New research on International Development TED Talks & their role for communication for social change

Daniel Esser and I are very happy to share our latest research publication with you!

TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic Constraints is probably the first research article that specifically analyzes TED talks on international development topics.

As part of a special journal issue on Advocacy and Communication for Social Change we undertook a critical, empirical analysis of 38 TED talks that addressed international development issues:

Despite their global popularity and relevance to Communication for Development (C4D), TED talks have not yet been systematically examined from the vantage point of C4D. We offer the first theoretical and empirical investigation of both content and structure of talks on international development by leveraging definitions of C4D as well as literature on mediatization, rituals in international relations, and online activism. Our analysis suggests that TED talks succeed in disseminating ideas and sparking public interest. At the same time, they reflect institutionalized, corporatized modes of mass communication rooted in elitist discourses and practices. Contrary to popular perceptions, we therefore conclude that
while TED talks are an effective vehicle for information dissemination, they are an unlikely catalyst for social change.
Daniel and I built our TED talk research on previous work, for example on the interaction of social media with the 2010 MDG summit, the motivation for development blogging or critical engagement with the concept of peacebuilding as a ritual performance.

As we state in our conclusion this helped us to analyze TED talks as a globalized space for performances:

Its franchising strategy underscores the complex, maybe even paradoxical, aspect of the trans-hegemonic nature of TED talks that enable access for speakers from around the world, including the global South, but once again export a one-size-fits-all global model to a plethora of localized contexts. At this point in time, both a neoliberal turn toward more advertising of people, products, and services and the potential for meaningful global dialogues on innovation, failure, and social change communication are feasible, which calls for innovative C4D approaches to capture the critical potential embodied in TED talks as a medium of mass communication
But we also wanted to highlight the complexities around the format as well as the content of development-related TED presentations in the context of media and communication studies:
TED talks, we find, remain focused on dissemination, not activism; they spread ideas, disconnected with social change.While we must not discard the possibility that their audiences contain members who eventually leverage insights gained from either participating or watching these talks for social change, TED talks themselves do not possess this catalytic function as did, for instance, Twitter in the context of the Arab revolution. Linking new media such as TED talks to communication theories helps us put claims about supposedly ground-breaking potential of these media for social change into historical and critical perspective. Our findings indicate that structural issues undergirding current media discourses, from power to mediatization and ritual dynamics, are equally present in emergent forms of digital media. At the same time, our case draws attention to the problematic nature of hailing new technology as necessarily socially and politically transformative, such as in the context of the Arab Spring or the Kony 2012 campaign.
As always, there is also access to a pre-print ungated version of the article on

The special issue on
Advocacy and Communication for Social Change features contributions by Stuart Davis on Citizens' media in the favelas, Mohan Dutta on Decolonizing communication for change, Rico Lie & Jan Servaes on Disciplines in the Field of Communication for Development and Social Change, James Pamment on Development communication and Public Diplomacy, Rachel Stohr on transnational feminism and women's environment and development organizations and Silvio Waisbord on Three Challenges for Communication and Global Social Change.

Tobias Denskus and Daniel E. Esser (2015): TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic Constraints, Communication Theory, Vol. 25, No.2, 166-187


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