CSSC builds on UMASS Strengths

Civic Action11 Sep 2009Donal Carbaugh

The Center, Communication for Sustainable Social Change, is building upon our 20-year record of distinction at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in training researchers in communication, cultural research, and fieldwork methods. These methods are being used in the spirit of understanding social life and local cultures, including those features of that life deemed sustainable and those participants within them want changed. For example, doctoral fieldwork has investigated Asian Indian struggles with popular culture in the US; Native Hawaiian contests with the Navy over their Native lands; religious forms of counter-cultural communication in Massachusetts and in Florida; Finnish conceptions of cell phones, their uses and their clashes with traditional meanings; cultural discourses about place, water, and contests over nature; political deliberations within local democratic processes; the nature and uses of “hate speech” in Hungary, and the implications for the study of free expression around the world; health communication among “baby boomers,” those with Williams Syndrome, and the cultural uses and meanings of alcohol in Russia; practices which silence disadvantaged people in Japan; and various cultural uses of popular media around the globe. All have used the special approaches to cultural research and fieldwork developed here at UMass; with many focused on issues of environmental, cultural, and international communication.

I note particularly three dissertations based upon such fieldwork – by Drs. Trudy Milburn, Richard Wilkins, and Eric Morgan – each having received an award from our national or international association. We are proud of our work in this tradition and its distinguished record. We look forward to continuing this record of excellence within the work of the Center.

One way we are strengthening and extending this program is through an active partnership with an emerging, game-changing team of international scholars who are located within the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. This team is a transforming change-agent, moving research onto a global scale, as our Center will do, from a purely theoretical enterprise to one that links scholarship to local cultures. The thrust of this work is a focus on strategic action in local contexts, that is, it solves pressing social problems with attention to cultural scenes and their emergent social possibilities. The UNIDR team’s work is an innovative and intellectual legacy of our work here, particularly as it has involved key concepts and methods developed at the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, as elsewhere, with these being uniquely employed to powerful effect.

This project was designed and is being run by Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick, and is the first initiative of its kind to bring cultural field research to the design and planning of field-level security initiatives at the United Nations — whether in support of peace operations, international development, or humanitarian action.

I became a charter member of the Research Advisory Group in 2005, and have been in regular contact with the project team since that time. Upon the establishment of the Center, both Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick were made fellows, and UNIDIR has since contracted with the Center to serve as the first-ever “research Support Team” created for reach-back support during our current field operation in Nepal.

In my capacity as Research Support Director to that team, it is a pleasure to mobilize resources here at UMASS for this pioneering effort, that is, to employ our research traditions into a new domain of theoretical attention, that being security matters, and an innovative methodology being developed by the SNAP team, as it brings communication and cultural research to the design of public policy initiatives. I look forward to the Center’s continued engagement in that agenda and to personally contributing to it.

I am particularly pleased about this project, as Lisa Rudnick is a Doctoral Student here at UMASS studying with me, and she has used her education superbly to build unique bridges between the academic, policy, and cultural worlds. This is what our Center is all about, and we are delighted to align ourselves with these efforts.

As is evident, our center is capitalizing on a network of UMass-trained researchers by drawing them into its work. These researchers are working around the world (in Japan, Egypt, Hungary, Finland, Iceland, China, Russia) and throughout the US; some of them are now training others to do such research. Some of those, so trained, will be helping us do our future work. For example, the UNIDR SNAP project has involved to this date six of our doctoral students, in addition to Lead Researcher Lisa Rudnick, David Boromisza-Habashi, Elizabeth Fullon, Elena Khatskevich, Sunny Lie, and Brion van Over.

The Center will help us build on this important work, will strengthen it, while creatively applying and developing it. In the process, as we study real world problems and investigate creative ways of addressing them, we not only create socially relevant knowledge, we also add educational value for our students.