Journalism education in Pakistan must break out of the liberal mould that shaped it

Media liberalisation in Pakistan was ushered during the presidency of Gen. (rt) Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently scholars at the opening meeting of the premier International Communication Association conference, cautioned against the role of ‘fake news’ in elections around the world.

The menace can be observed in democracies from the most to the least mature. It highlights the changing paradigm in journalism dominated by liberal principals to one where context specific factors form the basis for journalism practice and development.

However, journalists in Pakistan continue to benchmark dated Western ideals about the profession.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals

They lash out against any curbs on press freedom by seeking refuge in the liberal market place of ideas. The argument goes that truth reigns supreme in an environment of unrestrained and free flow of information. Their opponents are quick to point out how the press in even the most liberal media markets, such as the United States, ‘tow-the-line’ during national crisis.

In the Asian context we have seen that a rampant growth of the media industry in the absence of civic norms flooded the market place with partisan voices and junk. The liberalized media in the Philippines after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 is a notable case in point. Rather than enlightenment that facilitates a much needed national consensus a rambunctious media further disoriented the public.

Closer to home commercialization is also strongly associated with the erosion of editorial integrity by marketing departments or owner’s private agendas, as is documented on the Indian press.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals ultimately polarizes the debate in the limited public space there is for fact based informed opinion in Pakistan. Worse still, it allows societal elites that are contemptuous of public scrutiny to justify curbs on truth on grounds of a press perceived ill equipped to report it.

We must break out of the liberal-authoritarian binary in our public discourse where anything that goes against the state perspective is labelled ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ by the media. Just as any critique of religious extremism is seen as a past time of a ‘civil society crowd’

The problem with an unwavering faith in liberalism was starkly visible in the polarization of the American press during the election of President Trump. A large segment of the supposedly liberal media that had historically supported and preached impartiality and fairness in news reporting, more so than the conservative press, deemed it in the public interest to do away with an important journalism ideal.

Else where: why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?

Implications for journalism education in Pakistan

Reality is a complex interplay of myriad factors. Not a zero-sum game. Consequently, journalism students must be taught to appreciate nuances of reporting in relation to factors such as institutional configuration, commercial and political imperatives.

To be sure, journalism is a profession, practiced and learned through participation in the routine activities of a news room. Journalism schools therefore re-create that environment in their training studios and production labs.

However this technical training is based on a strong theoretical foundation. Top journalism schools around the world are also very active in academic research. Professors offer special topics designed to arm students with a capacity to adapt context specific differences in practice with the democratic ideals upon which the discipline stands.

Comparative media research, for instance, shows that sustainable professional journalism can exist in pockets even in the harshest political environments. Just as democracies can exist in sustainable hybrid forms rather than an ideal (read Western) type on a continuum from low to high quality.

I’m involved in one such study, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, that investigates ethical best practices among media organisations in five Asian territories; China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan. We found that reputable organisations here are usually run by journalist-publishers with a strong ethos. Management policies facilitate a democratic culture in the newsroom itself. They understand branding but set their professional ethos as the value proposition.

The project is at a nascent stage but shows the significance for Pakistani media to observe journalism in contexts beyond the American and British benchmarks. Media practices in regions with whom we share commonalities in socio-cultural and economic development are more useful to understand and improve our own.

Why does this matter?

This won’t be easy. It requires updating curricula in our media schools and the particularly difficult task of designing pedagogy that can operationalize such knowledge to the unique requirement of the news industry in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, liberal education is desperately needed for young Pakistanis to understand their role in society and learn to co-exist in harmony. Only that a liberal press is not necessarily professional and certainly not the most effective.

Else where: what is a liberal press?

If we do not arm our journalists with the state of play in the field they will struggle to stay relevant in building a democratic Pakistan. A key function of the press. Media students will face a disconnect between classroom learning and the work place upon graduation. Non-democratic forces will continue to encroach upon the vacuum left by our media institutions.

Introduction to university teaching

094681AB-A7B5-41DD-B45F-3CF9EF62CB11-744-0000007C912B3D45_tmp

This term I’m teaching an elective under our MA in media management program at the school of communication. It has been a tremendous experience so far engaging with young Chinese students from the other side of the class desk.

