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Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

September 13, 2017

CaMP Anthropology

Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. (Social Transformations in American Anthropology) by [Berg, Ulla D.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

 If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?

Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative…

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Activity theory

July 7, 2017

Extract from Ruijer, E., Grimmelikhuijsen, S., & Meijer, A. (2017). Open data for democracy: Developing a theoretical framework for open data use. Government Information Quarterly, 34(1), 45-52.

Activity Theory has been used as a framework for human computer interaction research (Kuuti, 1996). Activity theory focuses on the activities that people engage in, who is engaging in that activity and what their goals and intentions are, what objects or products result from the activity, the rules and norms that circumscribe the activity and the community in which the activity occurs (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999, p. 62). An activity is a collective form of doing directed to and driven by an object (Engeström, 2008 ; Kuuti, 1996). Activities are open systems (Engeström, 2001). They are continuously changing and developing (Nardi, 1996 ; Kuuti, 1996). […]

a) subject: the individual or group of actors engaged in the activity (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999);

b) object: the physical or mental entity towards which the activity is oriented, that motivates the activity (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999);

c) tools: mediate and alter the activity and that can in turn be altered by the activity (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999);

d) community: consists of all actors directly involved in an activity, sharing the object with the subject (Ojo et al., 2011);

e) rules: the explicit and implicit norms, conventions and social relations of a community (Kuuti, 1996 ; Ojo et al., 2011) that guide the actions or activities acceptable by the community (e.g. legal framework) (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999);

f) division of labour: roles (Ojo et al., 2011) that prescribe the task specialization by individual members of the group within the community (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999);

g) outcome: the transformation of the object into an outcome motivates the existence of an activity (Kuuti, 1996).

The media practices of social movements: a critical overview of the literature

June 23, 2017

Invited lecture to the Summer School on Media in Political Participation and Mobilization,  Centre on Social Movement Studies, Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, 29 June 2017.

In this talk I review an emerging area of scholarship centred on the media practices of social movements. I distinguish two broad camps. First, there are authors who use the notion of media practices as a methodological conduit to reach one or more aspects of a given social movement. Second, there are others who ask what we actually mean by ‘media practices’ in the context of social movements research (e.g. Mattoni 2012), seeking answers in the recent ‘practice turn’ in media theory (Couldry 2004, Bräuchler and Postill 2010). Both camps are doing valuable work in their own right, but it is only the second camp that faces serious epistemological challenges, including (1) the mediation vs. mediatisation fork, (2) how to separate one media practice from another (Christensen and Røpke 2010), (3) whether to differentiate between media practices and media actions, (4) how to understand the life and afterlife of transient practices, e.g. those of square occupations, and (5) what to do with the notion of communicative practices, as opposed to media practices.

John Postill, RMIT

Two key readings

Kubitschko, S. (2015). Hackers’ media practices: demonstrating and articulating expertise as interlocking arrangements. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 21(3), 388-402.

Boler, M., Macdonald, A., Nitsou, C., & Harris, A. (2014). Connective labor and social media: Women’s roles in the ‘leaderless’ Occupy movement. Convergence, 20(4), 438-460.

Further reading


Tweeting religion in Indonesia: when political arenas go viral

June 22, 2017


Postill, J. and L.C. Epafras forthcoming 2017. Tweeting religion in Indonesia: when political arenas go viral. American Ethnologist (virtual issue)

The popularity of social media in Indonesia, combined with the rise of political Islamism in recent years, are changing the ways in which people engage with religious matters in the world’s largest Muslim country. One significant change is the way that religious and political figures incorporate a combination of online and offline audiences in maintaining their public authority.

Take the entrepreneur, peace activist and senator Fahira Idris. Born in 1968 into Indonesia’s political and religious elites, Fahira’s father held several ministerial posts, while her late mother was the daughter of a former chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).

Fahira was an early adopter of Twitter and other social media. In 2010 she was voted “The World’s Most Inspiring Tweeter” in an international poll. The tweet credited with establishing her reputation was addressed to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group often linked to violent incidents. It read (our translation): “Dear FPI, is that how Islam was taught by the prophet Muhammad?”[1]

This tweet was widely interpreted as a reference to a recent violent attack, reportedly by the FPI, on a Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) congregation in West Java. It sparked intense debate online between supporters of Fahira and the FPI. Fahira posed an open question, channelling what she called “the magic of Twitter” (Kristanti 2010) by asking if any of her 260,000 followers knew the address for the FPI national headquarters, information that was not public. She quickly received multiple responses offering the address, as well as other tweets advising caution (Patung 2010).

The exchange led to a high profile meeting between Fahira and Habib Rizieq, the FPI leader, at the FPI headquarters in central Jakarta. On arrival, Fahira handed Habib Rizieq a printed copy of over 1,200 emails from people across Indonesia, including victims of FPI linked violence, with comments and questions for him. In the meeting, Fahira stressed the importance of dialogue and the rule of law in a multi-faith society like Indonesia’s, and insisted that “Islam is a religion of peace” (Suara Pembaruan 2010).

