Interview with Hilde Van den Bulck on Media Policy and Celebrity Activism

CGCS Visiting Scholar Hilde Van den Bulck, PhD, is a full professor of Communications Studies and director of the research group Media, Policy and Culture in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Her academic interests and expertise lie in media policies and structures with a focus on public service broadcasting. In addition, she has done research in media culture and identity, focusing most recently on the role of media in celebrity culture. On April 14, Hilde will discuss her research on narratives and activism at a lunchtime discussion, All About the Narrative: From Media Policy to Celebrity Activism. As she prepares for her final semester at Penn, Hilde reflects on her time at CGCS and how it has impacted her work.

Your current research focuses on media policy surrounding public service broadcasting and the role of media in celebrity culture. What research trajectory led you to this point?

I realise that they must seem like two vastly different topics. Let me correct that: they are two vastly different topics, with different literatures and different research ‘crowds’. Yet, in my head there is a clear link.

My main interest is mediated communication and the narratives that it articulates and disseminates. Traditionally this revolves around (mass) communication in the public arena, entering the private through our TV sets. Today’s media merge the public and the private in a number of ways. To me, that makes an understanding of mediated narratives even more important. When I started off as a PhD student, public service broadcasting in Europe was in turmoil after losing its monopoly. As a key institution of public communication, central in articulating culture and politics, public service broadcasting was forced to redefine its role and thus the stories/narratives it told. I found that fascinating. It is how I got into media policy research which has stayed with me ever since. In studying policymaking, too, I am often more interested in the narratives that policy actors present to claim their stake in a particular policy solution than in the actual policy outcome.

My work on celebrity culture, and especially celebrity activism, is more recent and results from my interest in popular culture, the ‘banal’, and its role in identity formation. Celebrity activism to me is the combination of the ‘banal’ (celebrity) articulating narratives about issues in the public domain such as world relations: what is wrong with them, who or what is to blame, who or what is to solve these problems and what is the moral evaluation? So again, I am fascinated by the narratives. Beyond that, at a macro level, I am also interested in understanding how celebrity activism, with its roots in the US philanthropic tradition, affects corporate welfare states, typical of many parts of Europe.

This strange combination of interests probably does not make much sense to anyone other than myself, but it works for me. If I work too long on a single issue, I start feeling like a one trick pony. This way my interest always stays ‘fresh’.


From your perspective, what is the importance of focusing on narratives in communication studies? How do you view narratives in your research?

I use narrative in a broad way. Communication studies has become more and more pigeonholed; it has become difficult to use the word discourse or story-telling or narrative without being criticized for not following a particular school. I am all for conceptual clarity and specificity but sometimes it stops the conversation across sub-disciplines, which I regret. Anyway, narratives articulate what the world is all about, who/what is ‘in’ and who/what is ‘out’, what is mainstream and what is at the margins, what is accepted and what is not, what is worthy of attention and what is not. Narratives are crucially about power and I am fascinated by it. When I was about 20, I read Lukes’ Power: A Radical View (I guess nobody reads that anymore) where he talks about ideology as third dimension. Later I read Gramsci’s work on cultural hegemony and both were real eye-openers. Mediated narratives are key vehicles through which these processes work. Despite all the fine-tuning and criticism over the years of concepts such as hegemony, to me this is still the role of narratives in society and is what I am interested in.


This semester you began a “Hands-On Policy (Process) Analysis” seminar series for Annenberg students and visiting scholars. Can you describe what inspired you to begin this group?

One project during my sabbatical is editing (together with former CGCS visiting scholar Manuel Puppis) a handbook on concepts and methods for media policy analysis. This is a pet project of mine. One of the PhD students asked me what I was doing here (I guess he thought I looked a bit too much like a tourist J) and I told him about it. He then indicated an interest in learning more about methods for policy analysis, we asked around if anybody else was interested, and that was it, our little voluntary seminar was born. I think all PhD students here are very strong on concepts and very knowledgeable about the issues they are working on but maybe have not done all that much actual empirical analysis yet. I bring to the seminar what I know and they bring what they know and together we seem to make it work. I have already learned a lot from discussing policy methods with them and it has given me inspiration to improve the edited book. I feel very privileged working with such bright students.


Tell us a bit more about the seminar: What topics have you covered since March?

Well, we started by defining the policy process and indicating which aspects require attention if you want to make sense of how a policy issue comes about. We did a session on stakeholders: what are they, how to identify them, etc. We also did a session on document analysis: where and how to find documents, how to evaluate them and how to analyse them. We looked at expert interviewing and how to go about that. Now we are trying to get our heads around how to use software such as Nvivo for document analysis and interview transcripts. If more topics come up, more sessions will follow. CGCS (not to name Alex and Laura) has been wonderfully supportive between feeding us and arranging rooms.


What is the importance of methods training for policy-oriented research? What gaps have you found in current training practices?

My training as an undergraduate and graduate had a strong focus on methods, typical of social sciences and communication science in Flanders, so I have been socialised to find methods an important part of research. When I was doing my PhD, most of my fellow students were quantitative researchers, some of whom did not really ‘appreciate’ qualitative methods, so I spent a lot of time explaining and justifying my qualitative work. As a result, there was quite a big chapter on methodology in my PhD manuscript and methods have always remained an important point of attention for me. In policy-oriented research, methods often seem of less relevance. Policy articles and books usually have limited sections on how researchers went about their empirical work. I think attention to methods is very important in order to improve our work as policy researchers. Policy research typically is case study research, which is fine as understanding of the specific context of policies is very important. But if we would be methodologically more rigorous (yes, qualitative research can be systematic and precise too), we would be better able to compare and contrast the various case studies we perform and we would improve the incremental knowledge building in policymaking research. I can talk a long time about this.


How has your time at CGCS and Annenberg impacted your research thus far? What areas do you want to explore in your remaining time as a Visiting Scholar?

I am incredibly grateful to Monroe Price for having me as a visiting scholar. The amount of knowledge that is at every visiting scholar’s disposal here is breath-taking. So far I have mainly been working on my policy stuff. It is fascinating that any communication topic you can think of, Annenberg has an expert on it or has an expert on it passing by. The inspiration is endless. Also, after many years in faculty management back home, it is wonderful to just sit in the back of a seminar room and soak up all the knowledge other people bring to the conversation.

In the latter part of my stay, I want to focus a bit more on the celebrity activism part of my research. In particular, I want to explore the relationship between celebrity activism and philanthropy. As a European it is fascinating to see how philanthropy is so much part of US society: while Europeans expect the State to take care of everything (it justifies why more than half of our gross salary goes to the State), over here philanthropists replace the State in many areas. I want to learn more about it, the pros and the cons. I guess the history of the Annenberg School itself is a wonderful example of the pros of philanthropy, but there are also voices questioning the power of the 1% to decide what is good and bad for the 99% rest.

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