Veera Virmasalo: Practices of framing middle class civic ideals in Namibia. How to be a good privileged citizen in a deeply unequal society

Welcome to a K3 seminar with Veera Virmasalo, PhD student in Media and Communication Studies. 

The title of the talk is:

Practices of framing middle class civic ideals in Namibia. How to be a good privileged citizen in a deeply unequal society

It will take place on Wednesday, September 25 at 10.15-12.00 in The K3 Open Studio, NIC 0541, Niagara.

This will be Veera’s 50 percent PhD seminar. Florencia Enghel, Senior Researcher in Communication for Development, K3, will function as discussant.

Below you will find an abstract for the talk. If you would like the complete text, please mail Veera (

This is the 50% seminar for my PhD research in Media and Communication Studies. The research is situated in Namibia, a deeply unequal southern African post-apartheid society, which has been my home for much of the time since 2007. My discussant in the seminar is Florencia Enghel, senior lecturer in Communication for Development. With her help, I will try to understand what – out of all the things described in the long abstract below – might reasonably fit in one PhD thesis and what else might have to be included. 

The research aims to add to the understanding of cross-class societal solidarity as an area of interest in the fields of media and communication studies and development communication. Solidarity across class lines within a society has for long been a largely neglected topic in media and communication studies, as in many other academic disciplines.

In particular, I am interested in how middle classes see their roles vis-à-vis socioeconomic inequalities, how communication work done by a variety of societal actors interacts with their understandings, what else influences that communication work, and how the communication work perhaps influences the middle class understandings and potentials for the kind of societal solidarity that could contribute to equitable social change.

In societies throughout the world, there exists a range of societal actors who try to speak about socioeconomic inequalities to the middle classes. They preach different civic ideals, urging the middle classes to engage in a variety of very different activities in the name of equality, solidarity, social justice, poverty reduction or charity. For example, the middle classes are encouraged to protest, vote, donate, volunteer or consume in particular ways. In the recent years, the activities towards the end of the list –  such as donating money and volunteering – have probably become more pronounced than earlier as various social projects, faced by cuts to the role of the state, now need to attract private funding and other private resources for their operations. The research is interested in the contradiction inherent in this arrangement: On the one hand, the support is sorely needed. On the other hand, the communication work that aims to attract support may enforce stereotypes and practices, which in fact obstruct the kind of societal solidarity that could contribute to equitable social change.

Theoretically, the research looks at communication work and the ‘doing of middle class societal solidarity’ by individuals as a set of social practices, which lead to particular framings of issues and solutions with classed underpinnings. In line with practice theory, the research suggests that civic ideals are fluid and constantly emerging, their framings depending on what is available in terms of material, what people consider important to do in their sociocultural context, what they know, and what they can do.

To explore how societal solidarity is understood and communicated in Namibia, I have conducted a year of practice-based research in and around a technology innovation hub project in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. My role in the tech innovation hub is to help the hub in the communication work they do to attract the local private sector and middle class individuals to support inclusive innovation – a variety of technology innovation processes, which are aimed at empowering people from marginalised backgrounds through techno-entrepreneurialism. Part of this work is formed by rather mundane communication work of organising events, writing press releases and posting on social media. Another part is a more unusual undertaking, which uses a series of co-design activities and exhibitions to try understand what the powerful think, what the relatively powerless want to say to them and how to communicate this. These workshops have resulted in an installation, which is a room built of two walls and uses augmented reality technology to communicate things that cannot be seen in the physical room itself.

Parallel with my communication practice in the tech innovation hub, I have conducted interviews and observations of other societal actors who communicate towards the same target audiences, also seeking for their support in various social issues. This work suggests that the middle class civic ideals the tech hub is appealing to are not that different from those referred to by organisations that are seemingly very different from the hub. All construct their ideals from a mix of ‘African’ and ‘foreign’ elements, in a way that in many respects resembles the appropriation of feminist ideas and politics for neoliberal purposes.

I also keep an autoethnographic journal to reflect on personal experiences that are relevant for societal solidarity in the context of communication work, and especially in the context of development communication.

Firstly, my experiences shed light on the role of outside people and ideas in development communication. Development communication often is, in a variety of ways, connected to the international development industry. Its policies and funding decisions are regularly made by people who come from settings that are very different from the settings where they are implemented. The implementers, too, are often foreigners to the local setting where they work. I am an example of such an implementer. I live and work between Nordic societies (Sweden and my native Finland, where I grew up in the heyday of the Finnish welfare state) and Namibia (and before Namibia, Zambia). Even after all these years, I cannot but look at Namibia with my Nordic glasses and with my Nordic expectations of what societal solidarity should look like. Dynamics like this are an important factor in the practice of development communication.

Secondly, my experiences shed light on different traditions within the field of development communication.  In the past twenty years, I have worked a variety of jobs that could all be described as development communication. This is the first time that I am involved in something that focuses on entrepreneurialism, private sector, and technology – all the latest buzzwords in international development policy. Does this work differ – and how – from working in contexts that have been journalistic or where the main goal has been to get the government(s), international organisations, or civil society organisations to do something or to ensure public support for their work? 

Thirdly, my experiences also shed some light – although distorted by my being outsider – on what it is like to be a middle class Namibian. In many ways, I am a Namibian middle class person in-the-making, and even more so is the Namibian–Finnish daughter I am raising. 

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