Two viral arenas

The Fahira vs. Habib Rizieq controversy is a textbook example of two Turnerian “arenas.” Victor Turner defined an arena as “a bounded spatial unit in which precise, visible antagonists, individual or corporate, contend with one another for prizes and/or honour” (Turner 1974: 132-133). In an arena nothing can be left unsaid or “merely implied” (1974: 134). Rather, “all actors drawn into the drama […] must state publicly where they stand on the dispute at hand” (Postill 2011: 96).

When Fahira publicly interpellated FPI on Twitter, Habib Rizieq and his inner circle felt they had no option but to respond. Remaining silent would have meant losing face. Agreeing to see Fahira in person when she publically announced her intention of meeting with them was the only reasonable choice to make. As a result, two arenas were assembled in rapid succession: one on Twitter, the other face to face. Overnight Habib Rizieq and Fahira became “precise, visible antagonists” vying for the hearts of minds of Indonesia’s vast Muslim population at a time of heightened inter-faith tension.

Turner argued that arenas come in many different forms: “[a] political or legal arena may range from an actual battlefield to the setting of a trial or verbal debate” (1974: 133). In the Fahira vs. Habib Rizieq case, each of the two arenas afforded these political actors a distinct set of communicative possibilities: while their in person encounter offered a richer repertoire of verbal and non-verbal social cues and immediate feedback, Twitter presented ordinary citizens with an opportunity to participate in the debate and the prospect of the issue going viral – which it did.

This episode illustrates how Twitter has come to function as a central site for short-lived arenas within Indonesia’s increasingly politicized religious space. In other words, this immensely popular platform has become a highly visible stage where public figures are compelled to unambiguously declare their stance on a current religious issue.

But what makes a Twitter arena come into being and go viral? Three factors appear to be crucial: the timing of the initial challenge, the core societal problem it addresses, and the public standing of the lead actors drawn – or dragged –into the arena.

First, the timing of Fahira’s now famous ‘Dear FPI’ tweet was significant, as it came immediately after the alleged FPI assault on the Protestant congregation. With tempers riding high, Fahira’s rhetorical question about the prophet Muhammad struck a chord with moderate Indonesians and was widely retweeted. The impact came as much from the content of the tweet as from the fact that Fahira had dared to confront an intimidating organization, generating a David vs. Goliath scenario.

Second, most current affairs are in fact recurrent affairs, for they address unfinished business within a social space or society. In Indonesia, one political problem unresolved since independence in 1945 is the relationship between Islam and the state. In terms of Turner’s social drama theory, the FPI attack was a breach in the established order of things; the first stage in a social drama triggered by Fahira’s tweet that brought out into the open this perennial national issue. There followed a crisis phase in which Habib Rizieq sought damage control. In effect, he was reluctantly acknowledging the state’s monopoly over the means of physical and symbolic violence. This led to a protracted phase of Turnerian re-integration between Fahira and Habib Rizieq, a phase that continues to this day, rather than a rupture or schism – the other possible outcome – between them.

The third crucial factor in the making of a viral arena is the standing of the main actors involved. Fahira’s entrepreneurial success and religious elite ancestry, together with her social media savvy, were equally instrumental in establishing her credibility as an FPI interlocutor. Similarly, Habib Rizieq was also known as a controversial “hardliner’ with a large following across the archipelago. Differing in their life trajectories and location within the country’s religious space, Fahira and Habib Rizieq represent a new genre of religious actor familiar to anthropologists of religion around the world. New religious mediators exploit the opportunities afforded by emergent media to further their ambitions in competition and/or cooperation with an incumbent religious class.


Kristanti, E.Y. (2010). “Saya Tidak Takut FPI, Karena Saya Benar”,, 30 August 2010,

Patung (2010) Top Tweeter: Fahira Idris. Indonesia Matters, 30 August 2010,

Postill, J. (2011). Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford: Berghahn.

Republika Online (2016) Senator DPD vs Aktivis JIL, Fahira: Akhmad Sahal Ingin Pendukungnya Bully Saya, 17 March 2016,

Suara Pembaruan (2010) Fahira Fahmi Idris Islam Mengajarkan Damai’ 22 September 2010.

Turner, V.W. (1974). Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


[1] The original tweet read: Dear FPI, apakah seperti itu Islam yang diajarkan Nabi Muhammad?

Photo caption: A recent picture of the Indonesian entrepreneur, peace activist and senator Fahira Idris. Source: Twitter.

