Researching digital media and social change: A theory of practice approach
Milan presentation notes, IULM University, 26 January 2012
Many thanks to Alessandra Micalizzi for the kind invitation. First attempt for me at connecting practice theory with media and social change.
The story behind both – until now separate – interests: EASA Media Anthropology Network, first media and practice theory (Bräuchler and Postill 2010), more recently media and social change – Paris meeting 2012 to be co-convened with Tenhunen and Ardevol. See both websites.
Digital media and social change
All digital media scholars study social change- yet surprisingly undertheorised.
We tend to fall into vague present continuous (-ing) of how people and technologies are constantly chang-ing, what people are now do-ing with this or that digital tech, etc.
… in pursuit of next big technology, we often neglect historical and diachronic in favour of contemporary and synchronic.
Dubious idea that a technology now trending in global North will soon be trending worldwide (‘imminentism’).
In fact, different neighbourhoods, cities, countries, regions, are following their own digital paths. No sign yet that the digital cultures of South Korea, Brazil, Senegal, the Vatican and Finland are on the brink of merging into some ‘global’ sameness. If anything, they continue to diverge.
At the same time, we peddle vague postmodern ideas about timeless time, non-linear time, etc. Yet there is no fairyland where time goes round in circles, or chases its own tale, or swings back and forth like a pendulum (Gell). We all go by the modern clock and calendar (Postill 2002), as inescapable as money, gravity, ageing, or death.
But how do we go about theorising what we already study but take for granted?
One useful entry point:
Tenhunen (2008) social logistics and mobile phones in rural West Bengal, India. Inspired by Horst and Miller (2006) ethnography of mobiles in Jamaica, but finds that they overemphasize cultural continuity (linked-up) over change; like practice theorists (more later) they play down human ability to strive for, and attain, social change.
More discussion needed on this issue.
… a theory of practice approach
Practice theory: a body of work about the work of the body (Postill 2010)
Late 1970s-1980s search for approach that would avoid twin evils of structural/systemic holism and methodological individualism.
Practice theory cannot be panacea for media and comm studies.
Especially apt for three topics:
- Media in everyday life
- Media production
- Embodied media
Not so cool for processual analysis, e.g. of spread of digital epidemics (urban legends, rumours, etc.), for Arab Spring uprisings, or Spain’s indignados/15M movement (Postill 2010) – or is it?
One way of doing practice research: follow the media practitioner
As in qualitative, open-ended, ethnographic research.
We’re all media practitioners these days; various digital media woven into our practice as students, scholars, taxi drivers, activists, rock-climbers, journalists, acrobats, pensioners, etc.
If possible, during research try to learn that craft/occupation/practice too, ‘practitioner observation’
Non-media centric reflection (Couldry 2010, Hobart 2010) on what practitioners actually do with which specific media, with what results, but also what they did 5, 10, 20 years ago.
Follow them as they traverse different ‘stations’ (Giddens 1984) as well as conflict-ridden ‘arenas’ (Turner 1974) in their routine cycles of activities as well as non-routine events.
You will find that what’s appropriate in one station is not appropriate in another, e.g. a personal blog is a very different station from a Twitter hashtag thread which in turn is very different from a web forum; example of Malaysian blogger-cum-politician Jeff Ooi (Postill 2011).
Track biographical changes as well as continuities over time in digital media usage.
… but keep your methodological and conceptual toolboxes handy
No dogmas please, we’re researchers: No need to adhere rigidly to a pre-set methodology or killer family of concepts (ANT, field theory, practice theory)…
‘Follow the practitioner’ is just one way in, by no means the only one!
In any case, broader organisational, cultural, historical context always necessary, e.g. social media activism in Barcelona cannot but refer to broader Catalonian and Spanish context.
It’s important to acquire a large conceptual and methodological vocab. The more the merrier.
Try out different concepts and methods during fieldwork, see if they work or not – you are under no obligation to honour Latour, Bourdieu, Foucault or any other French theorist whose name has an ‘ou’ in it.
If you can’t get it off the shelf, fashion your own concept or method, e.g. I had to come up with the concept ‘field of residential affairs’ to organise my internet localisation materials (Postill 2011).
Above all, no idols please – idolatry should be smashed, a la Taliban (well, maybe not a la Taliban). Only the better tools for the given job should be used, the rest can stay in the toolbox for future use.
Of particular relevance to digital media practitioners and social change:
- Before-and-after accounts, e.g. before you used Facebook/smartphone, how did you go about your business/leisure/housework?
- Recollections of disruptions to regular digital media use, e.g. when BlackBerry was down in 2011, or in some remote rural area [update 24 Feb 2012: this is really urban-centric; disruptions can occur in urban areas as well, of course!]
- Life histories of persons, both as practitioner and other areas of life; persons as (in)dividuals (LiPuma 19.., Helle-Valle 2010)
- Life histories of media artefacts (Kopytoff 1986, Postill 2006)
- Longitudinal studies
- Revisits to previous field sites
(Digital) media and social change is emerging interdisciplinary field of research and theorisation – first task is to take stock of existing research and theories and bring them under same umbrella. Very exciting area.
We should pay more attention to diachronic, clock-and-calendar time dimension of mediated practice, including our own research and theoretical practice. More dating, please!
Follow the practitioners across socio-technical settings (online, mobile, sedentary, remote, co-present…) and across biographical and historical time. Gauge the continuities as well as the changes.
Avoid conceptual or methodological fundamentalism (but without falling into anything-goes-eclecticism). See what works and what doesn’t.
In groups, how would you go about researching digital media and social change within a given organisation, collective, field of practice, neighbourhood, … Choose a familiar or exotic example and come up with a brief research plan.
Coming up shortly, watch this space.