Currently, the humanities are undergoing massive shifts, which both influence, and are influenced by, the broader field of media and communications. The media and communications discipline itself is also changing rapidly with it its many cogent as well as sub-disciplines. These include (but are not limited to) journalism, development communication, health communication, public relations, marketing communication and strategic communications, and those to do with film and television studies. Of course, this also has implications for media and communications education within all these varying fields and disciplines.
Importantly, the field of media and communications studies is a growth area in terms of scholarly interest, student enrolments and employment prospects in the media industry. This might be due to the fact that the discipline has a direct bearing on, and is of direct importance to, economic, industrial, scientific, and cultural development, as well as contemporary societal debates around human rights, freedom of expression, democracy and democratic institution-building. The discipline also feeds graduates to an ever-expanding media industry, and in particular the growing field of public communications experts and practitioners.
This said, in whole and in parts, the broader discipline is fragmented, fighting uphill battles of adequately resourcing research and teaching projects. This is not unique to the discipline, we know higher education is suffering diminished resources as a whole, However, in disciplines where theory and practice overlap and where resources often have to be channelled to professional and/or applied course and degrees, this is acutely felt. And on the flip-side, the growing student numbers has also meant a channelling of resources to substitute other disciplines in the humanities.
In its parts and varying sub-fields, the discipline is also hard pressed to justify its underlying epistemological grounding and to find new purposes and growth areas. This in light of encroaching cogent disciplines within the humanities and social sciences which have had to engage more and more with the media. To this should be added new technological developments posing challenges to subjects such as journalism, PR and marketing amidst trends of de-professionalisation and audience generated content production.
In this regard, it is worth thinking about what the ferment in the field debate has brought forth in terms of our thinking and understanding of the status of media and communications studies as a discipline and an academic field and its epistemological and disciplinary groundings, or lack thereof.
Highlighted is the multiple directions of scholarly research, discrepancies in methodological approaches to the field, debates over the relative value of critical versus administrative research traditions. And while complexity as well as diversity and intersections of epistemologies or knowledges are increasingly being valued, the question of the field’s lack of disciplinary status remains.
No less so in the context of the African continent. There is a lack of scholarly engagement with African contributions to the discipline and attempts to address the ‘Western containers’ within which the field ferments.
At the same time, there is growing acknowledgment of views that move beyond European and North American scholarly silos, and a growing recognition of practices as well as theory emanating from centres other than the global North. What is evident is a decolonial ferment that has highlighted the importance of scholarship in and of the South as central to the future development of the discipline.
From Asia, South America and Africa, decolonial ferment is evident in communities that are challenged to recognise and embrace a plurality and diversity of knowledge and possibilities that this turn in the discipline presents. Media and communications studies as a young and interdisciplinary field has produced new exciting intersections of scholarship that play a fundamental role in describing, shaping and directing change in society, and our thinking with regards to change.
The fact that the location of the communications discipline is contested and not beholden to strict disciplinary boundaries makes it fantastically well positioned to be a field in which marginalised scholars can develop new insights that the discipline as a whole can benefit from. Through the fissures, fractures, flux and contradictions that define media and communication studies, we see this a ‘whole change’ approach, that appropriates, and innovatively develops, useful knowledge, conceptual schema, epistemic forms, and pedagogies that puts media and communication studies at the heart of debates and developments around the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on nearly all spheres of life. A particularly salient point in African societies that experience extreme challenges on multiple levels and from a multitude of sources.
Thus, the future of African media and communications studies lies in the way in which it will harness opportunities to shape and impact the discipline itself and its relation to societal transformations. Such a project will also advance the discipline as central driving force in the future development and decolonisation of the humanities.