The course is titled Communication Technology & Media Organizations. I have developed an outline meant to brief students on some useful concepts communication researchers have to characterize new media impact on media organizations and society more generally. I’ve tailored it to match my own interests in information society, media studies, public relations and advertising.

My immediate challenge was to relate with students from a context dramatically different from how I was born and raised, live and work and to do so in an engaging manner. Understanding a students frame of reference is a key concern of paedagogy (or the method of teaching).

My teaching strategy thus incentivises class participation and collective learning. For instance by making it clear that there are no right or wrong answers; only useful and not so useful ones. I also bring examples to class that show similarities in media development in Mainland China, Hong Kong and rest of the world, including Pakistan.

This ultimately is in line with my own philosophy of finding meaning rather than ‘winning’ and rhetoric. The course is also a starting point for an online course I’m developing for students and young people living in Pakistan.

 

The overemphasis on the digital divide in Pakistan.

There is an on going debate in Pakistan echoing global concern about the extent to which social media is simply replicating moribund and traditional impulses of the society.

The young ones are optimistic. With some reason. Just take a sample of the rich tapestry of awareness and advocacy currently on social media; a campaign to push for peace between India and Pakistan on Change.org initiated by folks on both sides of the hostile border; a funny viral video by fans of an opposition party around the recent ouster of the Prime Minister on corruption charges; accusation of stifling a story on injuries from an incident during a TV program shot in Pakistan’s premier gated community by a popular blogger, an online furore over a television anchor who had verbally abused a female guest on ‘patriotism’ during a live transmission.

More senior journalists and informed observers are cautious at best. A report by Bytes for all, a local Internet advocacy group, last year highlighted the increase in arbitrary government blocks on websites. While this year marked the first reports in the press on state-suspected attacks on online activists.

But going beyond the human rights perspectives on a restricted public sphere commonly associated with closed societies, question remains whether a more connected Pakistan will be conducive to deliberative and representative discussions en masse to begin with.

I want to bring attention to the copious amount of abuses and barbs traded by partisans on social media. Be it the progressively inclined fans of opposition parties, the conservative activists of the government or some combination of both. These ‘echo chambers’, to borrow a term from political communication, are by far the most prominent aspects of political discussions online. The notable journalist, Najam Sethi, goes as far as to refer to a thriving ‘anti-social media’. Where discussions are rich on emotions and rhetoric, little on substance and reminiscent of crazy talking heads on television.

Consider Youtube.com.pk, an open online public space, in a similar vein, setting aside for a moment the government’s absolute authority to ban it. Even a cursory look at the weekly trending will reveal mostly sensational television news stories regurgitated online, South Asian television soaps and films, ‘item numbers’ (bawdy dances of women on a background of Indian songs) and a sprinkling of Islamic evangelical content.

It appears that the roughly 28 million strong Internet user base, which by the way is no trivial figure (the entire population of Hong Kong is roughly 7 million), of highly educated Pakistanis, according to a recent survey on her Internet User’s Perspectives, seem mostly concerned with entertainment values in all their variants we usually associate with the ‘old’ broadcast age.

And while there is hardly any research on the quality of discussions Sethi isn’t far off the mark either. They fit our understanding of authoritarian emerging media conditions where most online content is used for broadcast purposes, traditional media successfully co-opts online spaces and a civil society voice is further confined or lost in the cacophony of misinformation.

Evegny Morozov in his cynical, albeit astute analysis, cautioned against cyber-utopianism; “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside”; that instead of serving as a panacea in the market place of ideas there is a growing fear that Internet in Pakistan is becoming a game changer for established individuals, politicians, television personalities and (retired) generals who now find it even more convenient to build on their offline persona.

How far has Pakistan’s emerging online culture succumbed to Morozov’s worst fears? My on going research aims to answer this question partly by examining the logic of her social media for civic engagement.

Figures 1 shows a social network analysis (SNA) I conducted based on the Facebook Page ‘like’ networks for two major political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PMLN) in the government, and its nemesis the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the opposition. SNA uses mathematical tools to understand the relationship (‘like’) between nodes (Pages) and the overall structure (Network) they are embedded in. It is often used to understand online organisation. The analysis reveals that the PTI has five times the online presence, 319 Pages, of PMLN, 66 Pages. Although offline, the former commands a much larger share in the National Assembly. In fact the situation is reversed; PMLN has roughly five times the seats of PTI!