The diachronic ethnography of media: from social changing to actual social changes

June 21, 2017

momentPostill, J. 2017. The diachronic ethnography of media: from social changing to actual social changes. Moment, Journal of Cultural Studies 4(1): 19-43. PDF (Moment), PDF (


In this article I address the challenge of how to study media and actual social changes ethnographically. To do so I draw from the relevant media ethnography literature, including my own research in Malaysia and Spain. I argue that ethnographers are well positioned to contribute to the interdisciplinary study of media and social change. However, to do so we must first shift our current focus on media and ‘social changing’ (i.e. how things are always changing) to the study of media in relation to actual social changes, e.g. the suburbanisation of Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s to 2000s, the secularisation of morality in post-Franco Spain, or the success of new indignados parties in Spain’s 2015 local government elections. This shift from the ethnographic present continuous to the past simple – a move from potential to actual changes – does not require that we abandon ethnography in favour of social history. Rather, it demands new forms of ‘diachronic ethnography’ that can handle the biographical, phase-by-phase logic of actual social changes. It also requires that we conduct not only multi-sited (Marcus 1995) but also multi-timed fieldwork on specific congeries of media practices, forms and agents.

Keywords: media, social change, diachronic ethnography, media ethnography


The 1990s ‘ethnographic turn’ in British media studies was a response to both the uncritical portrayal of passive audiences common in the discipline at the time and to the prevalence of quantitative mass communication studies, particularly in the US (Horst, Hjorth and Tacchi 2012: 86). One area of great interest within the ethnography of media since then has been the link between media and sociocultural change. However, most media ethnographers have so far paid far more attention to media and ‘social changing’ in general than to media in relation to concrete social changes. In other words, ethnographers tend to discuss how matters were changing at the time of fieldwork rather than how they actually changed, say, in the late 2000s, or in 1939-1945, in any given country or field site. In this respect, they are no different from most other media and communication scholars who study contemporary lifeways: they write about media in the present continuous.

This present continuism is no doubt partly an artefact of the ethnographic genre in its current incarnation. In the case of anthropology, the discipline from where the method originates, while earlier generations of fieldworkers denied their research participants ‘coevalness’ by writing in the ethnographic present tense (Fabian 1983, Postill 2006: 31-33), the current generation writes in the ethnographic present continuous as it strives for an ‘anthropology of the contemporary’ (Rabinow and Marcus 2008, Budka 2011). The focus on social changing may also signal a collective anxiety (again, shared with media scholars who are not ethnographers) about technological obsolescence; a fear that the technologies we study in the field will be regarded as ‘old media’ by the time our findings are published. Moreover, the ethnographic present continuous fits well with recent phenomenological approaches to media inspired by Ingold (2000, 2007) and other theorists, in which humans exist in a perpetual state of ‘becoming’, forever a work in progress (see, for instance, Moores 2010, 2012).

Whatever the roots of the problem, in this article I argue that it is crucial that we do not confuse ongoing social changing (A is changing) with completed or realised social changes (A changed into B). An example of social changing would go something like “At the time of fieldwork, most villagers in the area were abandoning subsistence farming for waged labour as their main economic activity”. By contrast, a social changes passage would read: “Most villagers in the area switched from subsistence farming to waged labour as their main economic activity between the 1980s and the early 2000s”. (Note that I am not positing a crude account of ‘social progress’ here; the example would work equally well in reverse, i.e. a shift from waged labour to subsistence farming).

Read more…

A necessary complication: towards a richer understanding of affordances

May 12, 2017

A comment on Elisabetta Costa “Social Media as Practices: an Ethnographic Critique of ‘Affordances’ and ‘Context Collapse’.” EASA Media Anthropology Network’s 60th e-Seminar, 9-23 May 2017

by Christian Pentzold
Centre for Media, Communication
and Information Research
University of Bremen

In order to capture the socio-technical scaffoldings that enable digitally networked communication and interaction, current scholarship typically resorts to the dubious though alluring notion of ‘affordances’. Usually, this choice of word comes with the idea that technologies make possible some activities while constraining others. As such, the notion is invoked in order to sidestep a technological determinism on the one side and a social determinism on the other.

In her ethnographic inquiry grounded in rich evidence from her Turkish field site, Elisabetta Costa does not denounce the commonly held belief that the hardware and software of the internet open up and close down possibilities for action and, more fundamentally, the possibility to act. However, her detailed analysis invites us to scrutinize the gross simplification to think that such (im-)material structuring collapses into the binary options of either constraint or possibility. Hence, by taking a close look at a setting besides the often studied metropolitan areas in the US and Western Europe, Elisabetta Costa is able question some household ideas, namely context collapse and affordances, of how to make sense of digitally networked social life.

