NCA Inside & Out

Mohan Dutta

5 Questions With… Mohan Dutta

January 9, 2019

In this feature, we offer a closer look at some of your communication colleagues via five questions related to their research, the communication discipline and higher education, and their experiences with NCA.

Mohan J. Dutta is Dean's Chair Professor of Communication at Massey University in New Zealand, and Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE). CARE works to develop culturally-centered, community-based projects of social change, community advocacy, and activism that articulate health as a human right. Previously, Dutta served as the Provost’s Chair Professor and Head of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, and as Professor and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education in the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University. He is the winner of the NCA Health Communication Division’s 2017 Outstanding Scholar Award and the International Communication Association’s 2015 Applied/Public Policy Communication Researcher Award.

  1. What is your current research focus, and can you share something interesting or exciting you’ve come across recently?
    I direct the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) that was founded at the National University of Singapore and has now moved to Massey University. The Center draws on the culture-centered approach (CCA) to co-create communication infrastructures for radical democracy that are owned by the disenfranchised (Mouffe, 1995), and through this transformation in ownership of communication resources, imagines socialist possibilities for organizing health and wellbeing. Much of CARE’s work translates into communication campaigns seeking structural transformation, policy advocacy, and movement collaborations that are created and owned by the marginalized. The Center has worked with a range of marginalized groups including minority communities that are targets of racism, indigenous communities across the globe, communities living in poverty, sex workers, transgender workers, migrant workers in precarious jobs, survivors of genocides, and farming communities in the global South. My current scholarship extends the earlier work of the CCA to explore the flows of marginalizing processes in the Asia-Pacific and the transformative possibilities for solidarity work at the margins. 
  2. Can you tell us about one of your most inspiring mentors in the Communication discipline, and how they have influenced your journey thus far?
    My journey in academia has taken many turns, and I have been incredibly lucky to have had a galaxy of mentors with a very wide range of theoretical and methodological commitments. I first came across the work of Professor Barbara Sharf as a first-year assistant professor, and I remember being taken over by her narrative framework for communicating health. That stories matter in how we come to understand health, negotiate it, and perform wellness sparked a fundamental transformation in how I understood the relationship between communication and health. Over the last two decades, Professor Sharf has inspired me, mentored me, and become a family member in one of the most beautiful ways. She has given of herself generously to my students and advisees in various part of the globe, going on to shape their journeys with her wisdom and generosity. The narrative approach to health is incredibly powerful in humanizing health, in rooting it in the dreams, imaginations, and everyday stories through which we craft our lives.
  3. You spent some time in Singapore, and you recently moved to Massey University in New Zealand. How do your experiences in different parts of the world impact your communication research? How does it change with each new location?
    Because the CCA is anchored in local partnerships and ownership, location shapes the theorizing of practice of communication advocacy.

    The move to the National University of Singapore was an incredible opportunity to work through what it means to theorize Asia from/in Asia. The six years I spent in Singapore offered great opportunities for theoretically engaging with the question of the “Asian turn,” with Singapore located at the crossroads of Asia. Given CARE’s work on marginality, one of the earliest projects the Center undertook was on poverty. This work was challenging as there exist various state-imposed implicit structures that limit and erase conversations on poverty. Similarly, in 2014, CARE started a project on Malay heart health, given the large gap in heart health outcomes between the minority Malay population and the Chinese majority in Singapore. The project foregrounded racism, structurally constituted erasure, and everyday stigmatization, situating the experiences of Malays alongside the experiences of African Americans we had worked with earlier in Gary and Indianapolis.

    The move to New Zealand similarly has brought to the forefront indigeneity as a construct for co-creating health and advocating for it. The important work of Maori knowledge systems and Kaupapa Maori constitute how health solutions are imagined and implemented, through ownership by Maori communities. The treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand offers an important tool for Maori claims-making and advocating for health justice through treaty mechanisms. CARE has developed a partnership with the New Zealand Maori Council to address the structural racisms, inaccess, and health inequities experienced by Maori in New Zealand. 

  4. What advice do you have for young scholars just starting out in health communication with a culture-centered approach?
    It humbles me to witness the work of junior scholars, many of them women of color, who are experimenting with the CCA to imagine and co-create health-supporting socialist infrastructures among the marginalized. I think it is important to consider which part of the CCA cycle you would want to work on for your dissertation as an early career scholar. Given the amount of time it takes to go through a complete intervention cycle, it might make more sense to focus your dissertation on the ethnographic elements of the CCA rather than carry out a complete cycle. It also makes sense to consider how your own trajectory in the discipline resonates with the rhythms and demands of community life. In that sense, it is worthwhile to have early conversations with community members and advocacy groups about knowledge production, ownership, and project goals. For early career scholars embarking on the method, it is crucial to also think about how the work relates to their own place and movement in academia.  
  5. What are some of your professional goals for the next five years?
    In the next five years, I would like to see how best to support the capacities of activists, movements, and political parties that are explicitly committed to the ideas of (a) democratic ownership of health by the margins; and (b) socialist transformation of health. That health is fundamentally constituted by the democracies we create and inhabit means that the challenging work of communication in building people’s democracies, people’s ownership of health, and people’s voice in health frameworks needs to be theorized and empirically tested. While in many of our projects we find local success that is grounded in local community life, how to connect these spaces nationally and globally is a vital challenge. Also, as the Center’s projects have often delved into labor rights, agriculture, environment, land rights, and human rights as anchors to health, I look forward to seeing how we expand how we define health communication to include a wide range of issues. Over the next five years, I would like to explore how to develop tools for evaluation that are culturally-centered, community-grounded, and rooted in transformative politics. 
  6. What books by Communication colleagues are on your to-read list for 2019?
    Over the years, I have found it worthwhile to expand my reading list of what constitutes communication, which has greatly shaped how I understand Communication in the context of social transformation. I think therefore of Communication colleagues broadly, including sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and literary studies colleagues who are exploring communicative questions. Here are some of the books I am very much looking forward to reading in 2019:
  • Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, by Marc Lamont Hill
  • Dalit Studies Paperback, edited by Ramnarayan S. Rawat (Editor), K. Satyanarayana (Editor)
  • Empire and Post-Empire Telecommunications in India: A History, by Pradip Thomas
  • Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity, by Ersula Ore
  • Futures of Black Radicalism, by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin
  • Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain (The Ethnography of Political Violence), by Mohan Ambikaipaker
  • Striking to Survive: Workers’ Resistance to Factory Relocations in China, by Fan Shigang
  • For a Left Populism, by Chantal Mouffe
  • The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, by Axel Honneth
  • Indigenous Education: New Directions in Theory and Practice, edited by Huia Tomlins-Jahnke, Sandra Styres, Spencer Lilley, and Dawn Zinga
  • Natural Resources and the New Frontier: Constructing Modern China’s Borderlands, by Judd Kinzley