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Exploring sociality

January 9, 2009

In 2003-2004 I carried out fieldwork in USJ (short for UEP Subang Jaya), a recently completed middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. The initial aim was to find out whether new digital technologies were making any significant difference to the governance of this multiethnic locality, especially to its processes of ethnic identity formation. What I found in USJ was a thriving Internet activism scene coalescing around specific issues such as crime, traffic, education, and parenting. At the heart of this activism lay the struggles of middle-class families – most of them ethnic Chinese — to reproduce their economic and cultural capital in a poorly serviced suburban frontier.

My first attempt at organising my data back in the UK was to arrange the various grassroots initiatives along a continuum that went from community-like social formations at one end, to network-like formations at the other end. At the community end, for instance, I placed a ‘gated community’ that had tightened its security by means of new technologies and neighbourhood events. At the network end of the spectrum, I placed a loose network of Internet activists stretching across divides of project and neighbourhood.

With hindsight, the trouble with this framework was that, by a priori positing two dominant formations (community and network) I was explaining away a key problem in need of explanation, namely what difference, if any, digital technologies are making to the formation of social and political relations in the suburb. I was not alone, though, in this conceptual foreclosing. In the bourgeoning literature on Internet localisation (i.e., how local residents, firms and authorities around the world are appropriating the Internet to pursue local aims), community and network are precisely the paradigmatic concepts of sociation. Since I have discussed elsewhere the problems that come with relying on community and network for this task (Postill 2008), rather than repeat that argument here I shall bracket out this conceptual pair and proceed to explore alternative concepts in the study of Internet localisation.


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