EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world
Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006
Understanding media practices
Location Queens Robertson
Date and Start Time 19 Sep, 2006 at 11:30
This workshop will explore the current state of the anthropological study of media practices and what directions it may take in future (An EASA Media Anthropology Network Workshop).
In recent years, anthropologists have taken a great interest in the study of media. A plethora of ethnographic studies, three media anthropology readers, one historical survey of this research area and the EASA Media Anthropology Network are some examples of this growing interest. Although this area of research is marked by a high degree of theoretical and empirical diversity, most anthropologists working in it concentrate their efforts on the study of 'media practices', including practices of visual representation, telework, TV production and consumption, news making, radio drama, biomedicine, online dating, web forums, cyberactivism, e-government, blogging and text messaging. Drawing on these kinds of case studies, this workshop is aimed at exploring the current state of the anthropological study of media practices, and what directions it may take in future. Contributors may wish to address questions such as: What do we actually mean by 'media practices'? What are the key theoretical and methodological problems attending their study? How do different theories of practice aid or hinder anthropological analyses of media practices? In what ways do different media practices overlap with one another and with non-media practices? How can we begin to map and theorise the bewildering diversification of media practices in recent years?
Chair: John Postill and Birgit Bräuchler
Discussant: Mark Hobart
What do we mean by 'media practices'?
Anthropologists have had - at least in their own estimation - a significant impact on media and communication studies. Two related themes have emerged as particularly useful, both of which bear on the nature of the object of study. The first is an ethnographic approach to the structures and institutional processes of mass media, which leads to the second, namely the analysis of such structures as practices. The problem is what exactly is meant by practice, and how analyses in terms of practice relate to existing approaches. Is practice supplementary to structure or, more radically, does it seek to replace them? And what comprise relevant practices for study as, unlike structures and institutions, there are no self-evident boundaries?
In my paper I question recent anthropological approaches to the study of mass media and suggest that, for the most part, 'practice' comes close simply to a fairly conservative redescription of structures and institutions - be this media production or 'consumption', e-government or blogging - which runs the risk of reinscribing essentialized attributes to particular congeries of practices. By contrast, I wish to outline the possibility of a more radical and non-essentialist approach to practice. This approach would require anthropologists to reconsider the mass media by treating practices as constitutive not only of production, distribution and reception, but of their own analyses as well, so challenging the distinction between the object and subject of study. Such an approach however questions the possibility of media practices as a discriminable class of objects and is probably much too uncomfortable for the taste of most anthropologists.
Finding our subject: media practice, structure and communication
Media practice cannot be properly understood separately from its various contexts . This can be taken as relevant in a number of ways: in terms of treating 'media' as an object separate from other practices, in terms of treating the study of media as a set of academic practices separate from a set of wider contexts, and in terms of treating communication as being separate from those engaging in it, often by not paying attention to how it is pre-supposed in academic practice. This third point follows on from and relates to the first two. In this paper I try and explain how, outlining the tensions between the formalisation of 'media' and 'communication' in academic practice, and a wider academic project seemingly based on various interpretations of democratic ethics.
'Speaking of practice': knowledge, fear, and music in an Ojibwa community
One key methodological problem the media anthropologist may have to deal with in the field is the fact that the people whose practices s/he wishes to explore do not necessarily consider them a source of knowledge worthwhile reflecting, least of all in the context of an ethnographic conversation. This seems especially so with American Indian communities. Here, all cultural practice is situated in a historical context of indigenous disposession, forced de-tribalization and ongoing struggle for cultural survival. Taking into account the plethora of political conflicts over boundaries and land rights, it seems no surprise that in some reservation communities indigenous culture can be seen as a scarce and precarious good, the interpretation of which is thought best left to tribal educational experts and academics. Thus, many middle-aged, socially active tribal members feel they are not sufficiently knowledgeable to speak about what they call "my culture". However, music as the most popular form of art and entertainment on reservations provides an important topic of everyday conversation and meaning-making that most feel at home with and readily share their knowledge about. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews with volunteers working for a tribal radio station in Wisconsin, this paper is aimed at exploring some contemporary American Indian music practices and their meaning for a revision of the concept of taste as a function of social distinction. In contrast to other media practices such as reading or computer-related activities, music practices are shown to create diversity and conflict as well as inclusiveness, and articulate individual memory with the collective history of the marginalized aboriginal population.
The power of news: anthropology and the observation of local news-making practices
This paper uses the discussion of a case study from India as a starting point to raise questions, and make suggestions about what is, could be, or even should be a particular contribution of Media Anthropology towards the study of mass media.