 

 PTI PMLN
Figure 1. PTI Facebook ‘like’ network (left) & its PMLN counterpart (right). The size of labels represents level of activity of pages. Thus overseas pages are most active on PTI network. Similar colours reveal pages that depict similar patterns of connectivity or community. For PTI; green = Azad Kashmir related, Black = Insaf Student & fans related, Purple = KPK related, Blue = Karachi related. The much smaller PMLN has been disproportionately enlarged for clarity’s sake. No clear communities are visible likely due to network mostly formed by techy savvy politicians as opposed to activist teams. Note: SNA visualised on Gephi using publicly available Facebook data. The latter is the most used social media platform in the country.

This shows the considerable disconnect between on-ground (offline) and online reality and could be of some consolation; notwithstanding the limited importance of online campaigning in Pakistan the gap means that there is some way to go before the ills of patronage and dynastic politics completely colonize online. An uncertain window that the marginalized exploit and the youth are optimistic about.

But for many it is primarily the digital divide that has limited marginalized voices to the fringe of public opinion proper. As if more Internet is just what is required to keep the window open or for more people to support progressive causes. Pick any recent report mapping media trends in Pakistan and you find a similar introduction emphasizing the poor state of Internet development.

The PTI case is illuminating here as well; its largest constituency lies in Khyber Pakthunkhawa (KPK). Those familiar with South Asian geography will recognize this rugged province, that shares a border with Afghanistan, as having very low Internet penetration compared to the rest of Pakistan. Clearly there are factors beyond simple voting considerations that seem to inform the party’s online strategy; reviving overseas Pakistanis, creating awareness among urban youth, supporting advocacy causes (see figure 1) and raising funds.

Similarly, the digital divide is but one factor, and not necessarily the most important one, Pakistani policy makers should bank on if they are serious about diversity in the online market place of ideas. Media literacy; critical thinking; the capacity of journalist and bloggers for investigative work, contribute equally, if not more, in this equation. It will be an uphill battle. These concerns require novel solutions that go beyond simply paving and clearing information highways.

How has protesting changed in Pakistan since the 90’s?

university_of_hong_kong-svg
University of Hong Kong logo.

On 24th February, 2017 I presented some findings on the Changes in Political Protests in Pakistan since the 90’s, based on my field work last year. The presentation was made in a closed reading group organised by faculty members at the Hong Kong Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (HKIHSS). In this post I summarize key findings of my presentation, some conclusions and finally a word on the reading group itself. I understand that use of certain terms will be unclear. I strongly encourage you to email so we can discuss.

Summary

I compared two major political protests, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Long March in 1992 and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Azadi Dharna (PTI) in 2014. In the paper, my focus was on protesters organisation strategies and division of labour within the party. These two ‘variables’ (in a manner of speaking) are taken from Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993) understanding of the relationship between movements and media. Worth to mention that even though focus is on protest strategies, specific focus is on those strategies that are most related to media. I will not present my research design here. Those who are interested can contact me via email. However, my data sources are Daily Dawn news archives from year 1992 and 2014 collected at Dawn library in Karachi. 17 in-depth interviews with various party media cell officers, campaign managers, journalists and civil society activists. I also conducted a focus group at the Karachi Press Club.

Key similarities and differences between PPP and PTI protest organisation:

  • Patronage networks were leveraged in both protests but not as much by the PTI.
  • Protest events for the PPP were rather diffused where as heavily concentrated for the PTI.
  • Both protests chose the capital city as the major choice of mobilisation however, the PTI took special interest in concentrating resources there.
  • PPP brick and mortar media presence remained mostly limited to its party headquarters in Karachi whereas PTI expanded such presence to major metropolis in the country.

Key similarities and difference between PPP and PTI division of labour:

  • Both protests relied on campaign officers to generate corner meetings and mobilise people to protest sites and to agitate.
  • Both protests relied on young volunteers however, PTI had a much more diverse cadre of youth activist specially in metropolis where traditionally vote banks don’t function as effectively.
  • Both parties have media campaign managed by professionals but PTI campaigns were managed by professionals with a unique skill set related to electronic campaigns that PPP did not have.
  • Other political parties, including PPP, have imitated PTI’s style of division of labour in its protests.

