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Fibre Optics and Community in East London

June 10, 2008

From 2002 to 2005 I held a Volkswagen Foundation research fellowship at Bremen University. Together with a team of social anthropologists and doctoral candidates from several European universities we compared community ICT projects in a number of multiethnic neighbourhoods in Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and Malaysia.


One result of this collaborative effort is Strauss, P. (2007) Fibre Optics and Community in East London: Political Technologies on a ‘Wired-Up’ Newham Housing Estate. Unpublished PhD thesis, Manchester University.


Having read through this excellent piece of ethnographic research I am hoping it will soon be available online. In the meantime, here is the abstract:


This thesis is part of a broader, comparative, anthropological project on the relationship between Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and governance in multi-ethnic contexts. It represents one, in-depth, ethnographic case study from this wider research framework – the NetCultures project based at the University of Bremen, Germany from 2002-2006. Answering a call by Shore and Wright (1997: 15) for a re-conceptualisation of the ethnographic field to account for the ‘interactions (and disjunctions) between different sites or levels in policy processes’, it adopts the Foucauldian metaphor of policy as ‘political technology’ (ibid; Foucault 1991; Barry 2001; Barry et al 1996; Hyatt 1997). It locates its ethnographic object as one empirically observable, and self-consciously experimental, ‘political technology’: the Wired-up Communities (WuC) programme which ran in the UK from 2000-2003. 


The thesis is based on ethnographic data collected during a year of intensive fieldwork within the organisational contexts of one WuC subproject, on a council estate in East London. It demonstrates how this experimental programme attempted to realise key New Labour policy objectives concerning skills training, citizenship building, and the creation of self-managing community structures. It frames its analysis of how such attempts were pursued in practice within critical literatures examining the Third Way political ideology and its attempts to ‘govern through community’ (Rose 2000:1399) by drawing in agents previously unconnected to the business of governing (Fairclough 2000). It shows how, in my case study, the ‘expertise’ of these agents in the form of ‘experimental practice’ was fundamental to the ‘political technology’s ongoing development. It argues that a moral space around the concept of community was set up, with a particular set of accompanying normative values, and it shows how these were variously integrated into pre-existing ‘demotic discourses’ (Baumann 1996) and met with challenge and resistance.


Thus the thesis aims at a contextualised description of a political technology in formation. It contributes to burgeoning debates in anthropology and more widely about the significance of ICTs in neo-liberal projects of governance, as well as to those about New Labour’s Third Way and its explicit concerns with the concepts of ‘community’ and ‘active citizenship’ more specifically.          



Paul Strauss, January 2007









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