Broadening and detailing the richness of prefigurations the dichotomy unduly covers, I would like to point to Theodore Schatzki (2002, p. 225f) and his theory of social practice. He argues that social practices are the central social phenomenon. Through the participation in practices, the ‘tissue of coexistence’ is woven, as Schatzki put it.  Consequently, he suggests that our attention needs to be directed to the multitudinous ways that the mesh of doings and sayings in their entanglement with technologies make courses of action “easier, harder, or simpler more complicated, shorter, longer, ill-advised, promising of ruin, promising of gain, disruptive, facilitating, obligatory or proscribed, acceptable or unacceptable, more or less relevant, riskier or safer, more or less feasible, more or less likely to induce ridicule or approbation—as well as physically possible or impossible.”

Such view runs against what might be called the ‘received’ view on affordances. It takes them to be the enabling vs. constraining action possibilities which artefacts possess by virtue of their materiality (Hutchby, 2001). In this narrow understanding, the idea has been taken up in a variety of fields that have set out to map and take stock of all the action possibilities made available by certain technological artefacts. However, if we want to take the challenge posed by Costa’s perspective seriously, we cannot hope to find effective abilities, but a continuous, contingent, as well as contested accomplishment of socio-material enablements (Rappert, 2003).

In this regard, Orlikowski (2000) introduces the concept of “technologies-in-practice” (p. 407). It questions the thought that technologies embody inherent structures. The translation between material things is no one way process where human designers invent technologies whose construction goes hand in hand with the shaping and stabilizing of cultural knowledge, ways of handling and images of what an ideal user would be. Instead of assuming built-in arrays of fixed and embedded determinate structures that are somehow available to users, Orlikowski asks us to appreciate their structuring potential that need to be instantiated to become effective and only exist in conjunction with practices.

In the same vein, Bloomfield, Latham and Vurdubakis (2010) urge us to see affordances as being actively maintained. They come into being and are made to function not in smooth planned process. Rather they involve a considerable amount of negotiation and problematizing of human capabilities and machine capacities. „The ‘affordances’ of technological objects,” they write, „cannot be easily separated from the arrangements — that is the shared understandings, discourses and conventions, participant constellations, places and time, institutions and organizations — through which and amid which they are realised in practice.“

Rethinking, therefore, the idea of technological prostheses and the projection of bodies into durable objects, we could assume that neither of them is self-contained but placed in convertible arrangements. In consequence, we must not only ask what a given affordance is, but also where and when, and how and for whom and with whom an affordance is made.


Bloomfield, B. P., Latham, Y., & Vudurbakis, T. (2010). Bodies,technologies and action possibilities. Sociology, 44(3), 415–433.

Hutchby, I. (2001). Technologies, texts and affordance. Sociology, 35(2), 411–456.

Orlikowski, W. (2000). Using technologies and constituting structures. Organization Science, 11(4), 404–428.

Rappert, B. (2003). Technologies, texts and possibilities. Sociology, 37(3), 565–580.

Schatzki, T. (2002). The site of the social. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press.

E-seminar: Social media as practices: an ethnographic critique of ‘affordances’ and ‘context collapse’

May 3, 2017

by Veronica Barassi
via EASA Media Anthropology Network mailing list

We will be launching our next e-seminar on Tuesday the 9th of May 2017 at 00:00 GMT. If you are new to the list, our e-seminars run for a period of 2 weeks and they are vibrant spaces for discussion and confrontation on a specific paper.

For our 60th e-seminar we will be discussing the following working paper by Dr Elisabetta Costa (University of Groningen) and our discussant will be Dr Christian Pentzold (University of Bremen).

Social media as practices: an ethnographic critique of ‘affordances’ and ‘context collapse’


Drawing on data gathered during ethnographic fieldwork in Mardin, a medium-sized town in southeast Turkey, this paper examines people’s production of different online social spaces. The paper shows that social media users actively appropriate online platforms and change privacy settings in order to keep different social spheres and social groups apart. Social media users actively mould online social environments that largely resemble those existing in the offline world. Keeping different online social contexts divided from one another is the taken for granted way of using social media in Mardin. By contrast, social media scholars have extensively discussed the effects of social media in terms of context collapse (among others see Marvin 2013; Marwick and Boyd 2011; Marwick and Ellison 2012; Vitak 2012; Wesch 2008, 2009). This in turn has been described as a consequence of platform’s architecture and affordances. This paper shows that the theory of context collapse does not account for the uses of social media in Mardin. It demonstrates that the concept of affordance has been largely used to describe “intrinsic” properties of a platform and its architecture, which are instead the results of pattern of usage within Anglo-American contexts. The paper concludes by suggesting the importance of considering social media as an open set of situated practices, rather than architectures provided with unchangeable and intrinsic properties.

You can find the paper to download from our website

Really looking forward to the discussion

Dr Veronica Barassi
BA Anthropology and Media Programme Convenor
Department of Media and Communications,
Goldsmiths, University of London


EASA Media Anthropology Network

For further information please contact:
Dr. John Postill
RMIT University, Melbourne

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