In brief, this project has four tasks:
1. To explore the changing interactions between fame, celebrity and public figures with international development, particularly over the last twenty five years.
2. To understand how and why these changes have occurred.
3. To understand how different publics respond to the involvement of celebrities and public figures in development.
4. From all this, to understand what the consequences of these interactions are – for poorer countries and people, for development organisations, for northern publics and for celebrity.
The longer version is that understanding the interaction between celebrity and development first needs a greater understanding of how and why particular aspects of the development business have been altered through their incorporation of, and/or by, celebrity. This means examining how these sectors have deliberately sought that relationship, and exploring how agents, publicists, managers, and media relations teams produce development spectacles. It means examining how NGOs’ media and celebrity liaison officers work with celebrity and employ it in campaigns and how celebrity agents, publicists and managers seek out and evaluate the opportunities offered by development publicity needs. It requires understanding how this industry has grown since the 1980s. This will need to be set in the context of development’s increasing professionalization after the Second World War which appeared to ignore, but then from the 1980s embrace, celebrity .
Second, it needs a closer look at how consumers respond to these development spectacles. This will involve some work with print media, but spectacle in the internet age makes many other forms of consumption possible. Blogs, tweets, Facebook communities and other on-line networking sites, Youtube, Wikipedia and the like allow development consumers to express their thoughts, attitudes and ideas in a plethora of locations. These sites produce, and reproduce, the spectacles of development themselves. They are also a crucial means of exploring how consumers interact with the spectacles served up to them by the development industry.
Third, the empirical work needs to be embedded within a stronger theoretical and conceptual framework than existing writing on the intersection of celebrity and good causes affords. Current reading suggests that the most promising route may be to explore Bourdieu’s field theory, for it is precisely where two fields (arenas of social life) intersect, as celebrity has done with development, that this theory’s insights become particularly insightful. This will not be a straightforward exercise as Bourdieu had little to say about the popular cultures that produce celebrity, and was dismissive of Debord’s writings about spectacle which has proven so useful to other scholars. However a number of other authors have elaborated on Bourdieu’s writings on the media, and explored their internal tensions and contradictions with, and complementarities to, other media theories. It is these later explorations which are most suggestive. My plans to research the agents and networks producing development spectacle could be particularly suited to exploring field theory’s application to these middle level social structures. Field theory will be a useful starting point for navigating the media theories which currently say little about the research proposed here.
This fellowship will produce several academic articles, some more popular ones and a book about media and development. I will also produce a masters module about the work of celebrity and media in development.