Perils of Ambiguity: Interdisciplinary and Cultural

After another very long break, I’m back blogging. Last week, I was in Bogota, Colombia attending the 2nd International Place Branding Conference. The conference was an invaluable learning experience – and a great motivator. I decided to write down some of my ideas as blog posts to share my impressions as well as to build up some background information for future publication ideas.

First of all, I owe a big thank you to all the organizers. The conference was perfect! We were around 80 practitioners and scholars around the globe (and it took us around 5 minutes to divide the group into two camps –practitioners and scholars– with several people, including myself, stuck in between). Moreover, both practitioners and scholars were coming from different backgrounds: marketing, political science, communication, international relations, geography, history, architecture etc… We discussed individual presentations, as well as the development of (the need for?) place branding as a distinct discipline.

Right now, I am on my flight back to Washington, DC and have several ideas in my mind. Let me start with the first one. We (i) label place branding as interdisciplinary without really naming the ‘disciplines’ and (ii) claim that ‘one does not fit for all’ in place branding because of the role of culture without really explaining what that role is. In other words, we avoid some –very difficult to conclude– discussions via our safe words: ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘cultural’. I have less to say about the latter, so I’ll start with that one.

It is not possible to replicate a successful place branding project out-of its cultural context. But what is that context? Are we talking about the variation in how audience(s) perceive messages? Do people from different cultures have different place understandings? Do different places have different properties? Is the relation between locals and audiences different in every place? – I know, the answer to most of these questions is just yes, but this doesn’t disprove my point. We can still identify, at least try to identify some of the dynamics that make up the culture difference in place branding campaigns and come up with ‘guidelines’ if not modifiable/flexible models.
Interdisciplinary…. During the closing panel, I tried to mention about the peril of this work. I, myself, have written about the interdisciplinary nature of the field formally and informally. I have also tried to name those disciplines: communication, marketing, political science, international relations, (and as I learned at the conference), history, place management, geography and more…. I do not know a scholar who has a working knowledge in all these areas. Alas, I even cannot think of a team of scholars from all these disciplines working together.

However, several of the questions we have been trying to answer in place branding/nation branding/and to an extent public diplomacy have already been answered by scholars… Our answers are out there in the literature. Though, it is difficult to pinpoint which literature we are talking about in this sense…

Therefore, how should we approach to the study of place branding? Should we send out scouts to the domains of unknown literatures and wait for their return with precious knowledge? Should we figure out what we can agree on in our limited experience of knowledge-creation in place branding and then focus on them? Or should we just accept that place branding is not and will never be a discipline? Should we build up theories on practice? on ideological stances? Or should we just not build up theories?

I, personally, think we should recruit brave knights from several different disciplines…

This post is also published at http://placebranding.ning.com/

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