Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Voice & Matter: Communication, Development and the Cultural Turn

Oscar Hemer, Thomas Tufte




This anthology emerged from the 2014 Ørecomm Festival of communication and development. The book is an attempt to bolster the field of communication for development, particularly its theoretical underpinnings (or ComDev). It has three distinct sections:

1)      Reframing Communication in Culture and Development (which explores theoretical and historical approaches)

2)      Ethnography and Agency at the Margins (which describes case studies)

3)      The Return of the Politics of Hope (which consists of conversations with and responses to the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai)

In the case study section, one chapter takes on the all-too-common representations in development communications of Indian women as tragic victims. Andrea Cornwall analyses three short films about the same topic, released within the same period, that have very different departure points. One is the provocatively titled short film “Save us from Saviours”, made in collaboration with the sex workers’ collective VAMP, which promotes sex worker rights and recognition in Maharashtra and Karnataka. Another is the Vice documentary “Prostitutes of God”, which elicited controversy for its stereotype-laden imagery. The third film is a video response made spontaneously to challenge the way VAMP’s members were depicted in “Prostitutes of God”, and the exploitative way it had been produced.

In this case, Cornwall sees the medium of film as having the potential to be disempowering or empowering, depending on the intentions and the people involved. Unlike the Vice documentary, the VAMP videos suggested that the answer to their problems was not to be rescued by a white saviour, or indeed by the state, but through collective empowerment, rights and recognition” (151).

The chapter by Sharath Srinivasan and Claudia Abreu Lopes explores a different set of communication technologies: the mobile phones increasingly used in Africa to participate in radio shows. The authors explain the importance of radio, which “remains the dominant media channel across the continent in part due to its geographic reach, the low-cost of equipment and the versatility to operate with different sources of energy” (158). And they analyse the data collected on who calls in to radio shows in Kenya and Zambia, and under what circumstances; women participate less frequently than men, for instance.

For Srinivasan and Lopes, these data trends have broader implications. They contend that the interactivity of technology is too often neglected in favour of the innovation of technology, which may be less relevant to the African majority. Participation in radio shows, mediated by important technologies like mobile phones, may also have a bearing on patterns in political engagement and accountability more generally.

Overall, with its interest in conceptual and methodological trends, Voice & Matter would be best suited for an audience of academics (or academic-leaning practitioners).


Available (open access) from:



Further reading:

Castells, Manuel (2008), “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol 616, pages 78–93, available at http://annenberg.usc.edu/sites/default/files/2015/04/28/The%20New%20Public%20Sphere.pdf.

Miller, Daniel, Andrew Skuse, Don Slater, Jo Tacchi Tripta Chandola, Thomas Cousins, Heather Horst and Janet Kwami (2005), Information Society: Emergent Technologies and Development Communities in the South, Information Society Research Group, available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08c6fe5274a27b20011d9/R8232FTR.pdf.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro


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