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Media anthropology, 15 years on (4)

August 31, 2008

One pending task in the anthropology of media is cross-cultural comparison. I think it’s time we start comparing our findings. Despite some commendable efforts at bringing comparison back on the anthropological agenda (e.g. Gingrich and Fox 2002), we generally don’t do much comparing in anthropology – indeed, we tend to look suspiciously at this very idea with its supposedly ‘positivist’ connotations. The fact that the notion of territorially-based cultures – particularly national cultures -has also been under fire for decades doesn’t help either.

Rereading today parts of Horst and Miller’s (2006) The Cell Phone, based on fieldwork in Jamaica, the cultural specificity of the materials was both undeniable and integral to the book’s argument. These authors interrogate influential scholarly ideas about a Network Society (Castells) or ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) rapidly becoming dominant around the globe by developing an account of mobile phone uses that starts and ends with the cultural history of Jamaica, where ego-centred ways of networking (or ‘link-up’ as Horst and Miller call them) have been around for a long time. In an argument analogous to Miller and Slater’s (2000) thesis about the internet in Trinidad, mobile phones fit into existing forms of relating to other people, including to those friends and relatives who have emigrated. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no novelty. There are of course novel aspects to mobile phones, but these must be understood, the authors insist, within the culturally specific dialectical (two-way) processes whereby people and things constitute one another.  


Gingrich, A. and R.G. Fox , eds. 2002 Anthropology, by Comparison. London and New York: Routledge
Horst, H. and D. Miller 2006 The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. Oxford: Berg
Miller, D. and D. Slater 2000 The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg

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