Electronic Working Paper 23

Suffering as a discipline? Scholarly accounts on the current and future state of research on media and suffering

Stijn Joye                                                                                                                          Department of Communication Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium


An emerging field of research within humanities and social sciences concerns itself with the issue of suffering. Following its growing (mediated) societal prevalence and impact in recent years, forms of social suffering have intrigued an increasing number of scholars and have already spurred a rich body of work, reflecting an astonishing richness in terms of approaches, theoretical perspectives and topics of study. Many have recognized the research on media and suffering as a legitimate, timely and necessary field of study, but alongside its emergence within academia, questions arose on its disciplinary home, scope and nature. The purpose of this working paper is twofold. Firstly, we address the key question of (inter)disciplinarity by charting the different strands of social science studies on suffering, with a particular focus on the relation between (news) media and suffering. Secondly, we aim to identify future directions to move the research forward. In order to do so we draw on a literature review and semi-structured elite interviews with twelve leading scholars in the field: Jonathan Benthall, David Campbell, Lilie Chouliaraki, Simon Cottle, Suzanne Franks, Paul Frosh, Folker Hanusch, Susan Moeller, Shani Orgad, Mervi Pantti, Keith Tester and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen.

The twelve interviewees demonstrated a strong reluctance towards conceiving the ongoing research on media and suffering as a discipline on its own. All interviewees prefered to look at it as a constellation of people, working from different perspectives and backgrounds but all interested in the same topic. In other words, an area of research that is defined by an interand multidisciplinary coming together of research interests, expertise and people. The inherent social nature of suffering and its status as a fundamentally human experience informed this debate and resulted in a positioning of the research on media and suffering at the heart of social sciences and humanities as well as at the crossroads of different disciplines. This overall open view was also reflected in the discussion on the scope of the research and the future directions in research. The scholars identified a wide range of driving concepts and key issues which we can summarize by the following tropes: mediation, emotions, audiences and societal trends. However, the interviewees tended to stress the need for some measure of conceptual hygiene, a potential drawback of the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Regarding future directions, the scholars pointed towards a number of directions to move the research forward. Especially empirical audience research is high on the academic agenda as are studies that look into the role of new media with regard to (witnessing) suffering. Other widely shared comments included a further opening up of the research in terms of methodological and disciplinary approaches.

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