Media and Citizenship Revisited: The Role of Growing Middle Classes for New and Traditional Media in Developing and Emerging Countries

By Elias Witman

A critical analysis of the role which the media shapes values and consumption patterns is essential for an understanding of what is meant when we speak of a “global middle class.” Notions of polycentrism are increasingly relevant in the global transition from conventional forms of print media to the ever-expanding role of “borderless” digital media.  However, the “classic” media market seen in print, radio and television will continue to make a significant contribution to developing economies while the developed countries remain in the fast-track that is the Internet information super highway. With regards to citizenship, the mass media is known for its profound impact on shaping middle class consumption patterns, with studies pointing to advertising´s impact on the demands of youngsters and, in turn, the trend of larger families. Additional studies have pointed the role the media plays as a “consumer service” to which favorable and or unfavorable coverage in turn impacts public opinion and purchasing power.  Chair Patrick Leusch concluded his introduction by proposing a means to discuss how the media influences   social and intellectual behavior of the middle class and if questions of citizenship can be addressed by the digital and modern media.

Professor Daya Thussu made his initial remarks in reference to the debate regarding a global definition of the middle class as discussed by Professor Jie Chen on the morning plenary of Monday June 24th. Critical of mere economic views of the middle class, Thussu reflected on how in India notions of cultural capital have an impact on class hierarchy in India and commented on the means which someone can be well educated, cultured yet economically “poor” and still be considered part of India´s middle class.  Furthermore, Thussu drew into question such “yard stick” projections, which, if considered simultaneously, put India´s middle class somewhere between 50-300 million. Visiting the global trend of the “ market driven media,” Thussu posed the question, “Through the creation of consumers, are these consumers actually becoming interested in the public good, or are they just becoming more consumer oriented?” For Thussu, political engagement is a benchmark of class, to which he congratulates India as being the largest democracy in the world and the means which this sense of civic engagement is attributed to cultural and class status. Final remarks were made as India having the 2nd largest diaspora (the first of which is China) of those working and studying abroad, mainly in the USA.  As such, an adherence to the “American Middle Class Model” which is seen as one aligned with corporations and profits has caused many Indians who have “seen something better” now demand improvements in governance and transparency in India.

Penhleak Chan represented the Open Development Cambodia Project founded by the East-West Management Institute as a data platform to collect and manage information on Cambodia´s development trends.  Chan noted that this there are already far too many  advocacy organizations in Cambodia rather and there group aims to provide “less adjectives and more nouns” and serve as open source tool for transparency.  Yet Cambodia is a country where only 10% of the population have access to the Internet, hence this a challenging IT environment for their project. Nonetheless, with the help of training from Deutsche Welle in systems management and coding, young Cambodians are taking a lead in running the organization which pledged not to hire full-time expats and instead rely on foreigners only in part-time consultants or interns. When describing the current media climate, Chan described Cambodia’s infatuation with Facebook which serves to provide and demand information for the public. Resulting from FB fame, a young female political activist from the opposition party has risen to the rank of a national celebrity. Yet it must be noted that, this fame is in the limited context of Internet users in Cambodia.  When discussing notions of the middle class in Cambodia one must also understand the urban/rural divide, which represents a stark contrast in this developing country.  One cannot just assert that the 20% of urban dwellers represent the middle class, nor the 10% of Internet users. Chan joked about a more anecdotal reference to assessing the to the middle class in Cambodia based on the number of cars in Phnom Penh. Structuralist attempts to define a middle class in Cambodia need to assess both qualitative and quantitative variables, such is the kind of information that the Open Development Cambodia Project is gathering. Although the project isn’t currently tracking demographics with regards to those who access their information, Chan describes the project as a, “strategy for Cambodians to protect themselves on the road to development. There is an increasing interest in their data from young students in addition to traditional actors such as civil society organizations, journalists and private donors.

Per Oesterland of Danicom, echoed Professor Jie Chen’s sentiment that it is counterproductive for the middle class in emerging countries to be interested in democratic or social reforms.  He stated, “No man is more conservative than that who just bought a cheap car (such as Tata) and wants a bigger one.” He was critical of the growth in media and power of advertising which has created, “a global consumer class, rather than people with local identities.” Final remarks were made with regards to global media’s new found proliferation of “conspiracy” news and gossip through digital mediums, and to which he stated the media needs to be “curators of trustworthy information” such as the BBC strived for in earlier days. Holger Hank, followed up with Oesterland’s comments on the shifting trends of media to which there is a decline in the acceptance of “information broadcasted at you” as was the old days of dark broadcast center and radio-driven reports. New means of digital media are counter to this, and allow for connectivity, selectivity and appeal to the senses and desires of the consumer. With the expected decline of print media in the developed world, tackling the market of digital media poses significant opportunities and threats in terms of balancing creativity while maintaining profitability.

The discussion and audience participation that followed the plenary touched upon a wide array of topics from questions of “ownership” and origins of the Internet, global responses to NSA spying, concepts of citizenship and education in China and Cambodia, and issues of maintaining “quality” journalism despite a shrinking market demand.

Elias Witman is currently completing his MBA at the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg