“Most people are still following the Western practice either out of bureaucratic necessity or out of epistemological blindness.”

CHIN-CHUAN LEE is Chair Professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Media and Communication. He is also Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he previously taught.

Communication science and the art of reflexivity

cc lee credit CITY UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG

The dominance of American scholarship in the field of communication has been the subject of much hand wringing in Asia for decades. Many scholars of Asian origin have adapted to this reality by socialising themselves fully into the dominant paradigms. Others have chosen to retreat into intellectual ghettoes. For Taiwan-born Chin-Chuan Lee, neither extreme holds any appeal. Throughout his career, he has striven to engage Western researchers in a dialogue of equals, but always preserving his accent as a scholar of East Asian media and society. The founding president of the Chinese Communication Association, Lee is recognised as a pioneer in this growing sub-field. In May 2014, he was honoured with the B. Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award by the International Communication Association. In a conversation with Media Asia editor Cherian George, Lee shares his vision for a more cosmopolitan global field of communication, in which Asian scholars play their part by being reflective about their own localities.

CHERIAN GEORGE:

Your latest edited book has an intriguing title, Internationalizing ‘International Communication’. Can you explain the thinking behind it?

CHIN-CHUAN LEE:

People have this misconception that international communication must be very internationalised. It is not. International communication has grown out of a very particular American context; it was always taken as a conceptual extension or empirical application of US communication. Many of us were educated in the West and we learned a good deal from the West. After many years, we have begun to unlearn some of it, and perhaps we are at the beginning of relearning with Western colleagues—provided we can show some academic achievement, so we can have fruitful dialogues with them on an equal footing.

CG:

So, until recently, international communication has actually meant non-American communication?

CCL:

Yes, it was always defined by default and reductively as non- American communication, just as the pinnacle game for American baseball is called the World Series. America is the centre of the world. It is that kind of view that prevails. International communication grows out of the post-World War and the beginning of the Cold War era, revolving around MIT, particularly the political sociologists Daniel Lerner, Lucian Pye and Ithiel de Sola Pool.

CG:

Focusing on the need for the US as a superpower to understand the rest of the world, for its own benefit.

CCL:

Yes. So these people teamed up with Wilbur Schramm at Stanford—probably with very good intentions, in the name of modernisation and Third World development, but as part of American post-war foreign policy—to use modernisation as a way to prevent the spread of communism. Communication was thought to play a very crucial role in the modernisation of the world.

Daniel Lerner’s book, The Passing of Traditional Society, which grew out of Cold War research conducted in the Middle East to gauge the effectiveness of American propaganda visà-vis Soviet propaganda, became the seminal baseline for international communication research. Actually, it is curiously peripheral to the sociology of modernisation. When you look up the reading list of sociology of modernisation, this book is not there; but this is probably the most crucial work for students of international communication, because his idea was picked up by Wilbur Schramm, who popularised it, and later on it was merged with diffusion of innovation as advocated by Everett Rogers. Diffusion of innovation probably produced more empirical research overseas than any other kind of research programme, but in replication of American assumptions. Rogers, for example, distributed translated texts of the same questionnaire to different countries, assuming that cultural or national differences don’t matter.

The bias was manifest in the Handbook of Communication Science edited by Charles Berger and Steve Chaffee [1987; 2nd edition edited by Berger, Michael Roloff and David Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2010]. In both editions, only one chapter was devoted to intercultural communication or comparative research, and nothing about substantive issues of international communication—as if by calling it a science, communication becomes universal, and any deviation from the American model is an exception, and exceptions are not very important.

By comparison, when Ithiel de Sola Pool and Wilbur Schramm edited the Handbook of Communication in 1973, 20 per cent of the chapters in a very thick anthology that ran over a thousand pages—all written by political scientists, mainly from MIT—addressed in whole or in part some of the issues of international communication. Even if these issues were concentrated on the vital interests of America—international propaganda, modernisation, communist media systems and so on—at least there was some sort of global landscape, albeit from an American perspective. But the second generation of scholars, when they edited the Handbook of Communication Science, totally ignored that and just concentrated on what they regarded as the elements of communication science. The international component was assumed to be just an extension.

CG:

This was probably not deliberate but a by-product of the drive to make communication studies a science.

CCL:

Of course, yes. So it is important for us to reflect on the advantages and limitations of positivistic studies.

CG:

Tell us about your personal journey. You went to the US for graduate study. Were you already aware of this imbalance and this ethnocentricism, or did you realise it only later?

CCL:

Vaguely so. Communication was a new thing; it didn’t exist in this part of the world. When I went to the United States, I was attracted to communication by virtue of exposure to Lerner, Schramm and Rogers. Ev Rogers proposed all these generalisations that purported to summarise the empirical findings conducted in the United States and overseas. It was easy to understand and had prima facie cogency. That attracted me: this is so scientific and makes so much sense.

It took some time for me to realise that it may not apply to other parts of the world. When I was made to take courses, some courses I liked. But other courses, I told my professors they were trying to reduce everything to a kind of cognitive positivism, and that’s not the way I think about the world.

