Introduction to “Localizing the Internet”
Draft introduction, Postill, J. (
in press 2011) Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn
In 2002 I took up a Volkswagen Foundation fellowship at Bremen University and joined a team of European anthropologists studying local governance and Internet technologies in multiethnic areas of six different countries. Having chosen as my main field site Subang Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur justly famous in Malaysian technology circles as an extraordinary Internet laboratory, I conducted fieldwork there from 2003 to 2004 followed by additional online research from Britain. Although the fieldwork went well, on returning home my attempts at placing the various Internet initiatives I had studied – ranging from a multimedia library and a cybermosque to several Web forums and a ‘smart community’ project – along a community-network continuum soon foundered. Eventually I realised that I had fallen into the community/network trap that lies at the heart of Internet Studies and that I seek to avoid in this book (see Chapter 1). The trap consists of reducing the plurality and flux of social formations that one invariably finds in urban and suburban areas (e.g. peer groups, cohorts, associations, gangs, clans, sects, mosques, factions, families, action committees, mailing lists, online forums, Twitter tribes, etc.) to a crude community vs. network binary. This is the misguided idea that our ‘local communities’ are being impacted upon by a global Network Society and by that ‘network of networks’ known as the Internet (see Castells 2001).
In search of a way out of this impasse, I dusted off my old undergraduate books and rediscovered the early work of Victor Turner, A.L. Epstein and other members of the Manchester School of anthropology. I also found unexpected connections between this ancestral body of work and more recent anthropological explorations (e.g. Amit and Rapport 2002, Gledhill 2000) as well as signs of a renewed interest in their pioneering studies (Evens and Handelman 2006). The Manchester scholars conducted fieldwork in a very different part of the world (British Central Africa) and under radically different historical conditions: the end of Empire. Yet the conceptual issues they confronted were strikingly similar to those I was struggling with after returning from fieldwork in postcolonial Malaysia. The problem boils down to how to study a locality under conditions of rapid social and political change when ‘tribal’, linguistic and other ‘community’ groupings appear to be in flux and new kinds of affiliations and social formations are being constantly made and remade, e.g. around novel occupational or recreational practices. Faced with such fluid actualities on the ground, the Manchester scholars moved away from the then predominant structural-functionalist paradigm and towards historical-processual accounts informed by new concepts such as ‘field’, ‘network’, ‘social drama’ and ‘arena’.
In Localizing the Internet I synthesise this approach with the equally historical and processual field-theoretical model developed by Pierre Bourdieu, best demonstrated in his monograph The Rules of Art. Rather than positing the existence of a ‘local community’ being impacted upon by global networks, my focus is on how variously positioned field agents and agencies in Subang Jaya (residents, politicians, committees, councillors, journalists, and others) compete and cooperate over matters concerning the local residents, often by means of the Internet. I call this dynamic set of projects, practices, technologies, and relations the field of residential affairs, and what follows is an anthropological account of its uneven development from 1999 to 2009.
The book starts with a photographic essay that introduces some of the key agents in Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs. This is followed by a chronology of the main events, agents and Internet initiatives that have shaped the field from 1992 to the present. Chapter 1 is a critical review of the interdisciplinary and anthropological literature pertinent to the study of Internet localisation. Chapter 2 discusses the regional context of the study and the main research methods adopted. Chapter 3 is an overview of Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs which I define as a specific kind of Internet field. Chapters 4 to 6 develop this point further through case studies of the personal media practices of leading field practitioners, of two field conflicts (or ‘Internet dramas’) that broke out in 2004, and of three of the many types of field sociality that have emerged over time. The book ends with a brief recapitulation of the main argument and with a traditional Web genre: a list of FAQ (frequently asked questions).