Monday, 1 December 2014

The ‘Art’ of Research Communication

by Kuda Vanyoro

From my experience at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) and engagement with literature by other writers who have faced similar, it is clear that at times research findings and evidence on nationally contested issues like migration may prove the positive contributions of migration to development and poverty eradication prematurely, when the audience in question is not ready to hear the positions that researchers take. In other words, there may be socially entrenched stereotypical perceptions of migrants, as is the case in South Africa, which lead the recipients of the message to ignore it. In such instances, targeting a policy audience alone when communicating research findings and evidence is insufficient to impact or influence policy because of regressive societal attitudes which may also be held by policy makers.
There then arises, today more than ever, the need to tactfully disseminate research findings in a more decentralised, artistic and aesthetical manner. This may involve targeting a ‘popular culture’ non-policy audience through art and other forms of eye-candy such as film, exhibitions and storytelling in order to drive the facts home. The success of this process depends on creativity on the part of the research communicators tasked with coming up with a means of enticing and attracting this non-policy audience. Where this drive is led by the sole purpose of myth-busting and de-construction of shared societal misconceptions and stereotypes of migrants, such creativity may yield positive results, even in spite of the danger of further subjecting those whom we hope to emancipate with the research, to further stereotypes, which is a common pitfall.
Research communication is therefore in my view both a profession and an art. A good example of tackling a sensitive issue successfully is an ongoing research project at the ACMS titled Volume 44, which is a collaborative research project on migrant sex workers in the cities of Johannesburg and Musina. The South African National Aids Council has estimated that there are 153,000 sex workers in South Africa. A large proportion of these are located in Gauteng, the smallest but most populous province in South Africa, in which both Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. Sex work is popularly perceived as migrant dominated, and work conducted by Marlise Richter and Jo Vearey based on interviews with 1636 sex workers found that just over 85% of sex workers were migrants. Of these 39% were internal migrants and 46.3% were cross-border migrants. Volume 44 builds on a 2010 project which sought to highlight the experiences of migrant women involved in sex work within inner city Johannesburg through visual medium in the exhibition ‘Working the City’. At the time of writing, Volume 44 has staged 3 exhibitions: one in Johannesburg 21 May – 27 June 2014; a second in Amsterdam 25-28 June 2014; and the last one in Bogota in 14-19 July 2014. The exhibition was highly visual and its Johannesburg launch, for which I organised the publicity, attracted an attendance of nearly one hundred people from all walks of life: young students, media professionals, sex workers and academics.

Sex work in South Africa is not legal, and activist voices are calling for its decriminalization in a bid to combat the lack of access to health care, stigma, discrimination and criminalisation under the Sexual Offences Act faced by those engaged in it. While both migrant and local sex workers face stigma, particularly at grassroots levels, migrant sex workers are viewed with the utmost hostility. Therefore, it is only reasonable to assume that advocacy for the protection of sex workers in South Africa can only yield tangible policy results once social attitudes that result in stigma have been eliminated, or at least sensitised, from below. 

In the coming years, researchers will need to learn to adopt popular packaging for their research communication if their voice is to be heard beyond the ivory towers of universities. This is especially true with contentious topics like migration where research positions are often not what receiving communities and policy makers may want to hear. Volume 44 is an attempt to use photography, real-life narratives, audio and other forms of exhibitory art to get ordinary people thinking in a different way about contested issues. The art, complementing the research findings about migrant sex work, can provide potent weapons to communicate unwelcome research messages for positive evidence-based policy making, social transformation and other envisaged policy outcomes.

Visitors to the Johannesburg Volume 44 exhibition view '"Letter to a young sex worker" - a wall of letters written by the project participants'
Kudakwashe Vanyoro has concluded his Research, Communications and Outreach Internship at the African Centre for Migration and Society(ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium. Read Kuda's profile.