Portrait: Prof. Dr. Susanne Kinnebrock
My dream job …
was for a long time to be an astronaut. The moon landing, the Apollo missions, all the rocket technology, that fascinated me enormously. I wanted to explore the world. At some point I realised that the social world was even closer to me than the physical one. That was why I wanted to become a journalist when I got to upper school. The motivation behind it was similar: I was curious, I wanted to explore the world and I wanted to understand it.
... and the route via communication studies...
Since I wanted to become a journalist, it made sense to do communication studies. In addition, communication studies are and were about media, and therefore about everything I enjoyed. Back then, in the late 1980s, that meant newspapers and magazines, television, radio, books, films, and advertising and poster art.
... on research
Communication studies deal with media, their use and their effects. It is an empirical social science, which means that data plays a central role. And I was fascinated by the fact that by analysing a wide variety of data, you could predict social processes - for example, elections and their outcome. As a student, I developed the idea that as a researcher you could know things before others did and not always write about what has already happened in retrospect, as is the case in journalism. I am more cautious about making predictions today. What has remained, however, is the fascination of actually understanding media communication processes and recognising their regularity, namely, stable patterns.
The most impressive memories from my studies ...
By far the most impressive lecture during my studies at LMU Munich was given by James Horton. He was an American visiting professor, a black man - that's what he called himself. In my minor subject, American cultural history, he explained the social history of the USA - and in doing so, gave a glimpse into the lives of all the groups about which little was known at the time: blacks, the indigenous population, women, migrants. I only wrote down two pages of notes per session - and when I see these notes today, I can still talk about them forever. That lecture was so impressive. Later, James Horton became Bill Clinton's historical advisor and helped design the “Museum of African American History and Culture” in Washington. When strikes and the “Uni at Night” campaign took place in the completely overcrowded universities in 1988, we spent half the night singing. James Horton was a gifted jazz singer, and spontaneously gave a lecture on protest songs, and we sang songs like “We shall overcome” in the occupied university. I will never forget that special academic night.
One of my most negative study experiences is also related to the completely overcrowded study courses at the time: I was very much looking forward to a method seminar on interviewing, and even read literature beforehand. And then I stood in the corridor in the first session with around 100 other students. It was impossible to get into the seminar room. The lecturer finally stood on a table and said he would wait, for two days if necessary, until there were only 30 people standing in the room. These jam-packed study courses, the feeling that they wanted to get rid of me, no matter what commitment I was willing to put in, that was extremely frustrating. I am very glad that with the transition to the Bachelor-Master system, sensible capacity restrictions were applied, which usually prevent such situations.
My main research interests
I have at least three main research areas: gender studies, media change and health communication.
I came to gender studies because I often got no answer to a simple question - the question: Do these findings really apply to everyone? And too often the life situation of privileged men is – or at least was – prematurely inferred to be that of other parts of the population. To give an example from my first third-party funded project, which I was able to acquire as an assistant from the BMBF: for a long time it was assumed, for example, that there were no female journalists before the 1920s. What nonsense! Female journalists simply did not have secure permanent positions with reputable newspapers and were therefore not as visible. But they still wrote under the most difficult conditions and fought for publicity. It is common knowledge that women in Germany have only had the right to vote for about 100 years. What is less well known is that for women of the time, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and even freedom of the press were only valid to a limited extent. These are extremely difficult conditions if you want to work as a journalist or be heard in the public domain as a woman. Such imbalances have to be taken into account and knowing about them makes the change in the subject of "women and the public" even more impressive.
My second topic, media and public change: I was not only interested in the new - the latest media, etc. - but the way to get there and the regularity behind change processes. And to do that, you have to look back into history. How women gained a voice in the public domain has been my central theme for a long time. In Augsburg, health communication was added as a third topic through the Centre for Interdisciplinary Health Research (ZIG).
What inspires and motivates me ...
An inspiring environment. I think it's great to exchange ideas with colleagues and bring together different areas of expertise. This exchange, this constant learning, the new perspectives on phenomena, for me all of this makes up the beautiful core of academic work. And in this way, colleagues have inspired me for new topics - be it health communication or, more recently, science communication.
Who has supported me professionally ...
They were mainly women - initially my doctoral supervisor, Ursula E. Koch, who at the time was the only female professor at the Munich Institute for Communication Studies. Even during my studies, she always motivated me by saying that I should save everything I couldn't put into my master's thesis for my doctorate. Her confidence in my research has spurred me on. And after completing my doctorate, I was lucky enough to be able to exchange many ideas with Elisabeth Klaus, who had developed a groundbreaking model of public communication. She helped me to bridge the gap between established public research on the one hand and my research on early women journalists and the historical women's movement on the other. I am currently working with my Augsburg colleague Helena Bilandzic on two DFG projects and am learning a lot about how people cognitively process narratives, what effects this has and how this knowledge can be used for health campaigns. Her expertise in the field of media reception and effects then goes hand in hand with my expertise in the dynamics of public communication.
What is the importance of communication science today ?
The subject is more important than ever: more and more communication is shifting to media, especially a lot of everyday communication to social media. But a view of media that is only enamoured with technology and focuses on the potential of technology runs the risk of overlooking the actual communication phenomena. Because people use media quite idiosyncratically; they want to satisfy communicative and human needs. This is why many basic patterns of human communication are comparatively stable. And the particular importance of communication studies lies in the fact that it is possible to identify what is really new about “new media” and relate it to human communication needs. In practical terms, this means that I often observe media and communication phenomena – for example, the launch of the corona vaccination campaign, which was also a rough ride in terms of communication - and I wish that colleagues from communication studies had been consulted in advance. A lot of media and communication problems are quite predictable.
Public communication and the discussion about social media ...
Trump and all the unpleasant social media content clearly demonstrated the dark side of media communication. However, targeted disinformation, propaganda and character assassination are old communication phenomena. And the media have always been used to spread toxic content. That means there is a lot of preliminary work in communication studies that helps us to analyse and classify these developments. My personal impression is that communication studies have for a long time tended to focus on the educational, emancipatory and participatory potential of media. And current developments have impressively shown that we need to research toxic communication and the dangers to public communication in equal measure.
How I came to Augsburg ...
First of all, that had something to do with the job advertisement. Because public communication is exactly what I do - but with a slightly different focus than many colleagues. About 10 years ago, research focused heavily on the political side of public communication and on mass media. I, on the other hand, focused more on the civil society side of public communication, for example, communication in social movements, in smaller communities and within groups that are not well represented in the mass media. That was possible in Augsburg; this approach was appreciated here. And with this perspective, the way was paved for research in the field of social media. In addition to these academic points, I knew and liked Augsburg as a city and wanted to relocate the centre of my life back to Bavaria. Even if my surname doesn't indicate that, I come from the area and I was very happy to come back.
What is the future of your professional career?
If only I knew exactly. I am always looking forward to an upcoming project - currently a recently approved DFG project on the importance of scientific evidence and its communication in the corona crisis. And then I will see what new questions will develop from it. It may sound strange, but I don't have a master plan for which project is the most important and must now be implemented. The world is full of mysteries, there is so much to discover and explore in the field of media and communication. A moderately curious person can hardly avoid being overwhelmed by so many unanswered questions. What I want to say is that I have no shortage of ideas for projects, and it fills me with joy and satisfaction that my profession allows me to pursue at least a few of these ideas and to design corresponding research projects.