2013-2014 WFI Funded Projects

(listed in alphabetical order)

Grant Awarded ($3890): “It’s Just What We Saw in the Movie”: An Oral History of Refugees as Audiences of Relocation

Principal Investigator: Sarah C. Bishop, Department of Communication, University of Pittsburgh.

This doctoral dissertation project makes use of fifty oral history interviews with newly arrived refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, and several countries in Africa currently living in New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Houston in order to compare and contrast the myriad ways in which refugees negotiate mediated representations of life in the United States. Specifically, the project seeks out the significance of American-made movies, government-produced orientation texts, and online news journalism as meaningful components of refugees’ relocation processes by asking (1) How does mediated communication act as the impetus for and the manifestation of identity negotiation during and after processes of refugee relocation? (2) How is a refugee’s knowledge about a place formed and negotiated before, during, and after his/her arrival in the U.S.? And finally, (3) How do power-laden communicative encounters with messages from the U.S. government, or other relevant governing bodies, shape refugees’ behavior and experiences during relocation?

The goal of this project is to advance a multi-sited view of refugee expectations and use of American media that retains a view of the heterogeneity of refugee narratives. I intend to foreground the voices of refugee participants, who speak in their own words about the ways in which American-produced media inform their relocation processes. This project exemplifies the mission of the Waterhouse Family Institute through a recognition that underprivileged, involuntary migration should receive the same scholarly attention as more privileged forms of migration in order to ensure that the communication refugees encounter during their relocation processes has a positive—rather than detrimental or misleading—effect on their wellbeing. My objective is both theoretical and pragmatic, and the resulting work should lend scholarly insight into the ways in which power-laden communicative encounters with U.S. produced media inform process of relocation, as well as pragmatic understanding for any individuals or groups involved in, or affected by, the processes of refugees relocating to the United States. Specifically, by circulating the final project to the refugee agencies affiliated with the participants in this study, this work will provide practical insights to be used in the curricular development of future orientation programs at refugee resettlement agencies in four states.

Grant Awarded ($10,000): Imaging New Alternatives: Risky Social Change and Wild New Public Spheres in China

Principal Investigators: Kevin Michael DeLuca, Ph.D., Department of Communication, University of Utah; Elizabeth Ann Brunner, Department of Communication, University of Utah; Wu Fei, Executive Vice President, College of International Culture Media, Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, China).

In many areas of the world, the advent of social media has disrupted the systems that regulate citizen interaction by shaking political structures that seek to restrict and channel communication. Across the world, social media is offering a new platform by which citizens can engage to form publics that foment social change. Engagement, communication, and activism is necessary to cultivate more ethical practices. Citizen engagement on social media in non-democratic countries such as China has risen to dramatically. Though China is often conceptualized as a nation too restricted by censorship to participate in such movements, wild new public spheres are emerging across myriad media including renren, Youku, and Sina Weibo. At the same time, environmental movements have mushroomed across the country, some meeting great success. The construction of dangerous chemical plants has been halted, factories found to be polluting waterways have been shut down, and China’s top leaders have moved air quality issues to the forefront of political agendas. These changes are helping to create more equitable living environments for not only the people of China, but the world. The movements that helped to precipitate these changes were organized and aided in large part by social media users who engaged their networks to mobilize support.

Images have become an integral part of these changes, as they quickly transmit important information and expose environmental abuses across a web of wires, people, and media. This project has the potential to study social change in action. We will explore how Chinese citizens have engaged images to propagate environmental awareness and change through both art and social media. To do so, we propose a three-stage approach. The first part of the project will bring environmental artists from China to the U.S. to engage with students, scholars, and activists also studying social change. The artists will give a lecture, lead workshops, and work with participants in their studio to teach people how images in the form of painting, photography, and video can be used to raise awareness, document environmental devastation, and help incite important changes to environmental practices. The second stage of the program proposes to gather together Chinese social media users, activists, and scholars in China at the Zhejiang University’s College of Media and International Culture to discuss the role of images and new media in their efforts to advocate for a safer environment. This will occur in the format of a conference in Hangzhou, China. Lastly, we propose a book that will investigate how social change can erupt in countries where authoritarian governments are being forced to listen to the voices grow louder every day and where a country devoid of the brand of democracy that domesticates dissent finds new possibilities for change in the wild public screens of new media.

Grant Awarded ($6500): Identity, Culture, and Articulation: A Critical-Cultural Analysis of Strategic LGBT Advocacy Outreach

Principal Investigator: Erica L. Ciszek, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

In winter 2013, I spent five days in Atlanta at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s 25th annual Creating Change conference, the largest LGBT activist and advocacy conference in the United States. Since 1988, the conference has been a space for activists to gather for skill building, community building, and to build political power from the ground up. Recently, issues facing LGBT youth have come to the forefront of public attention as a result of the death of a number of teens and young adults, who were believed to have been victims of anti-gay bullying. In an opening letter to the 2010 Creating Change conference, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Rea Carey, wrote: “Let us not forget the tragic losses we have faced this year—and in past years—in the suicides caused by violent harassment faced by our community’s young people” (p. 7). Through strategic outreach campaigns, advocacy organizations have been increasingly responding to the needs of LGBT youth. Issues pertaining to youth continue to be on the forefront of activists’ agendas on local, regional, and national levels.

During a panel on safe schools and LGBT youth, Allison Gill, the Government Affairs Director for The Trevor Project (the leading national nonprofit organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth) articulated the need for more research and data on LGBT youth. This research is a direct response to that call. The purpose of this research is to examine the production and consumption LGBT outreach efforts within the context of the It Gets Better Project.

In September 2010, Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller founded the YouTube-based It Gets Better Project in response to numerous gay youth suicides. Savage and Miller uploaded their eight-and-a-half minute video, speaking of their struggles as gay youth and experiences with harassment and bullying, and ultimately how life got better once both got through high school. The video propelled a worldwide movement, receiving submissions from individuals, celebrities, organizations, corporations, religious groups, universities and colleges, and politicians. The project continues to provide a forum for LGBT individuals and allies to share their personal stories, experiences, and struggles with an audience of LGBT youth. As of April 2013, more than 50,000 user-created testimonials of how life “gets better” have surfaced from participants worldwide and have been viewed more than 50 million times (“About,” n.d.).

The purpose of this study is to gain an in-depth understanding of the production and consumption of advocacy campaigns. It will examine the motivations for producing and sustaining the outreach campaign of organizational employees. It will also examine the meanings LGBT youth make of these campaigns. This research investigates the social and communicative phenomena of advocacy outreach efforts in the digital age. By attending to their experiences, the goal of this research is to learn how LGBT activists and LGBT youth, make meaning of these strategic advocacy campaigns and how they shape the identity of LGBT activism at the social, cultural, and political nexus in the United States at this time. Because we as scholars know relatively little about youth at the margins, we need to learn from LGBT youth in order to provide them with more appropriate and relevant information and resources.

Grant Awarded ($5550): Sentinels by the Sea: Keeping the Lights Through Performances of Public Memory and Care

Principal Investigator: Shauna M. MacDonald, Ph.D., Department of Communication, Villanova University.

This project examines posthuman care, community stewardship, and public memory within human-technology relations with the goal of exploring how community storytelling and site-specific performances contribute to, enable, and/or recount local resistance to technoscientific decision-making. Focusing specifically on human-technology relationships at the site of near obsolete technologies,1 I am guided by three research questions: a) how do lighthouses function as sites of performance, public memory, and community identity?, b) how do/can storytelling performances constitute local resistance to technoscientific decision-making? and, c) what are the dynamics of human-technology relations and care surrounding (sites of) near obsolete technologies? In a world constrained and enabled by science and technology—a world philosophers of science and technology have labeled “technoscientific” (see Haraway, 1997; Reichle, 2009, Latour, 1999)—scholars and citizens must attend critically to questions of relationality and responsibility brought about by technoscientific forces—including those raised by the “specter of obsolescence.”2 Public participation in the discourse of technoscience—participation Haraway (1997) calls “technoscientific democracy”—is therefore difficult but vitally necessary (p. 115).

With this project, I aim to interrogate a particular site of technoscientific democracy. There are many consequences of technoscience, and thus many aspects of the discourse in which to participate, but I am most interested in a disconnect between national/international decision-making and local community impacts and actions. The communities and environments impacted by technoscientific decisions rarely have a say in their making, and must react or deal with the consequences of decisions made by the technoscientifically powerful. I come to this research interested in the communication and performance of technology, place, and memory; but also as a citizen concerned about my responsibility, and about the ability of communities to respond. I am also a community member witnessing one manifestation of these dynamics: the automation, abandonment, disrepair, and (sometimes) preservation, repurposing, and care of lighthouses and their communities.