 

Some discussion

Bearing in mind the changes in media landscape since the 90’s, in particular the heavy presence of 24 hour news television in Pakistani politics we can see why PTI protests chose to concentrate in one location over a prolong period. It firstly facilitates television news crews that, unlike print reporters need heavy and expensive equipment for reporting. It is difficult for such crews to report on scattered events. Secondly, prolong stay in certain locations facilitates continuous and therefore live coverage of events. Unlike in the past, where such news crews (state television) were barely present or only supported the incumbent government. This certainly shows protesters changing tactics to get better media standing. Certainly the new forms of expertise required to capture, retain and facilitate this kind of news coverage was also present among the party’s media cell. Such new forms of organisation in other metropolis certainly helps in liaison with various TV news organisations. In contrast, PPP protesters had to find different ways to capture the news attention of a media landscape dominated by a print medium. It fits our understanding of news bureaus and correspondents located in different cities reporting the latest in their area. For after a while, news editors in major cities ignore the protest-as-usual to make room for other events.

About the reading group

This is a brief word on the purpose of the reading group and the format of presentations so that I may illuminate how academic communities are built. It is a learning process for me as well. So a major purpose, as I understand, is to bring together budding scholars studying diverse topics, in fairly diverse university departments within and outside Hong Kong, but with a common interest in anthropological methods. Such methods are distinguishable for presenting in ‘thick descriptions’ the phenomenon/process that are being explored. Journalism writing, if one can call it that, often employs such methods and I find that they are helpful when writing my reports which are indeed qualitative.

Each session has two parts, an hour devoted to a presentation followed by an hour on Q&A. Each presenter has to submit a paper in advance so that participants understand in detail the context of the presentation. For me, the core utility of this exercise is to use my arguments to engage with people who don’t know much about my area. And in the process make the arguments sharper.

Reference

Gamson, W. A., & Wolfsfeld, G. (1993). Movements and media as interacting systems. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 528(1), 114-125.

Looking at Cyril Almeida’s story through the lens of press-state relations

Editions: since I first published this essay here, I have made some minor editions which the reader will come across in line brackets.

These days a story Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military written by a Pakistani journalist and Dawn newspaper staffer, Cyril Almeida, has created quite a buzz in the Pakistani media sphere. Naturally when stories any where on critical policy matters of national interest enter the public sphere they are usually met with considerable scrutiny, analysis and some form of controversy. What makes the Pakistani case so compelling in my opinion are firstly the actors involved; a sitting government, a military establishment and a well reputed news organisation, and secondly; a highly speculative buzz most of which ignores journalism practice as a basis to ground analysis. In this essay I attempt to examine the controversy through the lens of a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Resulting analysis won’t be a precise or the only explanation of the incident. But by using established knowledge it may offer some viable explanation on the veracity of the story and what that implies.

 

It is widely established that journalist look mostly to government officials as the source of most of their daily reporting. There are many explanations for this but Lance W. Bennett (1990) classical hypothesis neatly summarises its major consequence, that:

Mass media professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to ‘’index’’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic. (p.106) 

Now Mr. Almeida’s story is controversial for two major reasons; first due to sensitive timing the story seems fabricated, as from a theoretical view its assertions fall outside present debates within government and policy circles. Relatedly, second, the government believes the story to be ‘speculative’, ‘misleading and factually incorrect’ because it has no source. And to my knowledge no public statement has been released by the ISPR to dispel these notions.

Lets start with the issue of the elusive source.

Indexing applies to ‘behaviour of prestige news organisation that set professional standards and influence news agenda’ and exclude those that can have an ideological sway due to small audiences and/or specific tastes. So for instance it can more credibly be applied to Daily Dawn a newspaper well regarded internationally and locally. Notwithstanding its vehement defence of information that was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”, indexing and every day journalism norms leads us to conclude with some confidence that Mr Almedia’s story indeed came from government and/or state officials. [Which raises doubts and questions about the governments claim that the story is fabricated and why the military has chosen to remain silent.]

