Can communicative practices help ‘vulnerable’ communities in times of change?
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum once wrote that playful storytelling “teaches people to be capable of living with others without control; [and] connects experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety” (2010, p. 101). Her work on vulnerability has helped critical communication scholars shift their focus away from the structural power of media, which has been overstudied, to organic and informal communication practices that can enable playful, and often agential, experiences of self-expression at the interpersonal level. This question has been largely absent from Western-centric mainstream communication agendas and research, dominated by data and meta-narratives. As we have found in a recent study, we can build on approaches in social psychology by considering how interpersonal communication can enhance individual and community resilience (Houston. et al., 2015; Houston and Buzzanell, 2018; Buzzanell, 2010) This new perspective highlights the fact that storytelling, self-narration and community-owned media are particularly important when it comes to demonstrate creativity and resourcefulness in a climate of crisis and uncertainty.
Our British Council commissioned and EU-funded research in Lebanon and Tunisia, hosted by SOAS Centre for Global Media and Communications –argued that the concept of resilience should be considered through a communicative lens, challenging its definition in the sphere of policy and practice.
The study relied on a dataset of 50 ethnographic sources and in-depth qualitative interviews collected over four periods of fieldwork in Tunisia and Lebanon.
SOAS research team delivered two case studies of local British Council initiatives designed to foster resilience through media capacity to analyse the effects of communities’ informal communication networks on different components of resilience (e.g. trust, confidence, creativity, resourcefulness, assertiveness). Our sample of research participants included a number of local media professionals and civil society actors involved in a range of communication activities intended to support community relationships. An international workshop was organised, bringing together practitioners with regional expertise and media scholars from across the Middle East and North Africa region. Panel discussions introduced a reflection on ‘resilience’, which resonated with Nussbaum’s approach to vulnerability as a favourable ground for play, imagination and re-invention of oneself.
The research more specifically demonstrated that communities, who tend to be stigmatised as vulnerable or powerless in the prevailing media discourse, gain agency by consolidating alternative communication networks. Within these networks, members of a community engage in playful storytelling by challenging and reframing the normative narratives of hardship. In doing so, they may also gain recognition for expressing an alternative and perhaps more credible and relatable voice. This suggests that, although resilience is commonly defined as the ability to ‘bounce forward’ following a crisis, it also relates, from a communication perspective, to the way individuals and communities choose to define or redefine the crisis.