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Personal media and local leadership: a practice-theoretical model

November 16, 2008

I’m working on a sketch of a practice-theoretical model of personal media (email, mobile phones, blogs, iPods, laptops, etc.) and local leadership. The comparative research question this model is meant to address is what difference, if any, these egocentric technologies are making to the practices of local-level leaders around the world (local politicians, neighbourhood activists, ‘civic networkers’, village headmen, etc.) who operate in largely sociocentric fields of practice. This work-in-progress model is based on my firsthand research experience among local leaders in Subang Jaya-USJ – a suburb of Kuala Lumpur – as well as on a reading of different literatures pertinent to this question, especially field theory, practice theory, social network analysis, media anthropology, political anthropology, anthropological theory and new media studies.  I am hoping that it can shed light on similar processes unfolding in other parts of the world.

The model goes as follows. All local-level leaders operate at more than one sociopolitical level, for their localities are inevitably embedded in broader polities (Gledhill 2000). The proliferation in recent years of personal media (email, blogs, PDAs, laptops, mobile phones, social networking sites) afford local leaders – especially those in affluent locales – an historically unprecedented ability to cultivate vast personal networks as they further their political ambitions. Yet to build a political presence and a following on the ground leaders must ensure that the egocentric logic of their personal networking does not conflict with the sociocentric logics of the fields of practice in which they operate (local government, party politics, policing, residential activism, journalism, etc.). That is, as they go about recruiting, maintaining and mobilising local social ties through a range of personal media as well as face-to-face, they learn that these ‘dispersed’ networking practices can potentially clash with the ‘integrative’ (= collectivist) practices found in any given field (cf. Schatzki 1996). For instance, mobilising a set of ties originally created in the context of a neighbourhood project for a private business venture can be a risky move. This risk is accentuated during phases of conflict, when the field ‘stations’ (Giddens 1984) that leaders traverse as part of their regular work of political maintenance (street parties, fundraising campaigns, inaugurations, community web forums, local blogs, etc.) morph into ‘arenas’ (Turner 1974), that is, sites of dramatic conflict in which all stakeholders must state where they stand in an unresolved dispute. Private doubts about a leader’s ability or commitment may surface in these increasingly digitally mediated arenas, e.g. through SMS texts to the leader demanding that they declare their unambiguous, public support for a given cause via a campaign blog.

In sum, while personal media can certainly help a leader expand their presence in a given locale and across various fields of practice crucial to his or her power base, these same media may contribute to keeping in check leaders’ ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman 2002) through public pressure exerted via both person-to-person and collective technologies.


Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity.

Gledhill, J. 2000. Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics. London: Pluto.

Schatzki, T. 1996. Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Wellman, B. 2002. Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Besselaar & T. Ishida (Eds.), Digital cities II: Computational and sociological approaches (pp. 10-25). Berlin: Springer.

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