.
In spite such praise, also some critical thoughts regarding Cartagena as conference location: Similar to other conferences at other places, IAMCR 2017 triggered questions of privilege of (western) scholars and social injustices. Inequalities exist regardless the conference location, may it be in Oregon (next year’s IAMCR) or Leceister (2016). But Cartagena, in particular, pointed to such questions. All activities were located in the gentrified hipster part of town, Getsemani, or the adjacent, literally walled-in Old town. The academic bubble did not stretch beyond the tourist center that, very beautiful, is being kept that way not the least by heavy police presence. Problems of massive prostitution and poverty were experienced only on the side – maybe at a night club surrounded by beautiful women or passing on the streets. But such snap shots are mere caricatures of the current situation in Colombia.
Everyday lived reality of the majority of the Colombian population, as consistently pointed out by locals, consists of large favelas and extreme poverty. But this, of course, does not fit into a bubble gum flavored world of sunshine. And little did we as conference participants experience any of this – conveniently forgotten in the modernly air-conditioned Centro de Convenciones Cartagena de Indias. This conference center – safe, cool and perfectly located by the sea – allowed one to forget that the venue itself is a manifest of political and historical injustices. Formerly a central slave market and a space of torture, we could still easily give into the narrative that all of this has passed and is part of history. However, anyone walking through the streets of Cartagena with slightly open eyes realizes that this is not the case. Race and class (and gender) issues root deeply, not just in Colombia. A high point of such class distinction, of exclusion and lived privilege was the IAMCR party on the centrally located Plaza de la Aduana. While the general population (and tourists) were fenced out, communication scholars celebrated themselves. Admittedly, the live music was superb (and how often does one see a bunch of researchers aiming to dance salsa?), the representation of “native” culture with colorfully dressed, dark-skinned women carrying fruits on top of their heads less so.
Still, the conference organizers consistently aimed to include broader issues of poverty and institutionalized racism into conversations relating to Latin America in general, and Colombia in particular. Nothing is easy in Latin America, especially not the categorizing of social reality according to European self-perceptions. IAMCR 2017 was a great gain for anyone who kept his/her ears and eyes open, especially outside of the air-conditioned conference centre.
It also became clear again that proclaimed ideals and goals of such conferences will remain mere goals for some time. Even at a conference that, like IAMCR, is aware of (and aims to combat) western centrism and institutionalized racism within academia, both are still at work. A disturbing and very unfortunate example: the last panel at the closing plenary session. Four panellist were to speak, each five minutes, of future needs and goals of communication research in their respective regions. While the panellists from Africa (Kenya) and Asia (China) kept their contributions to the time limit, Europe (Portugal) immediately exceeded its talk by more than ten minutes. Claiming twice the amount of time, the panellist underlined with a smug smile that there, indeed, was a time limit only to ignore it. The last speaker, a UNESCO representative, seemed to not have heard of a time limit at all. Twenty minutes straight, deaf for the murmurs of the audience. In the end, it was again an old, white guy taking ownership of the stage, making it his space blind to the deeper meaning of such action. Anyone slightly aware of gender and race dynamics could not help but see the irony of the situation – right at the closing session of IAMCR. It was a reminder that much is left to be done.
The text cannot close, however, without praising words for the local organizing team! It was a huge challenge and it was mastered superbly by a large group of volunteers. Even though the facilities were not always ideal, you made the very best of it and we would like to again express our thanks to everyone involved (the standing ovation of all conference participants at the closing session was greatly deserved!). Thank you Cartagena, welcome Oregon!
Recommended citation format
Mandy Tröger & Kerem Schamberger: IAMCR 2017: Welcome to Latin America (english). In: Michael Meyen (Hrsg.): Medienrealität 2017. https://medienblog.hypotheses.org/452 (Datum des Zugriffs)
Cover picture: organizer, other pictures: Mandy Tröger, Kerem Schamberger