Next,

It’s not enough to simply hold the norm as true if theory says so. The context matters. Political unity over Kashmir in these troubled times matter. Mr. Almeida’s story perhaps does not represent opinion within policy circles? It’s a fabrication that hints of mischief. The theory’s assumptions can shed some light here.

In setting the range of acceptable voices and opinions such a newspaper will allow on an issue, it will select official sources likely to influence outcome of events rather than isolated and extreme voices. The assertions in the story, such as disagreement over state policy on militants, could have only made it to print because they came from powerful sources. Not that powerful voices are credible by default. Source selection is based on a newspaper’s understanding of the current political calculus and a stable majority opinion within government and other policy circles. It stands to reason that matters of vital national interest would only warrant relevant powerful voices through the news gate and exclude deviants.

And had the official policy on militants – including disagreements – as reported in the newspaper actually included deviant views, or fabrications, the ‘circumstances surrounding such inclusions usually involve civil disobedience, protests, or lawless acts that establish negative interpretative contexts for those voices’ (p. 107). So had the report not represented mainstream opinions in policy circles, the story would have proceeded or preceded by a volatile situation. So far this has not happened publicly, at least in how we Pakistanis understand volatile situations. Other than Mr. Almeida being intimidated through the Exit Control List.

So, is the ‘potentially ground-shifting exchange between the ISI DG and several civilian officials’ as portrayed, accurate? Theoretically they are insofar as, a) the newspaper indeed carried professional norms of reporting it is regarded for, b) the story reflected present tensions in official policy circles that the newspaper was able to exploit and c) when the story landed there was no serious law and order situation surrounding it. [Not yet any way.]

[Unfortunately we don’t have more information to make an accurate judgement here. My hunch is that a meeting on those issues did happen but the ‘ground shifting exchange’ as depicted, among the most senior leaders of our country, seems a bit unreasonable.]

There are limitations however to these explanations and indexing to some extent accounts for them. For instance, the kind of issue determines applicability; ‘everyday events, crises, and policies (are more applicable) than…“special coverage” of things like elections that may have a normative-ritual order of their own’. [So unless we are going through unusually special political times this limitation is invalid. Although, considering the PTI rallies just around the corner one could think otherwise. Which would imply that we are in for those nazuk times yet again.]

 

In concluding I would simply add that all actors involved in the story including Daily Dawn may claim to act in the public interest. But if that requires bringing the voice of ordinary Pakistani’s on militancy to print, it would hardly happen. Indexing implies that professional news reporting operates independent of expressed public opinion.

Reference

Bennett, W. L., (1990) ‘Towards a theory of press-state relations in the United States’, International Journal of Communication, 40: 103–127.

On weddings and familial ties

Prologue: In the past five years I’ve transitioned through various levels of financial independence as I have studied and worked abroad and lived as a single male. Interestingly, childhood lessons continue to stick with me and seem to follow me around as I make my yearly trips back home. These lessons manifest most profoundly during those so-called ‘wedding seasons’ (a misnomer I might add for every season seems to be a wedding season in Karachi). Where the most contentious issue often boils down to marriage with an ‘outsider’ a.k.a a gory or gweilo. 

marriage-1404623_640

On weddings and familial ties

In this post I will highlight two popular arguments desi-families make to dissuade marriages with foreigners. I want to understand whether these are sound arguments or personal choices disguised as such. I hope readers will see that this reasoning can be generalised to many other factors, particular those based around age, sect, baradari (community), culture (favoured in Pakistan) that influence decisions to tie the knot.

I neither condone nor condemn a particular choice. I quite respect choice and right of opinion what I do not approve of is when people collate matters of choice with their supposedly reasonable arguments. Because when we mix arguments with value systems, we tend to defy rationalisation; we refuse to change our arguments even when underlying assumptions change.  We mistakenly assume that our argument is sound when actually we are imposing our belief and tailoring the arguments to fit those beliefs. For instance,

1- When we say that familial ties trump all other: 

Most of us born-raised in the subcontinent are taught to view family relations through the assumption that material benefits of maintaining strong extended familial ties inherently trump all other ties. Through this assumption we argue that marrying a Pakistani is more beneficial then a non-Pakistani since same nationality makes it easier to find mutually beneficial relationship when two families come together.

