While Africa conventionally has been imagined as a place of ‘raw data’, Dr Willems' work treats the continent as a starting point for theorising media and communications. Her research engages with the politics of global academic knowledge production and ongoing debates on the ‘internationalisation’, ‘de-westernisation’, or ‘decolonisation’ of the field of media and communication studies. It has challenged the way in which the Global South has been framed in our field and reinscribed the epistemological and historical foundations of media and communication studies in Africa which had been marginalized in hegemonic histories of the field. Her work calls for an acknowledgement of the multiple genealogies of media and communication studies in different parts of the world.
Her research on digital technology in Zambia examines how publics are constituted in postcolonial contexts, challenging both platform-centrism and digital universalism. Instead of treating mobile devices and social media platforms as separate (physical or digital) objects which function independently from each other and from the environments in which they are used (‘platform-centrism’), her work has demonstrated that the affordances of mobile social media relational, shaped by the physical, mediated and political contexts in which they are used. Digital affordances are far from universal but take on different shapes across the globe. Furthermore, Willems’ work has highlighted that publics are not just digitally constituted but also manifest themselves in, and are intimately connected to, physical spaces. Problematizing common dualisms between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ as well as ‘public sphere’ and ‘public space’, she argues for an exploration of publicness and processes of circulation across digital and physical spaces.
As part of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, Dr Willems is currently finalising a monograph, Postcolonial Publics and Digital Culture, drawing on her long-term research on digital technology in Southern Africa. Digital technology in postcolonial contexts cannot be understood outside the history of white settler colonialism. It introduced colonised populations to a number of technologies which has shaped how digital technology is imagined and how it is put to use. The book adopts a historicised and contextual postcolonial/decolonial approach to examine digital technology and the publics they constitute and the extent to which digital technology reproduces or subverts coloniality.