Participatory Culture and Civic Engagement: Interview with Henry Jenkins, Part I

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm

This post is the first in a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Last week, we interviewed Henry Jenkins about his research, trends, and his thoughts on the future of civic engagement in education. Because Professor Jenkins answered our questions so generously and thoughtfully, we’ve separated the interview into three parts. In Part I, he discusses his current research.

Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in fall 2009 after spending the previous decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on "spreadable media" with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.

Professor Jenkins has a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Georgia State University, an M.A. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Jenkins, can you tell me about your current research?
For much of my academic career, I’ve made the study of participatory culture a central focus of my research. It is a topic I have come at from a range of angles over time, starting with work on fan communities (mostly offline) who were actively engaged in cultural production growing out of their intense engagement with media fictions. From there, my work has led me to map changes in how the creative industries understand and address these more active audiences and into work in education which examines what kinds of learning takes place through these practices and what schools can learn by deeply engaging with the kinds of informal learning that takes place in participatory culture communities. 

My work has now entered a new phase, which is seeking to understand how participatory culture is impacting young people’s civic engagement and political participation (broadly defined). It is work we are doing as part of a MacArthur Foundation research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics. Our part of this larger project is looking closely at new kinds of political organizations, many of which are adopting the practices and logics of participatory culture to try to get youth involved in struggles for social justice and human rights. Our research ranges from the Harry Potter Alliance, which has emerged from the fan community, to the Dream Activists, who are part of the larger immigrant rights movement in Southern California. 

Traditional research finds that the political lives of parents or the civic education offered by schools helps define our political identities at very early ages. However, these groups are attracting young people who may be active culturally and socially online but who have often not yet embraced political identities. They do so by redefining what constitutes the political, by adopting structures which allow multiple forms of participation, by transforming the language through which politics take place (away from policy wonkishness and towards something at once more playful and everyday), and by blurring the boundaries between cultural and civic participation. What they do will look like politics by almost any standards — fighting to change laws, to mobilize voters, to increase public awareness of issues, and to raise money towards literacy and disaster relief in the case of the Harry Potter Alliance; but it is not politics as usual, and this new model really appeals to young people who want to change the world but may not feel invited to participate in more conventional-style activism.

To be continued...
What constitutes meaningful engagement? Where do we draw the line in terms of its meaning? Is there a difference in how online and offline communities define meaningful engagement, and what effect is it having on civic matters today?

Next week we will publish Part II of our interview with Professor Jenkins, focusing on his thoughts about the depth of civic engagement.

Additional Resources on Professor Jenkins' Work:



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