However, when this assumption is challenged; like when one family is more upwardly mobile or there is mistrust between the two or any other reason, it becomes logical, even necessary to modify our argument. Logical people maintain and strengthen ties with those who they trust or see some form of a benefit. Not necessarily monetary, many times it is an emotional benefit when a couple can sustain each other through thick and thin. Now it may be that we find many such trust worthy people in extended families but is that necessarily so? Many times we have such amazing relationships at various levels with our friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, mentors etc. Why should then when it comes to choosing potential partners must we restrict to certain families, sects or nationalities?

2- Social cost of marrying a foreigner will always be higher – Loag kya kahiengay? (what will people think?)

Social cost is a qualitatively complex phenomenon so its difficult to reduce it simply to defying ones societal norms. Over here I’ll just take one aspect of the cost; the communal shamming or loss of our gayrat (honour) when knots are tied outside established beliefs. The assumption here is that family decision/wisdom is superior to individual life choices since the former is more accordance with Muslim, Pakistani or Asian values.

This assumption is already problematic on two levels; first, is what your family decides for you always more Islamic than your own decisions? Now I am positive that no sane parent or saviour of family traditions will ever admit to this with a straight face. So if we understand this is a flawed assumption why do we take shamming so seriously?

Secondly, what do we mean by Islamic, Pakistani and Asian values to begin with? Are they written somewhere to be followed in letter or spirit or a combination of both? And who decides such combinations and on what authority? This is an old issue. What we can say with certainty about value judgements is that they continuously evolve parallel to socio-economic changes in society, among other things.

So no matter what the arguments we will (and rightly so) cherry pick those that best serve our interests. So why is it so difficult to call a spade a spade and blame socio-economic conditions rather than ‘values’ for marriage decisions?

Resources are better managed in an extended family structure 

In a similar vein, a partner with the same passport as yourself is assumed by default to bring greater accountability.

True, accountability could be higher but is this always the case? Yes having the blessings of a rich father in-law who is childhood friends with your father is good, but does this fact alone guarantee that shenanigans in business and work will not occur? I think at best it merely hints it. Hard work, mutual respect, planning and sacrifice still play a crucial role. And this applies to relationships and work ethics generally and is certainly not restricted to familial ties. Even business decisions that centre around leveraging patronage networks are not made by default. They are based on practical and strategic concerns of the parties involve.

A messy middle-ground

Some men of noble origins, faced with such dilemmas took a bold step.  They reconciled with the contradictions in arguments of their elders by getting conveniently married with foreigners for better economic and future prospects. At the same time they conveniently also ‘kept’ local wives. One to fulfil their duty and one to fulfil other appetites.

It is interesting how making personal marriage choices is not socially acceptable but what is acceptable though, albeit in hushed tones, is to ruin the life of a women or keep them dependent on the husbands good grace. And in my experience this applies to many patriarchal societies.

My point is not to argue for the irrelevance of family structure or the supremacy of one model of marriage over other. Partner selection, just like many other important decisions in life, is based on individual circumstances and contexts. Indeed most marriages every where in the world, including Pakistan, are based on strategic decisions.

So why do we continue to adhere with this facade of rule of thumbs?

On reflexivity of our[1] research process

This post will illustrate some of the institutional and methodological issues I have faced in my research process and explain how by being reflexive and critically aware of such challenges, I have come a step closer to provide meaningful answers to my research problem. This restructuring of my approach – as opposed to drifting in a free flow of consciousness in year one – I suspect has come about, of course through the very tackling of these challenges, but more importantly by learning to contextualise myself within my research in year two of the PhD.

Lets start with the institutional hurdles first which in this case refer to the legal, administrative and governmental challenges I have encountered namely; the strain of limited funding, outrageous visa processing issues (by virtue of ‘the green passport’) and vexation from bureaucratic red tape.

Funding puts certain limitations on research since it determines the resources available to accomplish projects. Intuitively, we can say funding effects the quality of work. So it was difficult for me at first to accept when my funding was cut down by an year. A constraint not to be taken lightly considering the formative stage of my project and my profession.