Lighthouses (and so also their communities) occupy a unique place in technoscientific discourse. They are at once monuments and technologies, simultaneously necessary and (near) obsolete, and (perhaps uniquely) capable of garnering attention and protection seemingly independent of their use-value. While Blake (2007) argues that “Few structures built for an utilitarian purpose can evoke such complex human emotions as lighthouses, anachronisms from a bygone system of maritime navigation that are now historic treasures inspiring mystical feelings” (p. 9), I argue that lighthouses are not simply technologies or buildings from a bygone era. They are sites and structures that suture community identity and memory. Understanding their relationship(s) with community members—residents and tourists—provides a microcosmic understanding of human-technology relations, stewardship, and the communal functioning of place and space.

My goals for this project are: a) to describe, understand, and critique the storytelling performances and communication of public memory engaged in by the members of these caring communities, such that best practices and/or challenges may be gleaned for the benefit of other communities contending with near obsolete technologies, and b) to build an argument for posthuman care from these local exemplars, contributing to academic discourse about performance, posthumanism, place/space, and public memory. The audience for this work, then, consists first of the communities studied (with the understanding that they can benefit from hearing their stories reflected back). Second, this research will be of relevance to communities struggling to build or organize local resistance to institutional decision-making. Third, through scholarly articles and performative, multimedia scholarship, this research will contribute to growing conversations in performance studies and communication about posthumanism, technology, place and space, and public memory.

Grant Awarded ($3800):  Silicon Prairies: Digital Infrastructure and the Search for the Next Great Community

Principal Investigator:  Robert Mejia, Ph.D., Department of Communication, State University of New York, Brockport.

On February 10, 2010, communities across the United States were asked to imagine what effect the promises of ubiquitous, ultra high-speed internet would have on their respective communities. One year-later, Kansas City, Kansas became the national test bed for answering this question when Google announced that the city would be the first to receive its new fiber-optic communications infrastructure. In the short-time since its announcement and subsequent (and ongoing) implementation, the Kansas City region has garnered significant interest centered upon two divergent outcomes surrounding the operations of Google Fiber: entrepreneurial euphoria and digital divide despair. Though both interests remain worthwhile questions, unanswered, however, is the original question of what effect ubiquitous, ultra high-speed internet is having on the community (outside of frameworks of mere access). This project is an attempt to begin answering this question by conducting a triangulated analysis consisting of three mutually constitutive layers: semi-structured interviews with community stakeholders; sociocultural analysis of the community; and a political economic analysis of local, state, and federal communication policies and practices pertinent to the community and Google Fiber. It is believed that this triangulated approach will help to provide a clearer picture of how the Kansas City region’s social and institutional ecology has transformed in anticipation of and in relation to the promise of ubiquitous, ultra high-speed internet. If ultra high-speed internet is indeed a part of our future, then it seems as though we have an obligation to understand the stakes involved in its implementation and operation while there is still time to affect the social, cultural, political, economic, and technical substructures that underwrite its functioning.

Grant Awarded ($5000): White Femininity and National Identity: Revisiting the Diana Phenomenon

Principal Investigator: Raka Shome, Ph.D.

When Princess Diana died in 1997, one of the most significant occurrences we witnessed was the production of an unprecedented media assemblage of a white heterosexual upper class femininity through which a late 20th century “modern” British body was given meaning. And it was a meaning that was simultaneously globalized as the story of Diana came to be seen as reflecting the lives of so many women in the world who reportedly saw themselves in her. Although much was made about the Princess Diana media phenomenon in academic circles at the time of her death, what remained striking is that almost no attention was paid to what the Diana phenomenon revealed about the relationship between white femininity and national identity; how it offered a powerful case study for analyzing how a white female body comes to be articulated to a nation’s postcolonial modernity in Anglo American contexts. This project seeks to attend to this gap in the literature.

