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The field of residential affairs

December 2, 2008

Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach
Dr John Postill
Paper to the Media and Communication research seminar
Sheffield Halllam University, UK
Furnival Building, Room 9005, City Campus
10 December 2008, 4-5 pm

Introduction (work in progress)

In recent times a number of scholars have turned their attention to the potential uses of practice theory for media research and theorising (Bräuchler and Postill forthcoming). In this paper I want to extend this approach to a little explored question: the implications of the rapid proliferation of digital media technologies for local-level politics around the globe (Coleman 2005). More specifically, I investigate the significance of the seeming ‘personalisation’ of the media landscape (email, Facebook, iPods, blogs, mobile devices, etc.) for local leadership. This is an area of inquiry that lies at the intersection of two subfields that have to date studiously ignored one another: political anthropology and media anthropology (John Gledhill, personal communication), so the topic has the added value of establishing a link between these two subfields. To develop my argument I draw from field research among internet activists in a suburb of Kuala  Lumpur (Malaysia), borrowing from the practice theories of Giddens, Bourdieu, V. Turner and Warde to build a practice-theoretical model of local leadership and personal media. The aim is both to avoid some of the hyperbole and conceptual muddles that surround notions such as ‘networked individualism’ or ‘network society’ (Wellman, Castells) and to sketch the outline of a comparative model for the study of local leadership and personal media.

The paper opens with a brief overview of recent efforts to theorise media studies from the perspective of practice theory. It then sketches a comparative model of local leadership and personal media that hinges on what I call the field of residential affairs, i.e. that specialist domain of practice found in every locality in which various kinds of social agents (e.g. politicians, councillors, activists, journalists, religious leaders, etc.) and social formations (e.g. parties, lobbies, cliques, factions, residents’ groups, mosques) compete and cooperate over matters of concern to local residents through a range of practices and technologies. I suggest that, in practice-theoretical terms, local leaders are best conceptualised as leading practitioners within the field of residential affairs and that personal media must be understood in relation to the field’s fundamental collectivism.  This means that a leader’s personal media practices (e.g. blogging, texting, emailing) must be seen by others to contribute to the greater good of ‘the community’ – not to his or her own self-interest. This abiding ‘interest in disinterestedness’ (Bourdieu 1993) will shape leaders’ personal media practices within the field. Such conditions, I suggest, do not provide fertile ground for the growth of networked individualism (Wellman 2002) – the reconfiguration of social relations around individuals rather than collectivities.

Having sketched the outline of a model of local leadership and personal media, I then draw from my ethnographic research in suburban Kuala Lumpur to test the model’s empirical applications. I track the personal media uses of three local leaders (two internet activists and one politician) as they move through the field of residential affairs and beyond. The analysis reveals both the possibilities for personal networking as well as the strong constraints on networked individualism afforded by the use of personal media for field-specific goals. Of particular importance to the field analyst are those local conflicts in which normally peaceful field ‘stations’ (Giddens 1984) in a leader’s habitual rounds of activitities – e.g. a usually convivial local Web forum – can rapidly morph into field ‘arenas’ (Turner 1974), that is, sites of conflict in which leaders may have to use a range of personal and collective media to maintain or further their positions of leadership. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of these findings for our present understanding of personal media and with suggestions for further comparative research.

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Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) (forthcoming) Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York : Berghahn.

Coleman, S. (2005) From The Ground Up: an evaluation of community-focused approaches to e-democracy, London, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

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

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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