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Grounding the Internet update

May 18, 2009

12 August 2009 update:

  1. The book title has changed to Localising the Internet: An Ethnographic Account – at least for time being!!
  2. I’ve dropped the Digital Epidemics chapter – hope to turn in into an article
  3. I’ll be adding an FAQ at the end of the book based on questions that people have asked me about this research over the years, mostly during seminar or conference presentations . Just to have a bit of a conversation to close the book.


I’m nearing completion of the book manuscript provisionally entitled Grounding the Internet (Oxford and New York: Berghahn). The book is an ethnography of residential politics in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya centred on the uses of internet technologies for activism, sociality and local governance. This is an outline of the book:

This section includes a photo-essay in which I introduce some of my local hosts in Malaysia.

Chapter 1. Theory
Here I review the scholarly literature on local-level internet practices. I argue that this literature has so far relied too heavily on a handful of notions such as community, network and public sphere and propose a broadening of the existing lexicon. I also introduce the book’s theoretical framework, namely a synthesis of the field theories of Bourdieu and the Manchester School of anthropology that pays attention both to socio-technological breaks and continuities in fields of practice, in this case the field of residential politics in Subang Jaya.

Chapter 2. Ethnography
This chapter situates the book in relation to previous studies of internet and middle-class activism in Southeast Asia. Unlike most of these studies, the present work is ethnographic and concentrates on local- rather than national-level practices. The chapter also provides an overview of the field sites, research rationale and key methods.

Chapter 3. A field of residential politics
This chapter resumes the field-theoretical discussion opened in chapter 1, this time in the context of Subang Jaya’s recent history. It describes the main sectors, sites and laws of the field of residential politics, as well as some of its key technological and political changes and continuities in the 1999 to 2009 period.

Chapter 4. Personal media and social leadership
This chapter tracks the careers and personal media practices of three Subang Jaya leaders across the field of residential politics and beyond. The field-biographical approach shows some of the potentialities and limitations of personal media (email, homepages, blogs, mobiles, etc.) for local leadership. One key finding is that the field of residential politics is not fertile ground for the growth of ‘networked individualism’ – the claim (Castells, Wellman) that contemporary societies are being reconfigured around individuals.

Chapter 5. Digital dramas
This chapter follows not local leaders but rather two digitally mediated ‘social dramas’ (Turner) that broke out in Subang Jaya’s field of residential politics around the time of fieldwork. Social dramas are conflicts that can reveal the state of factionalism and cooperation within a social field at a given point in time. Although central to the field-theoretical apparatus of the Manchester scholars, these dramatic conflicts were overlooked in Bourdieu’s version of field theory. In relatively affluent locales such as Subang Jaya, social dramas are today complexly mediated by internet and mobile technologies.

Chapter 6. Digital epidemics
This chapter turns for inspiration to cognitive (Sperber, Boyer, Hutchins) and media anthropology (Spitulnik) to track the viral-like dissemination of a number of digital messages through local internet and mobile networks, namely a lewd joke, a medical hoax, and two SMS crime alerts. The analysis lays bare the moral underpinnings of the field of residential politics – notably its middle-class communitarianism and familism – by paying special attention to the digital epidemiological practices of local leaders who act as moral guardians of the local cyberspace.

Chapter 7. Residential socialities
This final chapter discusses the implications of the internet for local forms of sociality. I start by dispensing with any simple distinction between ‘network sociality’ and ‘community sociality’ (Wittel), suggesting that we cannot reduce the plurality of socialities found in any given field of practice or locality to a community/network dichotomy. I develop this argument by examining three internet-related forms of residential sociality in Subang Jaya: Web forum sociality, neighbourhood watch sociality and residents’ committee sociality.

The book concludes with a recapitulation of the main argument and with suggestions for further ethnographic research into internet localisation, especially in comparable middle-class suburbs around the globe.

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