The paper offers a characterization of local news-making practices in the urban center of Lucknow, India. The last 15 years have seen an extremely rapid growth of the press in India. One effect of this development has been that today Indians can chose from a wide range of newspapers, which all try to cater to their particular local interests. The desire of journalists and managers to offer the newspaper as a local product has turned them - also - into a political instrument used by resource poor people for the realization of their own interests. People lobby through the newspaper for the improvement of the local infrastructure, they expose the arrogance of leaders, press for political change, not only at the level of 'big politics' but also with reference to caste conflicts, neighborhood fights, etc. Spelling out such examples the author describes local news-making as an interactive process that is shaped through the coordinated action of journalists and citizens. The excessive production of local news, the paper concludes, creates a context for the emerging of a new culture of forging relations of power.
Such a conclusion is the result of a long term involvement that enables the researcher to study news-making not only as a professional culture or a relation between privileges elites, but as a process of networking, also at the margins. Here contacts are often mediated through hierarchies of leaders; they are ephemeral and need permanent molding by informants. It is anthropology with its elaborate knowledge about the contextuality of power, together with its instruments for the study of social relations that enables the researcher to unravel news-making as a culturally embedded process and thus generate a deeper understanding of the power of news - and of course news-making.
Foreign correspondents/ foreign news production
My research gives a behind-the-scenes-look into foreign news production. Centering on German foreign news coverage I did multi-sited fieldwork with correspondents on four different continents, following them through their everyday work sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks and months. Comparing Singapore, Washington D.C. and Jerusalem, I found routine practice as predominantly shaped by home desks settings and demands. So my thesis states that foreign news coverage highlights the cultural nature of »news«.
This conclusion leads through spheres of everyday routine and its explanations through correspondents, stringer, producers etc. What and how these journalists do, centers on standards of professional journalism and the legitimating »being there« - both referring to homemade preferences. In both, their stories and professional activities, their practice embodies intensely enacted arguments upon this recursive process. This incorporates clashes of definitions and perspectives, struggles and strategies for authority. Their practice is articulating a continuous reification and negotiation of socio-cultural poetics and therefore can be seen as a representation of national culture through world news.
This ethnography witnesses the agency of media producers within a cultural system while recognizing their embeddedness in larger structures of power. This bridges media- to socio-centric approaches and emphasizes the potential of media anthropology.
The ethnography is a narrative exploration of the correspondents daily routines linking professional practice to interviews, anecdotes and examples of their coverage to my observations to forming a »thick narration«. Using ethnographic methods combined with those of a journalistic recherché this is revealing the socio-cultural poetics of (German) foreign news coverage.
Regarding the analysis of media practice I would propose having a look at journalistic methods. Combining principles of recherché and participant observation turned out to be helpful in contextualizing and specifying the field.
Media anthropological reflections on the writing of history in the case of the Danish Muhammad cartoons
During the last 10 years I have shifted my media anthropological focus from how popular magazines such as the National Geographic represented the Mayan speakers in Mexico and Central America to how the Danish news media covers ethnic minority issues in Denmark. In the first half of this paper, I will present some of the theoretical and methodological assumptions I have found useful for both areas of study. For instance being less morally concerned with the distortions of news photographs, headings, picture captions, texts, and blockbuster hits such as Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbour and instead being more concerned about working out the consequences resulting from distorted media coverage. The idea being that if damage has occurred already then righteous anger and comprehensive deconstruction of the media products seem less relevant from the perspective of those directly affected by these representations or for the long-term impact on popular consciousness. Shifting the field of study has also meant having to learn new principles and strategies for mediation between elite politicians and voters such as political spin and by implication involving new forms of populism. In the second half of my paper I will explore some issues in my ongoing research on government political spin to do damage control in the case of the controversial Muhammad cartoons. This specific case speaks also to the generally issue of how political communication experts through the use of focus groups, audience reception testing and aggressive spin seek to define how controversial events will be remembered in the future.
Internet and changing media practices in West Africa.
The online nomads of cyberia
Along with the unleashing of new media, hitting the streets almost globally in an accelerating pace, new fields for anthropology unfolded. In particular services based on the Internet-infrastructure gave rise to a new phenomenon of interest: online communities. The latters' spaces of interaction and 'habitats' are constituted by mediating technologies. At first glance this media seem to be restrictive, seem to rob manifoldness from human communication and interaction. On the other hand some authors claim that online media capture within their domain the whole diversity of cultural practices and expressions.
