Sing another tune to make pop music for the masses

Researchers must think creatively to grab wider audiences for their work. Matthew Reisz reports

July 12, 2012

An academic has called on fellow scholars who feel "alienated from the drudgery of academic writing and inauthentic about producing more of the same drivel" to embrace every possible means of popularising their research.

Phillip Vannini, professor and Canada research chair in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, makes the case in his recently published edited collection, Popularizing Research: Engaging New Genres, Media, and Audiences.

The book brings together contributors from more than two dozen countries in disciplines ranging from education and communications to sociology and anthropology.

All have found ways to make their work more relevant and accessible through cartoons, performance, exhibitions and films. Others have embraced the myriad possibilities opened up by the internet. Popularizing Research has itself been released with a website designed to complement its arguments with "a web-based directory of popularized research".

Professor Vannini is carrying out ethnographic research on the alternative lifestyles of Canadians who choose to live "off grid" instead of relying on mainstream infrastructure for their electricity, water and other utilities.

He has also been involved in creating the Routledge Innovative Ethnographies book series, and in developing hybrid book and web projects to disseminate his own research and facilitate others in doing the same.

There are a number of reasons, in Professor Vannini's view, why we should welcome the trend to popularise research.

"The best way for universities to market themselves is by creating interest in the work of their own scholars," he said.

"The general public gets exposed to interesting material. Individual researchers can show that the relevance of their work goes beyond the ivory tower, something that is much appreciated by funding agencies. And students can acquire knowledge which is much more in tune with the popular culture they consume and create."

Good place to start

Professor Vannini acknowledged that a number of dangers exist in disseminating research.

There are legitimate concerns about "the depth of academic knowledge being conveyed" through media such as blogs or magazine articles, although he added that "if the average citizen only has time for a 1,300-word article, that is still better than nothing. And you can direct them to a website if they want more in-depth material."

It is also important, he said, to avoid "a two-tier system" where research that is easily popularised, for whatever reason, is assumed to be superior to equally important work that will never be widely accessible.

Yet despite these caveats, Professor Vannini believes the benefits of popularising research far outweigh any drawbacks.

His book is aimed at "people who have had enough of spending months, if not years, to produce research that will be read in less than 10 minutes by five distracted readers who will forget what they have read in less than three minutes".

Professor Vannini's introduction concludes that although technology provides some of the answers, the real driving force for popularised research is "a determination unfettered by institutional obstacles, less-than-ideal budgets and unproved skills".

He and his contributors hope to provide some of the tools.

Mass observation: popularising research in action

When a team from Syracuse University decided they wanted to study local rap artists, they faced a number of challenges. One of the researchers arrived at a recording studio to recruit participants to the study with a dog of "the miniature, white fluffy kind that screams upper-middle-class".

When she interviewed a hip-hop artist who performs as Cream da General, he kept having to provide her with translations of phrases such as "ride or die", which turns out to mean a loyal girlfriend who is "down to ride with you through whatever".

Yet eventually, as one of the 31 case studies in Popularizing Research: Engaging New Genres, Media, and Audiences explains, the results of the relationship built up between the rappers and the academics were presented to the world through "a hip-hop symposium" including "a rapper roundtable, musical performance and a rap battle with a journalism student".

As well as allowing "the informants [to] showcase their talents with minimal framing from the researchers", the event also played a role in easing "classic town-versus-gown tension".

Other chapters consider how those who have explored the surprisingly high levels of violence against firefighters or the impact of different media on child development have gone beyond articles in specialist journals to reach out to the groups most affected. A researcher studying Egyptian soap operas discusses how she distilled her insights into a short story; another how he generated the best media coverage for his work on Australian horror films.

And Kip Jones, reader in performative social science at Bournemouth University, explores the potential of "autoethnography" through the example of "an audio/visual production on film that recalls my encounter with Her Royal Highness, Princess Margaret, at a New York nightclub in 1965".

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