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Thoughts on personal media and local leadership seminar, Bilbao

February 25, 2009

Last Friday I gave a seminar based on my Malaysian research into local internet politics at the Sociology Deparment, University of the Basque Country, Bilbao campus, following a kind invitation by Benjamin Tejerina. The title of my talk was Tecnologias personales y liderazgo social en zonas residenciales: los casos de Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne, Toronto y Telaviv  (“Personal technologies and social leadership in suburban areas: the cases of Kuala Lumpur, Toronto, Melbourne and Tel Aviv”).

I found this to be a most challenging and rewarding experience, not least because I used Spanish to present and discuss work that I normally talk about in English. More importantly, the questions raised by seminar participants were excellent and accompanied me on the way back to Britain. To summarise and paraphrase from my hastily scribbled notes:

1. What about the constitutive role of conflicts in emerging forms of local sociality, incl. when conflict creates an internal solidarity or a feeling of community?

Indeed, as part of my wider research into internet-related activism in Subang Jaya [the Kuala Lumpur suburb where I conducted anthropological fieldwork] I have looked at a key turning point in the history of local activism, namely when in 1999 leading residents harnessed various digital technologies (email, newsgroups, databases)  to successfully campaign against a sharp increase in local taxation. So yes, conflicts are more than simply disruptions to the regular cycle of activities of peacetime politics [as perhaps implied by my model of personal media and local leadership], they can be constitutive of new residential socialities and practices.

2.  What sort of ‘community’ are we talking about here? What are its online/offline dimensions, affects, etc?

Well, as I said at the outset (see Postill 2008) I have tried to steer clear of the notion of ‘community’ as a sociological or anthropological concept as I find it to be a normative ideal that lacks a precise empirical referent and is therefore unresearchable as an actual social formation. ‘Community’ is a useful fiction that people in many places use for public rhetoric (Amit and Rapport 2002).

[Some further thoughts on this, 24 Feb 2009: in this study I want to explore how settlers of a suburban frontier appropriate various internet technologies to create sets of social relations that didn’t exist before, how they ‘produce locality’ (Appadurai 1996). I have come to the realisation that we need to distinguish between social life forms that are amenable to empirical investigation (e.g. residents’ committees, mosques, action-sets, egocentred networks, peer groups) and those that are transempirical and therefore unresearchable (e.g. communities, nations, Heaven, Hell). Yes, you can document how people ‘feel’ about ‘their community’ but always bearing in mind that we’re talking about a normative ideal, not an empirical actuality.]

3. You talk about local leaders and their personal media but how do ordinary residents use such media?

 In this particular paper I focus on local leaders and only talk about three of them because I want to argue that despite their deft use of a range of personal media (email, blogs, PDAs, digital cameras, mobiles, facebook, etc.) they are still never above the laws of the fields in which they operate. In the case of the field of residential affairs, local leaders cannot but surrender their personal media practices to the collectivist ethos and communitarianist media rhetoric or face the music. By contrast, political blogging affords exceptional individuals such as Jeff Ooi (one of the founding fathers of local cyberactivism in Subang Jaya who went on to become a national blogging celebrity and an MP) much more autonomy and ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) than the relentlessly sociocentric ‘community media’.

4. What difference does it make to posit the existence of social fields instead of communities? Aren’t you still talking about the same thing using a different term?

No, although invisible, social fields are not figments of the imagination, they are not normative ideals unmoored from social actualities – this is what distinguishes them from communities. Fields are domains of practice in which variously positioned agents who bring to the field’s ‘games’ (Bourdieu) very different amounts and kinds of capital, competing and cooperating over the same rewards offered by that field (financial, symbolic, social, etc.).

[Further thoughts, 24 Feb 2009: It is not my intention to propose the notion of social field as an ersatz for ‘community’. What I advocate is the broadening of our sociation lexicon (Amit and Rapport 2002) from the current social-scientific fixation with two or three terms (community, network, public sphere…). In the Subang Jaya monograph I am writing, one key element will be its glossary, featuring a range of social formations such as residents’ committees, action-sets, web portals, mailing lists, night patrols, Bible reading groups, and so on and so forth. This social plurality cannot be reduced to a debate about whether or not a local ‘community’ has arisen thanks to the internet, or to a discussion of the main features of that ‘community’].

References

Amit, Vered and Nigel Rapport (2002) The Trouble With Community. London: Pluto

Appadurai, A. (1996) ‘The Production of Locality’, in A. Appadurai Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Postill, J. (2008). Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media & Society, 10(3), 413-431.

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