Research Spotlight: Seyram Avle
We are delighted to feature Seyram Avle as our first research spotlight for the Global Media Studies Initiative! Avle obtained a BA in Economics and English Literature from Brandeis University in 2007, along with a PhD in Communications from the University of Michigan in 2014. Now, Avle is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Information at the University of Michigan and researches on the culture of production and social impact of technology and media industries in the global south. Her main interest is in the practices, ideas, and products of different kinds of technology entrepreneurs, makers, doers and media creators in Africa and China. You can learn more about Seyram on her website.
Your work focuses on media and technology cultures in the global south. Could you begin by telling us how you developed an interest in this topic?
Certainly. I’ve always been interested in the ways that media and information communication technologies are produced. I grew up in Ghana and became an adult in the US and spent quite some time going back and forth between the two countries. It was striking to notice the ways that the media industries in those two places functioned and changed with time. Mobile phones and the internet were suddenly really important spaces to observe all kinds of human interactions. As my graduate studies developed I started paying more attention to various dynamics around how media products and information tech artifacts materialize, including the culture forming around tech entrepreneurship as a distinct form of work outside the global north. It became clear to me that there wasn’t nearly as much work focused on making sense of these transformations in the global south as the north and that need in part solidified that broader interest.
Your work as a PhD student in Communication Studies at Michigan focused on changes in the media and communication sectors in Ghana since the early 1990s. You came up with the notion of a “global techno-class” to describe the emergence of a zone of media and tech production. Could you tell us more about the global techno-class?
The global technoclass illustrates a social shift towards the privileging of specific forms of knowledge related to ICTs in the contemporary global economy. It describes how the ability to leverage these forms of knowledge in specific way (such as through tech entrepreneurship) help to amplify the influence of a largely youthful, urban based and globally aware population. In my dissertation, I argued that this technoclass in Ghana complicates the historical interpretation of social class in Ghana and I showed what that looks like in both the radio and mobile app industries. One of my long term research goals is to fine-tune this concept longitudinally with empirical work from around the globe.
After completing the PhD, you took up a post-doctoral fellowship in the School of Information to work with Dr. Silvia Lindtner. What new directions has your work taken in the past two years?
The postdoc has been great for extending my line of research on technology entrepreneurship, exploring the transnational aspects of tech design and collaborating through comparative work with Dr. Lindtner’s work in China. I’ve collected new ethnographic data from my fieldwork in Ghana and Ethiopia and written about ways that tech entrepreneurs position themselves relative to other tech entrepreneurs around the world, and how their lived experiences speak to their design practices. We recently applied for and received an NSF grant to study the innovation and tech entrepreneurship cultures between Ghana, the south of China and Silicon Valley so overall this postdoc has been a great experience!
‘Globalization’ has been a major keyword and analytical focus for media and communication studies over the past two decades. In what ways do you see your work adding to scholarship in this area?
The world is a slightly different place than it was twenty years ago. How people, ideas, capital, etc. move across borders and to what effect have amplified with changes in technology and policy. My work is situated in the contemporary moment in which China’s influence is growing globally, especially in the global south, while smaller countries like Ghana are trying to turn into knowledge economies. What this work on tech entrepreneurship and media production does is to provide empirical evidence for the ways that the world is changing with regards to our interaction with information technologies, and their role in the everyday. As a concept, globalization works well as a basis for understanding shifts in how connected the world has become and my work builds on that to operationalize some of these changes as they take place.
What do you regard as the most interesting theoretical developments in global media studies that have shaped your own research and teaching?
One development directly related to my work is the move towards studying technological artifacts as part of the media production sphere and the spaces where producers and users converge. This includes a closer look at the materiality of media in tandem with its social construction. I also like that research on global south populations online is becoming more critical and aware of how such populations function and interact with one another and institutions of power. These sometimes manifest in ways different from the north, and to me this signals a coming of age where media studies confronts the assumptions of early research (which often used universalist language although focusing almost entirely on very specific global north populations) with the realities of contemporary life in the global south, but crucially, without essentializing those realities.