Do you think the "political-economy" concerns that have driven much of the debate in IC research over the past decades are still relevant? If so, why?
Or, do you think that other kinds of questions should be the focus of researchers and policy-makers?
Yes and Yes. I'm not exactly sure that this can be boiled down into an either/or answer. I think the "political economy" concerns were not only an important stepping stone to the debate that exists today, but I think that those sorts of issues are absolutely still relevant and should be kept at the forefront of any inquiry or policy. By 'political economy' issues, I assume you mean the critical research paradigms outlined specifically in Thussu's "Approaches to Theorizing International Communication"and more generally in Gary Weaver's piece? I hope I am right.
I think Thussu and Weaver are making very similar points with which I wholeheartedly agree. Thussu discusses how the dominant opposing schools of thought (Marxist vs liberal) each predicted the erasure of nationalism and war through either international communism or a the creation of a global consumer (capitalist) culture. She writes that "missing from both models has been an understanding of the complexity of interaction of class with nationalism, religion, race, ethnicity and feminism to produce local political struggles" (Thussu, 2006:64). Weaver makes a similar outline in his address to Aoyama University, concluding also with the importance of the addition of cultural concerns to contemporary international communication studies.
I found Thussu's concluding recommendation to "work towards an innovative, more inclusive and cosmopolitan research agenda...that cuts across disciplinary, ethnic, national and religious boundaries" disappointingly vague, though her self-citing at the end indicates that she unpacks this recommendation more in another work that I will have to check out.
But back to political economy-- I don't think this line of thinking can be left to the side, though it is clear that internat'l cultural and media studies are much more relevant now in terms of understanding 'digital diaspora' and 'glocalised' cultures, as Thussu points out. But if attention to political economy means understanding the 'new comm order led by transnational businesses', then I would say that it is absolutely still important to better understanding how the communication world works, especially as big telecom and media giants continue to expand and partner across continents and cultures.
I think I agree with Thussu that the older political economy theories overgeneralized and idealized like any grand overarching theory usually does, but I also agree that they were onto something. Systems theory and even the NWICO debate are very much tied up in a post-colonial way of thinking that doesn't necessarily apply across the board in this hyper-digitized and glocalized age, but that doesn't mean that power imbalances and information flows are no longer relevant considerations. It simply means that they are one among many issues that a researcher has to consider when attempting to study, explain, or improve international communication and/or -cultural dialogue.
Part of what Castells wrote in Chapter 2 of Thussu's reader really resonated with me--basically he points out that nation states are sort of behind the curve right now, behaving in their traditional power-acquiring way when other parts of the world (networked publics, global civil society, etc.) are moving on without them on an ad hoc basis, and this is causing increased contradictions in policy and flare-ups of ultra-nationalism.
As Castells puts it, "governments see the global state as an opportunity to maximize their own interests rather than a new context in which political institutions have to govern together." As long as this is the case, a political economy perspective is going to be key to understanding conflicts and international policy debates.
I look forward to hearing what others have to say about this question, and I hope I am not way off the mark...