Academics, the Media, and the Turkish Protests

At the multi-authored blog, Political Violence @ a Glance, Christian Davenport laments the state of analysis on the protests in Turkey. Giving voice to what I’m sure many of us academics ask ourselves (and our spouses, partners, and close colleagues)—why isn’t my scholarly work being cited?—Davenport wonders why what is now considered the “mainstream media” haven’t called on academics for their expertise. We write on the general issues that are playing out in specific contexts (“case studies,” in academic terms), and so it stands to reasons our insights matter and could contribute much to explaining what’s happening.

Later in his piece Davenport explains why he looked only at the New York Times for his evidence—it’s America’s paper of record, normally has good coverage of events, and has many readers. This seems reasonable. But there are lots and lots and lots of excellent analyses out there on the protests, written by scholars, activists, journalists, and analysts—many of whom are not American. Most of it isn’t in the mainstream media, though some of it is. Rather, it is written in blogs, online magazines, and other sources. It is shared through a Twitter community that, unfortunately, seems to incorporate only or mostly Turks or long-time Turkey watchers.

In the first few days of the expanding protests, for example, I compiled a list of what I thought were good analyses of what was happening. Sources included Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, many personal blogs, and a host of other non-mainstream media publications. If you exclude the first two sources, only a couple—The Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal—could fall into the mainstream media category.

Davenport’s discussion raises three important and inter-related questions that are increasingly being debated in academia. First, how cloistered (or not) is the nature of academic life? Clearly Davenport doesn’t live or work in a cloister (see the categories on his blog for proof). But it would be interesting to know if, in trying to see what “the media” has said about the Turkish protests, he read the other literature I cited in my list. The expansion of social media has allowed academics who want to study an ongoing phenomenon to read for real-time evidence more than just the standard media. How many scholars take advantage of this?

Second, then, what is the role of the academic in public life, particularly with the emergence of social media? Davenport is right that most scholars are ignored far too much in the mainstream media—including television, radio, and print. If our stuff isn’t getting out there, we should wonder why “they” (the journalists) aren’t contacting us. But we should also ask whether we have been writing on topics for a too-small, already-inclined audience. Some, certainly; but I think the accusation that academics don’t think in policy terms or write only esoterically is too much of a straw man.

The question then becomes, how can we get our analyses out there? It’s hard to get an op-ed published in one of the big media outlets; that’s partly why many of us write for other places, including our own blogs. It’s as much, if not more, our responsibility to get our work out there.

And following from this, the third question: How can we resolve the ever-present tension between the generalist and the area-studies specialist? Davenport’s point is well taken: scholars often write on a general topic, the implications and findings of which can be applied to different cases/developments. Comparative analysis is extremely useful, even necessary. In the case of the Turkish protests, for instance, one wonders whether the Arab Awakening is the closest similar experience; or whether it’s the J14 demonstrations in Israel; or whether it’s something else or some combination. Whatever the answer, there are—as Davenport rightly noted—insights to be gleaned from previous work on the topic of social protests and movements.

This brings me back to my first point. I agree with what Davenport is trying to do. But I wonder whether he went far enough in his analysis. The New York Times is mainstream, and what academic wouldn’t love to publish an op-ed in it? But much of the deeper, contextual analysis is being written up elsewhere. If we academics don’t account for that, too, then we’re not keeping up with the times, so to speak.

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