Speaking of constraints those from the global south would be quite familiar with the tedious visa processing and various traveling restrictions. It is rather unfair that in a competitive global job market many face issues by virtue of their birth place. The problem magnifies in academia when the ability to produce meaningful work hinges on extensive field visits, conference networking and other myriad opportunities that quick and easy access provides. It adds[2] another layer of  exasperating administrative work during hours which otherwise could be spent reading and writing.

Now, although these were specific instances of how institutional constraints may effect my work it is imperative to understand that they are generic. By being reflexive I realise that such constraints can fall under a class of research limitations called structural limitations. Going beyond my petty grievances, imagine budding scholars from developing countries producing interesting and impactful fieldwork only to find that there aren’t many Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) journals available that could publish it. In such instances a scholar may be pressured to comply with the status quo by for instance changing his/her methodology, orientation towards the problem or even theoretical framework (in extreme cases) to publish. It can be argued that the SSCI criterion are time tested benchmarks for quality research out put. But can it also be argued that heavy concentration of Western scholarship over time privileges certain kinds of criterion over others? Debates like this go on forever, the point is to be aware of such limitations and find meaningful ways to explain them in order for future scholars to carry our progress forward.

Lets look at a different set of issues. Methodologically, I face two major challenges so far; issues of physical access which results, again intuitively, in limited data points, and reliance on elite interviews (as I did in my MA) which creates reliability and validity issues for my findings. My initial response to counter these issues was the use of a stakeholder map to increase methodological rigour and data points. However there were some misleading findings[3] as a result. I only realised the fallacies once I started working as a journalist in Pakistan. But in-depth elite interviews – a method of data collection based on the stakeholder methodology – do serve a very important purpose and this is where my reflexivity comes in again. For starters elite interviews are excellent for exploratory work. It systematise our efforts to explore and this reflexivity on my research process led me to choose methodology classes in other institutions in Hong Kong[4]. The goal was simple; make conscientious efforts to find more data points and get training to increase reliability and validity of existing ones. My limited field work over the summer helped as well.

Somewhere along the way interesting things started happening. My simple goals changed instead to, saturate existing data points and methodologies to test them. Could I possibly have multiple stakeholder maps that could triangulate ‘against’ each other? How about filling the gaps with non-fiction (local literature)? In this sense ethnography classes were an amazing find where I am now learning to utilise the potential of thick descriptions and in-depth accounts. John Postill (2006) in the introduction of his book Media and Nation Building: How the Iban became Malaysian, writes:

‘What we lose in scope, we gain in focus: by studying in detail the Iban uses of state media over time, we can gain an appreciation of analogous processes in other parts of Malaysia and elsewhere.’

The quotes sets the context for how I am framing my problems now.

The location of the researcher with respect to his/her research project is one of the pillars of the qualitative paradigm; ethnographers for instance often immerse themselves in the ‘field’ and must ensure their voice and that of ‘the other’ i.e. the subject, is distinguishable when they write descriptions of them[5]. By embracing the notion that prevalent structures within the research environment and our biases constantly shape the choices we make, that constraints of access and funding effects methodology and politicise the choice of research topic respectively, in other words by believing that knowledge and therefore reality construction varies for everyone we accept the heterogeneity of our world. For me and as I am sure for the reader there is a beauty in this orientation that celebrates the diversity on our planet.

Notes

[1] ‘Our’ here implies doctoral students in general, however those outside the academy may also find this essay useful. It is my belief that we are all researchers in some ways albeit at various levels of training.
[2] A bit of trivia: I remember once during a casual conversation an American colleague upon learning the tedious travel paper work I am required to file remarked how it brings her ‘big’ scheduling conflicts in to perspective.
[3] For instance, the conclusion that electronic media due to its political economy can exert considerable influence on the Pakistan government.
[4] PhD students in Hong Kong can take courses in other institutions. This is quite a marvel of collaborative learning and I doubt even happens in United States.
[5] This was the traditional and formative period in qualitative methods in early 20th century, riding along colonialism where anthropologist such as Malinowski and Levi-Strauss studied remote ‘savage communities’ based on scientific values of truth and objectivity. Postmodernism had a huge impact on ethnography and the qualitative paradigm as a whole and we now make conscientious efforts to highlight the inherent structures of power prevalent within discourse and methodology.