This paper strives to communicate two points. Firstly the issue of the complementary utilization of a wealth of channels of interaction, both asynchronous, synchronous, and even parallel, sometimes dubbed multitasking. The essential questions within this argument are asking for the particular qualities of these channels as perceived by the practitioners, and for the latters' management and use of them. Secondly the fact that the community's terrain is not restricted to an infrastructure at a given time, and its social cohesion does not ultimately depend upon the maintenance and existence of particular loci of interaction. The community can only be grasped in terms of a social body, as it can neither be localized in topograpical space, nor pinpointed to particular conceptual spaces induced by ICTs. 'My tribe' is nomadizing within cyberspace.
The paper is empirically based upon fieldwork which started in early 2002 and is still going on, particularly in the shape of thick participation within a transnational technoludic online community of practice. By means of selected examples it will be shown that anthropological methods and concepts are perfectly suited to not only grasp the shape and structure of online communities, but also to get access to, and ultimately gain understanding of the social and cultural practices surrounding new media.
Game pleasures and media practices
This paper will explore the concept of media practice related to the social uses of the new technologies of information and communication in everyday life, focusing on a specific cultural form such as videogames.
Videogames can be seen as an intersection of two different logics: narrative representation, characteristic of the audiovisual culture, and the pleasure of play, characteristic of the game culture. Playing videogames can be understood as an experience that involves media and non-media practices; that is, game experience is embedded within a media practice, transforming precedent forms of audiovisual pleasures. Videogames situate "play" at the core of the audiovisual experience, introducing innovative changes in the way audiovisual products are consumed and experienced. Thus, the "voyeuristic pleasure" of watching films or TV programs is substituted by an "immersion pleasure" coming from the articulation between audiovisual representation and subject agency and control.
We understand media practices in the context of new media theories. With "new media" we don't necessarily refer to the "newest technologies" nor the "newest media forms": as some authors like P. David Marshall or Sonia Livingstone point out, new media can be understood as a new context of relation between traditional and emergent media forms, as a new scenario shaped by the convergence between different forms of audiovisual representation with digital and telecommunication technologies. The social and cultural changes that take place in the new media context are shaped by the way people use "media" for such different purposes as communicating with each other, working, voting, dating or playing.
This "new media context" allow us to understand media practice from a transformative point of view that breaks down the division between production and consumption of cultural products, the model of emission/reception in communication theory and the spheres of public and private regarding broadcasting contents. Videogames are a key cultural form in order to understand the way media practices are related to significant social and embodied experiences such as playing and pleasure.
Anthropology at the movies
Working within the shadow of film studies, there is now a small, but growing body anthropological scholarship on popular commercial cinema. Compared to the field of film studies, anthropologists interested in the study of cinema outside have generally started from very different disciplinary assumptions and ethnographic commitments. As a result, anthropologists of cinema have been regularly confronted with the difficulties of imposing, importing or re-evaluating abstract, universalizing film theories, which are largely based upon Euro-American films, experiences and histories. In this paper I will evaluate the emerging anthropological literature on cinema in relation to film studies in order to question what specifically an anthropological approach can bring to the study of cinema. How do anthropologists study cinema? How does it differ from other approaches? I argue that the notion of practice, though largely unexamined, has been central to how anthropologists have sought to construct cinema as an object of study. Using this example of anthropologists at the movies, I will make the larger case for why anthropology matters to the study of media.
The third space of television viewers
Based on the research made in two different localities: Petraio in Naples (Italy) and Studentski grad in Zagreb (Croatia), the paper considers the interpretation of television viewers of the quiz "Who wants to be a millionaire?" as a cultural praxis that reflects social relations and meanings.
The paper argues that the viewers' interpretations of the television program make part of the social space. As marginal, passive, subordinated and mute, and at the same time active, conscious, critical, the interpretations speak about central social issues - very much like the third space (espace vécu) of Henri Lefebvre (1991). The third space approach is fruitful in the analysis of viewers' interpretations since it discloses that it is not so important what the inhabitant of Studentski grad or Petraio says about the quiz, but rather the references on social and cultural, everyday life made through his interpretation. Talking from the marginal position of the consumer of cultural product people have opened the interpretation of the television program towards the central social issues: critique of the social moment and their own everyday life.
Thus, television viewing overlaps with non-media practices of leisure time. Namely, leisure time represents a social safety valve since it is fulfilled with different activities trying to step back from everyday duties. Leisure time, although it is a part of everyday life, in attempt to step back from it nourishes the moments of its critique. Here the reception of the quiz gets interesting because through its interpretation it is possible to read the critique shaped in the processes of evaluation (of the description of success, of the evaluation of knowledge and luck on the way to success, of the concepts of wealth and money as the key indications of success/knowledge).
Finally, thanks to its complexity, the viewers' interpretation of television programs successfully talks about subjectivity, society and culture and expands its significance beyond the media practices.