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Alicia Fjällhed successfully defends her doctoral thesis

A woman sitting at a table.
Alicia Fjällhed listening to the remarks of the external reviewer during her thesis defence.

On Friday, February 15, Alicia Fjällhed defended her thesis, "Strategic moral communication: A metatheoretical and methodological response to the normative perspective on strategic communication," which challenges the assumption that strategic communication is immoral.

The basis for understanding strategic communication as immoral, a notion prevalent among many social scientists, Alicia Fjällhed says, is reflected in influential theories such as that of sociologist Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas's discourse ethics posit that morals are expressions of a community's "truth-seeking communication". The process starts with the participants making claims and assessing their validity through argumentation. Eventually, the public would reach a consensus. Thus, they form their morals. Immoral people are those who partake in the truth-seeking conversation to pursue self-serving interests rather than exploring the collective interest with the other participants.

Habermas's theory, however, was never intended as a suitable framework to explain behaviour. It depicts an ideal.

Fjällhed argues that we need a new theory of moral communication that moves from a normative to an empirical understanding. The thesis explores what a new theory of moral communication could look like and proposes a method for studying this new concept of strategic, moral communication. In the last part, Fjällhed presents a case study showing how strategic moral communication manifests in the moral discourse on fake news.

“I learned a lot reading this book," said the external reviewer, Andreas Widholm, an Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Studies in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, during his discussion of Fjällhed's dissertation. "However, I wonder why you stuck with the classics. Why did you choose this path? In a way, I was surprised you did not discuss more recent research on public spheres or a concept like counter-public spheres."

A man behind a podium.
Associate Professor Andreas Widholm presenting his review of the thesis.

"What I find challenging with Habermas is that he has intertwined concepts," Fjällhed responded. "The public sphere is definitely an important concept that is tied to this thesis’ interest, but the thesis primarily departs from his theory of discourse ethics. As a PhD student in Strategic Communication, I find him really interesting because he is being used a lot within the field, not least his ideal speech situation which preceded discourse ethics in his writings on moral communication. But I see your criticism. It would be interesting to map where the research on the public sphere is now and how that relates to this thesis’ review of Habermas’ ideal for moral communication. Perhaps that will be my next project."

Widholm concluded his discussion of Fjällhed's work, saying, "Alicia's thesis is elegantly formulated, well theorised and one of the bravest dissertations I have read. It would be even stronger had it taken into account more recent research. Alicia has made an important contribution to strategic communication. Congrats to a good text. It was fun reading,"

When the examination committee returned from their deliberations, Åsa Thelander, Associate professor and PhD programme director at the Department of Strategic Communication, announced: "I have the pleasure and honour to tell you, Alicia, that you have passed. It was a decision in consensus, and you can now call yourself a Doctor in Media and Communication."