Communication Science: From Trees to Computer Hackers

At first sight, tropical forests, Chinese rock music, Shanghai computer hackers, and the Lord of the Rings film may not have much in common. However, all of them have become at one stage or another an intrinsic component of my career. Or should I rather say, of my academic journey. To me, a career is a long road that has carefully been planned from A to Z but, in my case, the "Z" has always been pretty unclear. I've also taken a few sideways steps that have often given me new perspectives. This is my story, which will lead you from Wageningen University to Xiamen University in Beijing, via the University of Amsterdam.

Let's start with the trees. After high school, I worked for 2 months as a plumber's assistant at Philips. This made me realise that I wasn't yet ready for the daily routine of a job and also that I wanted to work abroad. So I started studying tropical forestry at Wageningen University in 1986. This university has a long-standing reputation of being international in its orientation and of helping students to go abroad through internships and graduation projects. I saw this degree as an opportunity to do my part in improving the world and as an escape from ending up in an office from 9 to 5.

While doing an internship in my final year, on a development project in Pakistan organised by the Dutch Government's DHV consultancy, I realised that, after all, I wasn't really into planting trees. Coming from a suburban neighbourhood, I felt like I could not really add anything to the knowledge of local farmers, especially when I didn't agree with most development programmes, which primarily take the Western world as a point of reference. I wasn't happy either about the structural inequalities in working circumstances between the rich development workers like us and local farmers.

Yet, in 1992, consistent with a productive Calvinist work ethic, I finished my studies. And upon reflection, I think those years of study in Wageningen were a great experience, one that at least fulfilled my desire to travel and do research abroad. On the other hand, the mixed curriculum of "hard" and "soft" sciences in forestry, from meteorology to philosophy, has convinced me of the importance of breaking disciplinary boundaries and avoiding narrow specialisation--something that would become a recurrent theme in my journey.

Where b meets a

My interest in the dissemination of knowledge and my desire to move to Amsterdam made me decide to start studying communication science at the University of Amsterdam ( UvA). Going from a technical studies background (in the Netherlands referred to as 'b') to a more social one (or 'a') hasn't really been such a radical change as it may first appear. First, forestry is not as "hard" a science as, for example, maths and physics are, because of its mixed curriculum. On the other hand, the science of communication is rather empirical, working with large pools of data, working out audience statistics, and measuring the effects of public-awareness campaigns. Within these studies, I opted for cultural studies, which aim to put media production, text, and consumption into a wider social, political, and cultural context, touching upon other scientific disciplines such as sociology and anthropology.

By the time I started my M.A. thesis in the early 1990s, China was going through rapid political and cultural changes. This encouraged me to go for a 6-month period to the University of Xiamen, a city in southern China, to study the local youth culture and the place of the media. My thesis tried to put media consumption, in particular soap operas and rock music, into the context of everyday life in China after the crackdown on the student democracy movement in spring 1989.

Once I was done with my studies at the UvA in 1993, I worked for 2 years for Hivos, a nongovernmental development organisation, thus demonstrating that, despite my earlier hesitations and doubts, I remained committed to the issue of global development. I was employed initially as an assistant manager (as part of my civil service) and later as a policy worker on culture and development. I favour the approach of organisations such as Hivos, which subsidise local nongovernmental organisations and thus make use of local knowledge, over the approach of many Western international organisations.

Getting Back on the Academic Track

Even though I liked my work at Hivos, I decided to follow my growing aspiration to pursue an academic route. I had been considering doing a Ph.D. for a while, and I even had a specific topic in mind: Chinese rock music and urban youth culture. However, one needs funding to do a Ph.D., and that turned out to be a hard sell for me. I didn't have a good insight into funding opportunities for this kind of research (the Internet wasn't widely available at the time), so I submitted several applications to different universities. About 15 months, seven applications, and countless discussions with scholars later, I finally got a scholarship from the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research ( ASSR). The tedious process of grant applications taught me at least two very important things: It is crucial to be committed to your own topic, and it is just as important to relate that topic to broader contemporary areas of research interest.

In keeping with my wish to be interdisciplinary, I made sure I kept my horizons as broad as possible during my Ph.D. For a start, ASSR (the research school for sociologists and anthropologists at the University of Amsterdam) offers an open academic climate, bringing together sociologists and anthropologists, which has been both rewarding and inspiring to me. I also attended many conferences and made a conscious effort to extend my academic network. Meanwhile, I also became affiliated with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture.

The Real World

After my Ph.D., I worked for Infonomics, an Internet-based research centre that is affiliated with the University of Maastricht, where I gradually switched from popular music studies to information technology cultures. After a short break, during which I taught film theory at the media studies department at UvA, I finally returned--after 10 years--to UvA's Department of Communication Science to become an assistant professor. Here, I am also affiliated as a researcher with the Amsterdam School of Communication Research.

Currently, a grant from the Talent programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research enables me to compare strategies and characteristics of computer hackers in the Netherlands, Shanghai, and New York. At the same time, I participate in a research project that deals with the marketing and reception of the movie Lord of the Rings , a project that involves research teams in 20 different countries.

Travelling abroad, meeting people, presenting my work at conferences, discussing it with friends and colleagues, and trying to remain in touch with other fields have helped me a great deal: They have allowed me to incorporate different academic disciplines into my own work and to remain open to current academic debates. The image of the solitary social scientist, locked up in a study behind piles of books and writing article after article, is definitely one that would not apply to me.

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