CG:

So it didn’t resonate with your own understanding of your own society?

CCL:

That was always there, but it was not made explicit. When I encountered very concrete situations, I felt I wasn’t comfortable looking at the world in this way. I went to Michigan and had very rigorous training in quantitative and positivistic research. Michigan is a powerhouse of American electoral studies. So when my adviser asked me what kind of dissertation I was going to do, I said I would probably use the electoral data to do a secondary analysis in the line of mainstream communication theories. He was not an internationalist, but he had very good intuition: he said, for you to do that kind of research, you lose your uniqueness. That was very important to me. I said ok, I’m going my own way. So my dissertation was called Media Imperialism Reconsidered, and it led to publications after my PhD and was very important for my career. And I think that sort of core concern has remained.

CG:

You have said that the reaction to the American-centric view of communication shouldn’t be an Asian-centric view, a mirror image; it should be a genuinely cosmopolitan approach. What do you mean by that?

CCL:

We learn from the West; we are trying to unlearn some of it— some of it, not all of it. So it’s thesis, antithesis. Some say we need to have an Asian theory of communication. If this is the antithesis, then psychologically I can understand that reaction. But epistemologically, I don’t think that’s going to do the job. We need synthesis at a higher level of abstraction. We have to incorporate different sets of cultural experiences into a higher level of theory.

So I wrote a chapter called ‘Local experiences, cosmopolitan theory’, which says we have to start by reflecting on our local experiences and move up the ladder of abstraction, and then come into contact with the larger literature, which means we engage in dialogue with members of a larger intellectual community. We take our local experiences very seriously, but we place them in a larger context. That’s how we come to forge a fusion between the local and the global.

But I still would like to put the primacy on local experiences and then move up to more cosmopolitan theory, instead of assuming certain theories as universal truths and finding a local application for them. That’s not going to do the job.

CG:

But neither is it necessary to develop some uniquely Asian theory.

CCL:

There’s no essentialised theory of Asian communication. First of all, Asian culture is not frozen. There are internal variations. Let’s not talk about Asia; talk about China instead. Let’s not even talk about China, but talk about Confucianism instead. There’s so much complexity just within Confucianism itself, in terms of its state level interpretation as opposed to secularised practice; in terms of local applications, through thousands of years. How can it be all uniform?

Even in Confucian thought, there are marked differences between different periods. To assume that Confucianism is unified and that there’s only one general interpretation; and secondly to assume that Confucianism and Taoism are very close, so close that the differences are unimportant; and to assume that there’s something called a Confucian cultural zone—all these assumptions need painstaking analyses. And then if we assume that Asia is all the same, that’s just a mirror image of Western domination.

There is a feeling that if we have Asian-centricism, American-centricism, African-centricism, we can sort of synthesise them. That’s metaphysically interesting, but practically impossible. Who would be so wise as to be given this trascendent position to do the synthesis? It’s almost assuming that someone can be given this intellectually superior position, able to understand all these centricisms and come up with something that is universal.

So my approach is really the Weberian-Schulz line of phenomenology. Phenomenology assumes that cultural understanding depends on inter-subjectivity, and then there’s allowance made for multiple realities to be constructed by different interpretive communities. If culture is important— and I believe that; if Chinese civilisation can last for thousands of years, there must be something very unique about that; but remember there are a lot internal contradictions and conflicts, and also commonalities—then we really need to reflect on local experiences and then gradually move up and have contact with the larger experiences, with a view to developing a cosmopolitan theory that would respect differences.

Phenomenology assumes the construction of multiple realities; since culture is a very important interpretive community, phenomenology provides a very strong epistemological foundation for internationalising international communication. May I say that internationalising international communication also amounts to internationalising communication studies. I’m a subscriber to C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination, in which he advocates that all significant questions should be placed in the context of time (historical perspectives) and space (global perspectives).

CG:

To avoid any misunderstanding, does what you are suggesting necessarily mean that the emphasis must shift to cultural studies and away from quantitative social science?

CCL:

I’m sympathetic to empirical studies but not necessarily to the extreme form of positivistic studies. Empirical studies means it’s based on something you can feel, you can see, you can talk to someone—all other sensory experiences and their extensions. Positivistic studies—to reduce the reality to causality between a few dominant variables—is part of empirical studies but should not be equated with empirical studies.

We want to look for empirical regularities but without reducing the meaning structure of human cultures and societies. I have positivistic training. Some training is good, to make you think more rigorously. Once you have that rigorous training, you can start to relax the assumptions. What I object to is the most extreme versions of positivism. Positivism is, of course, the most dominant school of thought and methodology in America, not necessarily elsewhere, but in America. I don’t see any forces that can challenge the trend.

After all, positivism grows out of natural science, and we wanted to imitate the natural sciences. Gradually we understand the limitations of that imitation because, after all, human society is not physical world. Human society has meaning, and meaning has to be elucidated. We learn from physical science, how to look for regularities. The merger of the two is among the core assumptions of phenomenology. I think I’ve come to that position.

CG:

How widespread do you think this new awareness is in Asia?

CCL:

The next generation of scholars is better trained. What they need is some sort of cultural awareness. We are still talking about a small minority of people who have awakened. Most people are still following the Western practice either out of bureaucratic necessity or out of epistemological blindness. Or even out of training incapacity—they are trained to do one thing and that’s the only thing they know how to do.

But among the most active and thinking scholars in Asia, there seems to be a converging movement. I don’t think it is an organised movement, but people are coming to an awareness at the same time from different directions. We need to have more dialogue, with Western scholars, but we also need South to South dialogue, and that’s very much lacking.

CG:

That would include not just dialogue within Asia but also between regions in the global South, like between Latin American scholars and Asians.

CCL:

Yes, that’s something we rarely think about.

CG:

At present, each region is having those conversations via the West.

CCL:

It’s like the colonial structure, isn’t it? The easiest way to fly from some African capitals to others is through London or Paris.

CG:

And intellectually it’s the same?

CCL:

It’s a centre-periphery relationship.

CG:

Which leads me to another question, to do with where young Asian scholars should go to study. When you went to grad school, there was no choice, it had to be theUS. Now, though, there are decent communication programmes in Asian universities. Has the time come to advise bright young Asian scholars to study in Asia, or are the best routes still via the West?

CCL:

There is no denying that the US, for all its biases, is still the largest centre for opportunity. Nobody is going to take that position away.

CG:

So if a young scholar gets into a good PhD programme in the US, how would you advise the person to chart his or her career? You said your own supervisor advised you, wisely, not to forget your own uniqueness or be subsumed by this dominant culture.

CCL:

I have to say regretfully that many students returning from the US are carbon-copying their mentors’ world views. They are not culturally, epistemologically or methodologically reflective. Well, neither are most Asian universities. It would be very sad if Asian universities do not reflect on their cultural roots.

CG:

So geography is not a determinant, is it? The same problem could arise in Asian universities: they could be producing clones of American universities.

CCL:

Yes, of course not. Asian universities can be the frontier for the imperial centre—and be proud of it! And that’s happening. So it takes a lot of reflexivity, and individuals have to cultivate that reflexivity. But we need to develop a culture to cultivate this reflexivity.

CG:

A scholarly culture, you mean?

CCL:

Yes, and a cultural movement: people coming together. Let’s take it as a praxis. Not an end point, but as a praxis: move forward, with more dialogue, try to find ourselves. Find out our aspirations and our limitations, and move on. I think that will be important, but it is not on the agenda.

CG:

Mentoring would be a key aspect of that, I suppose, and this year you were honoured by ICA for your role as a mentor. But, the truth is it has become extremely competitive for younger scholars. To be blunt, you had it much easier. Even for me, who finished my PhD only about a decade ago—it was easier then than I think it is for young PhDs today. The bar has been rising tremendously, in terms of the demands placed on them to publish and present at conferences, and if anything, the competition is going to get even tougher. In that context, what advice can you give young scholars in what has become a ruthlessly competitive market? The institutions value replication of the US model, so the incentives are to simply replicate rather than to take the risk of doing things in a different way.

CCL:

It is tough. I can only give some old-fashioned advice, and that’s my conviction. I’ve never been interested in converting students into my own carbon copy. So, my job as I see it is to help them find their passion and develop their interest, to help nurture their ideas and establish some good working habits. Have long-range aspirations while you negotiate with the requirements of bureaucracy. All these universities are ranking driven. They are looking at the short term. You have to meet those demands. Otherwise you are going to lose your job. Be that as it may, you can always keep in the back of your mind, what kind of questions are your burning concerns?

CG:

Over the long term.

CCL:

Yes, over the long term. Something that you are so passionate about that all the projects would lead to answering part of that question. In the process, people may not understand what you are up to. But at a certain point in your career, there’s going to be a sense of cogency about what you’re doing—long-term concerns about certain enduring issues. All your projects would be just manifestations of these enduring concerns, trying to solve these problems bit by bit. You’re not going to solve them all.

Enduring issues are the simplest issues: freedom, equality, race, poverty, class, whatever. I consider myself very lucky when, as a graduate student, I came into contact with The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills. That has become a source of inspiration for me—opening up the horizon to know what kind of scholar I aspire to become. When I started teaching, I went back to read that book once a year, just to get my bearings. I have been reasonably productive, but I hope I can say that all my work has a certain cogency.

CG:

So the advice would be to understand and play the bureaucratic game, but also stay the course over the long term?

CCL:

Yes. You have a vision and so you are publishing bits and pieces but you’re not just grabbing whatever opportunities come your way. You know your direction very clearly. In the process you can develop lots of projects and all these projects are related in one way or another to intellectual concerns.

Eventually they will come together.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MEDIA ASIA AS

George, Cherian (2014). “Lee Chin-Chuan: Communication science and the art of reflexivity”, Interview with Lee Chin-Chuan, Media Asia 41 (3): pp. 199-207

PHOTO BY CITY UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG