Book review (1) of Localizing the Internet, by John Postill
Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. John Postill. Oxford: Berghahn, 2011. xxv + 150 pp., figures, photographs, FAQs, index.
University of Southern California
American Ethnologist 39 (4), November 2012, 838-839.
This richly theorized book, which focuses on Subang Jaya, a middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur, examines ways Internet technologies and practices are increasingly implicated in the production of locality. Postill’s account, part of a larger comparative study on the extent to which the Internet has altered relations between local authorities and residents, is distinguished by imaginative and careful conceptualization of his object of study. Eschewing community or network (dominant terms and approaches he critiques in the book), Postill draws deftly from the field theories of Manchester School anthropologists (A. L. Epstein, Victor Turner) and Bourdieu to introduce a conceptual tool kit and lexicon that are valuable, not only to the description and analysis of Internet social worlds but more generally to scholars who aim to understand the mutual articulation of small- and large-scale social structures.
Postill conceives his object as Subang Jaya’s “field of residential affairs,” which he defines as “a domain of practical endeavor and struggle in which local agents . . . compete and cooperate over matters of concern to local residents,” often by means of the Internet (p. 4). The local agents he follows are “leading practitioners” in the field (p. 115). Net-savvy, ethnic Chinese, middle aged, and middle class, they include founder of the e-Community portal USJ.com.my, blogger–activist Jeff Ooi (elected to Malaysia’s parliament in 2008), Subang Jaya’s state assemblyman (1995–2008) Lee Hwa Beng, and Raymond Tan, the organizer of a Neighborhood Watch initiative. Postill tracks these men across two kinds of sites: regular “stations” (online forums, mailing lists, committee meetings, night patrols) in which agents engage in the recursive practices that reproduce the field and irregular “arenas,” sites of field change, where conflict and “social dramas” break out.
Like the Manchester School anthropologists who turned away from structural–functional models toward historical–processual explanation, Postill’s focus is social dynamics. He takes a diachronic view, looking for continuity and change in Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs from 1992 to 2009. Postill’s fieldwork was conducted in 2003 and 2004, yet he extends his analysis across 17 years through archival research. Localizing the Internet opens with a chronology of events, actors, and technologies that shaped the field over this time and concludes by looking back at this microhistory for defining events and social dramas that reveal the dynamics of structure and agency.
While social fields are conceived as being in continuous flux, field theorists argue that they have structure—formal dimensions whose “very stasis is the effect of social dynamics” (Turner 1974:37). Postill represents Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs as an inverted “T.” The vertical axis represents Malaysian government with federal, state, and local tiers positioned from top to bottom. The horizontal axis represents residential governance at the local level, with the voluntary sector to the left of the vertical axis, the municipal council at the intersection, and the private sector to the right. This structural model is theorized in the book’s first two chapters, which shape the account of empirical findings that follows in four thematic chapters demonstrating Postill’s overarching argument for the value of a field-theoretical perspective.
“Smarting Partners” (ch. 4) tells the overlapping stories of top-down government initiatives to transform Malaysia into a “Knowledge Society” and ground-up initiatives of “a local brand of Internet activism” that emerged in the late 1990s, which Postill dubs “banal activism” for its focus on issues such as taxation, traffic, garbage, schools, and local crime (p. 51).
“Personal Media” (ch. 5) tracks the personal media use of the three local leaders across social fields. Arguing against the view that these media globally reconfigure social relations in a dominant pattern of networked individualism, Postill shows how they are recruited into older patron–client relations and often put to communitarian, rather than individual, ends. For example, he shows personal media put in service of turun padang, a Malay phrase meaning “to go down to the ground,” the fundamental law of Subang Jaya’s governmental subfield by which local leaders are expected to have a regular presence “on the ground” (pp. 8–9).
“Internet Dramas” (ch. 6) builds on Turner’s key concept of “social drama,” a political process that originates around a crisis and highlights structural contradictions of the field. Calling them “Internet dramas” to “stress the increasingly complex . . . mediations at work” (p. 89), Postill recounts two that played out in Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs: one contained within the e-Community forum; the second, a successful mobilization against building a food court on land reserved for a police station, which spread rapidly beyond the local field to federal government and national media. These Internet dramas, he argues, show local agents appropriating the Net to their own ends. He also proposes that, with its focus on political process, the work of the Manchester School field theorists illuminates a “black box” in Bourdieu’s field theory (p. 99).
“Residential Socialities” (ch. 7) argues against a homogenous, network sociality, demonstrating instead a plurality of socialities differentiated by the nature of inter- action, discourses, and field articulation. Postill identifies committee, patrol, and thread sociality (web forum) as three distinct forms that emerged in Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs during his study.
The book’s conclusion recapitulates Postill’s over-arching argument for field theory as a way around the community–network stalemate that has dominated re- search and discussion of Internet localization. There is no “local community” impacted by the “network of networks,” he argues, nor a homogenous network sociality displacing place-based social action. The flattened hierarchies of Internet theorists and activists have no effect on the hierarchical structure of the modern state captured in the inverted “T” of Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs. If I am left wanting more insight into the messiness and role of rank-and-file residents in this porous, conflict-prone field, that speaks more to the different traditions of American cultural and British social anthropology than to any deficit in this compelling work.
Turner, Victor, 1974 Dramas Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.