This gap is important to attend to because 1) public interest in the Diana phenomenon, far from being over, remains well and alive as her iconicity continues to be recirculated in various popular venues even today, and 2) although feminist scholarship on nation/alism has focused on the complex relations between gender and nation, there is no comprehensive work that I am aware of that examines the relation between white womanhood and the nation in contemporary times, especially as it is played out in popular culture.

An important argument advanced by this project is that white femininity constitutes a central ideological force in the performance of national identity and the national time of modernity. And this performance becomes especially visible and visual in our media saturated times during moments of national shifts, crises or re-visions. The project suggests that white femininity is centrally a nationalized category that is always already imbricated in the production of various borders and boundaries—of gender, race, sexuality, class, globality—in the staging of a nation’s sense of the modern. How white femininity intersects with national identity formation in contemporary late twentieth or twenty first century postcolonial landscapes is especially important to focus on in order to understand how postcolonial national whiteness constructs itself as modern, beyond the empire, as ‘postcolonial’ and yet at the same time rewrites its power in new ways through particular constructions of white femininity.

Thus, through a revisiting of the Diana phenomenon, as well as related examinations of some other iconic white female figures of the millennium, this project aims to explore the mediated relationship between white femininity and national identity in contemporary media culture.

Grant Awarded ($6000): The Impact of Moral Emotions on Generating Help for Children in Need: Persuasion and Intercultural Communication

Principal Investigator:  Jie Xu, Ph.D., Department of Communication, Villanova University.

Many charity organizations face tremendous challenge of raising sufficient funds to achieve their goals to help people in need. Due to an increasing number of good-cause organizations that are competing within the charity sector, this task becomes increasingly challenging. As many of these organizations use advertisements to communicate their objectives to convince people of the need for help and to persuade them to make a donation for a social cause, it is important to know what drives the effectiveness of such communication efforts.

Child poverty has been identified as one of the most pressing issues facing societies with varied levels of development (Chang & Lee, 2010), affecting children in both rich and poor countries. Of the estimated 2.2 billion children worldwide, about a billion, or every second child, live in poverty (Shah, 2013). The latest UNICEF report on child poverty in developed countries shows that 30 million children in 35 of the world’s richest countries live in poverty. Among those countries, the United States ranks second on relative child poverty, referring to a child living in a household where the disposable income is less than half of the national median income (UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012). Studies have demonstrated the association between child poverty and their physical health, cognitive ability, school achievement, and other emotional and behavioral outcomes. Child poverty also casts a long shadow on social mobility, welfare system, among other social issues (Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, & Collins, 2009). Given the prevalence, wide-range social impact, and moral obligation pertaining to this issue, how to effectively communicate child poverty to the public and generate help is the focus of this research.

Following the discrete emotion model (Nabi, 2008) in persuasive communication and Hofstede’s culture dimension in intercultural communication, this study will be one of the first attempts to unravel the impact of moral emotions and emotional appeals in charity advertising from a cross-cultural perspective. This project addresses the question for communicators, which is what constitutes an effective message when promoting a charitable donation for a social cause. This project relies upon a theoretical framework that integrates several lines of research from persuasion, media psychology, and intercultural communication, upon which hypotheses and research questions are developed. Study 1 investigates the extent to which moral emotions operate differently across a cultural variable (individualism vs. collectivism) and an individual variable (self construal) in affecting people’s intent to donate. Study 2 examines the impact of ego versus other-focused emotional appeals in the processing of charity advertising.

From a practical standpoint, the findings will provide relevant implications for communicators in creating effective messages to promote a social cause. Before deciding on what emotions to evoke, practitioners first ascertain whether or not there exists a connection between the people to whom the communication is targeted, and the people in need. Communication practitioners can rely upon this line of research to identify potentially effective appeals so that they can enhance their chances of positively and emotionally engaging their potential donors and increasing audiences’ desire to follow through with this altruistic behavior. This project is expected to reach and have an impact to a broad audience, including scholars from communication and other-closely related disciplines, professionals from non-profit organizations and government that have been fighting child poverty, and general public who are concerned about this pressing issue.

Our grant program was founded on the belief that Communication scholars' work can play a leading role in the creation of social change.

WFI Research Grants have resulted in significant journal articles and book publications--as well as impact on the lives of people living in communities across the US and the globe. For example, a WFI Research Grant awarded to Dr. Spoma Jovanovich played a key role in the city of Greensboro, NC, allocating $500,000 for participatory budgeting.