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New in paperback: Media and Nation Building (J. Postill)

August 3, 2008

I am very pleased to announce that my ethnography of media and nation building among the Iban of Sarawak (a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo), originally published in hardcover in 2006, is now out in paperback. In this study I draw from both historical and ethnographic research to explain how the Iban became active participants in the ongoing project of building a modern Malaysian state and national culture following independence from Britain in 1963. As suggested by the title, I concentrate not on a single medium but rather on the uses by both state and non-state agents of a range of media (from radio, television and print media to PA systems, clocks and calendars) in pursuit of this long-term developmental goal. Further details are available on the Berghahn website.

A few colleagues have asked me about this paperback edition as they hope to use it for their undergraduate teaching. My own suggestion is that it would be a useful book to add to reading lists for courses or modules on general anthropology, media anthropology, media studies, Southeast Asian studies and development studies. For example, it could be usefully contrasted with Derek Freeman’s classic monograph Report on the Iban within a module introducing the history of anthropology, or used alongside other media ethnographies.

In her otherwise positive review for H-Net, Sabina Mihelj (Loughborough University, UK) says that ‘the conceptual merits of the book are less easy to pinpoint’ than its merits in relation to existing studies of media and nationalism. I have to cordially disagree with this assessment. Media and Nation Building is both an empirical exploration of media and social change among a Borneo people as well as a conceptual exercise that takes key anthropological notions such as orality, literacy, time, ritual and artefact and asks about their usefulness – or otherwise – in the study of increasingly mediated social worlds. This is, in other words, an anthropological study through and through. I argue that media anthropologists, in common with most other sociocultural anthropologists, have paid a great deal of attention to processes of cultural appropriation at the expense of processes of cultural diffusion – the concept of diffusion having been all but abandoned by our professional ancestors over 80 years ago. In the book I suggest that there is no appropriation without diffusion (or ‘adoption’ without ‘spread’, for those who dislike the word ‘diffusion’). By the same token, there is no diffusion without appropriation. Through my historical and ethnographic materials I track some of the paths of diffusion and appropriation of media forms such as radio, television, pop music, propaganda and clock-and-calendar time from urban centres in Malaya and Sarawak to rural Iban longhouses.

I am not suggesting that this is all there is to media and social change, but rather that if we are going to continue to study the appropriation of new media forms (along with other important processes such as their circulation**, distribution, production, etc) we will also need to consider their diffusion or spread across historical time and geographical space.

See also review of Media and Nation Building by Gordon Gray for American Anthropologist, June 2007

**For a recent anthropological study that focuses on media circulation in Bolivia, see J. Himpele’s (2007) Circuits of Culture. University of Minnesota Press. See also Postill, J. 2007 paper ‘The elements of media’

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2008 9:53 pm

    PS There is often a tendency is academia – and indeed elsewhere – to look at different approaches to a problem in an either/or fashion, as if one could not combine or synthesise more than one approach (provided, that is, they are logically compatible). For instance, I think the notions of diffusion and circulation are perfectly compatible and could make for a powerful analytical combination. Innovation X can diffuse (spread) from locale A to locale B and over time – as it becomes appropriated by local people – come to form an integral part of the circulation of people, artefacts, ideas, etc. within the recipient locale (say, a city, or a country, or an island).

  2. sha permalink
    September 5, 2008 8:32 pm

    Congratulations on your book Mr. Postill. Can I know how long did it take you to complete the ethnography?

  3. September 5, 2008 10:54 pm

    Thanks Sha, much appreciated. Good question. Well, I had the PhD thesis (2000) and some articles to work with when I started work on this book in my spare time circa 2002. I guess it took about 2 years part-time to turn these materials into the finished book. The fieldwork took about 18 months in total in 1996-1998 and briefly in 2001.

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