Diasporic Contact Zones at the BBC World Service
The British Council (BC) and BBC World Service (WS) are the United Kingdom’s largest international cultural organizations: key national-to-global institutions representing British identities, ideas and interests. Well-known and respected abroad, domestic awareness of their activities is low with very little academic research into the cultural value they channel and produce.
Our project is ambitious in aiming to produce an analytical and methodological framework for understanding, evincing and explaining the role of WS and BC and their users in curating, creating and translating cultural value abroad and at home. The project is timely as the future of both organizations is uncertain. Changes to funding and remit make this a vital moment to engage with them in re-assessing their roles.
For the World Service, internet is as important as radio or television in key markets, where it aims to curate online audiences in a ‘global conversation’. The British Council increasingly uses the internet to share the UK’s ‘cultural assets’ and ‘build trust’ worldwide. Real-time quantitative or ‘big’ data’ on user activities presents real opportunities, as well as challenges, for understanding the nature and quality of the individual cultural experiences facilitated by BC and WS. In this project, we deploy innovative methodological approaches from the social sciences and digital humanities in order to understand how those experiences are valued.
WS and BC are often conceived of in terms of British ‘soft power’, ‘public’ or ‘cultural’ diplomacy and ‘nation branding’, or vague notions of intercultural communication and cultural exchange imbued with cosmopolitan values and aspirations. These perspectives rely on assumptions about the intrinsic value of the cultural experiences these institutions offer. We will test these assumptions about cultural value, drawing on an extensive historical and digital archive created as part of the 5-year AHRC-funded Tuning In projects on inter-culturality at the WS, and extensive work evaluating BC projects.
Understanding the changing cultural value of the WS and BC through the lens of digital interactions is valuable because they can be tracked and analysed, offering unprecedented insights into users’ cultural experiences. Arguably, digital media change the nature of trust in/resulting from cultural organizations as they no longer exercise the same levels of control over narratives or audiences. Culture and geography are unbound in the digital domain which makes communication across cultural boundaries and ‘soft power’ influence more complex to assess. Traditional organizational values of impartiality and objectivity are being challenged by digital media, and even rejected as colonial vestiges. So how do principles of trust and transparency fit in with notions of cultural value? The project will break new ground in understanding and researching cultural value in international organizations.
The research has also benefited greatly from the support of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC).