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What is the point of media anthropology?

May 29, 2009

This is a draft version of my forthcoming opening remarks of a debate on media anthropology with Mark A. Peterson for the journal Social Anthropology No. 17(3).  Please refer to the journal for the final published version.


Update 8 June 2009. Because of contractual obligations, now that the essay has been accepted for publication I’ve had to take it down from this blog. I will post here the link to the final published debate as soon as it’s available. Many thanks to all of you who’ve posted comments and my apologies for having to withdraw this piece.

In a nutshell, in this debate I argue that the subfield of media anthropology needs to add historical depth to its geographical breadth.

Update 31  July 2009. The published debate is now available HERE. Do let me know if you cannot access it as I have a limited number of offprints to share.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Moeran permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:15 am

    Thank you for this.

    The fieldwork study of media forms is, of course, necessarily synchronic. An argument for historicity, therefore, is fair enough. But to date there would seem to be insufficient fieldwork reports of media production processes to enable (1) genuinely cross cultural and/or cross-media comparisons; and (2) comparisons of fieldwork findings over time (although the Chicago School of Sociology studies in the 1950s may refute this observation?).

    An exception may, perhaps, be found in the field of advertising where a 1939 business history of an American advertising agency has allowed reflection upon contemporary (1990s) processes of advertising production in Japan, while emergent anthropological literature on advertising industries in Trinidad, Sri Lanka, Mumbai, Japan, the UK and the USA has begun to provide an opportunity for cross-cultural comparisons. The anthropological literature also enables a historical and comparative view vis-à-vis industry insider accounts written over many decades in the 20th century.

    • June 2, 2009 9:29 pm

      Many thanks for those suggestions, Brian. Have you got the refs for those works you mention?
      Yes, to judge by Mark A. Peterson’s historical review of media anthropology I think there’s only so much we can do ethnographically about past media worlds, incl. media production, if few of those sites were studied ethnographically.

      Still, I think it would be an interesting exercise to write a media history from an anthropological perspective, a history that asked the sorts of questions that we ask in contemporary settings about media in everyday life, media appropriation, how to theorise media practices, etc.

  2. angela permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:26 am

    dear john,
    i like the clear profile of your argument. it reminded me of hannerz’chapter writing time (exploring the world of foreign correspondents, 2004), although he aimes at the general public sphere.
    however, as your argument’s nature is intrinsically academic, should this eventually be read as a plea for a ‘social anthropological history’ / ethnologische geschichtsschreibung? the ethnographer as the wise, old shaman in media studies?


    • June 2, 2009 9:37 pm

      Hi angela. I don’t know about the “wise old shaman” side of it, but this notion of social anthropological history/ethnologische geschichtschreibung sounds intriguing. Could you say a bit more about this concept?

      Yes, I’m thinking more about academic rather than public anthropology, specifically how to extend our current media anthropological remit. That said, there is no reason why this kind of work shouldn’t find public outlets.

      • angela permalink
        June 3, 2009 10:29 am

        hey john, the shaman just as a figur, as i see (media) anthropology’s task as a transgressive one. at least when it comes to let different/new ideas of media to enter general western discourses. but i have been spoilt by klaus peter koepping in my undergraduate years 🙂

        ethnologische geschichtsschreibung: guess i am hinting the same point brian moeran does, mentioning the little number of specific fieldwork records. although one could read your argument more generally towards a broader notion of ‘media’ (communication practices, transcendental or religious media, i.e. shamans, trance, etc…), which i had in mind, as this would easily allow a longue dureé perspective.

        my remark however, referred to the task of how to add “historical depth to the geographical breadth”. with or without collaborations in mind – wouldn’t social anthropology necessarily add its own govern-mentality, i.e. rules, terms and politics of thought when dealing with history? and could this be labeled ‘ethnologische geschichtsschreibung’?

        just a thought towards your very inspiring essay.

      • June 3, 2009 4:46 pm

        These are the sorts of questions I’m asking myself at the moment as I think about the immense media-historical task ahead. Yes, my guess is that you’re right, if social and cultural anthropologists were to embark on these historical ventures into the lives and deeds of our media ancestors they would inevitably bring to them their own disciplinary habits and proclivities. We shall have to ask Brian Larkin and the few others who’ve already done historical-anthropological work on media.

  3. Ariane Beldi permalink
    June 2, 2009 3:18 pm


    I believe that this is exactly what I’m struggling with in my present dissertation. I would like to understand better the role played by the appropriation of the DVD as a delivery technology in the reception process of Japanese animated TV series (or animes) in Switzerland. However, because the DVD stands on a the tip of converging media practices and technology uses, I have tried to retrace their history so as put the (potential) uses of DVD in a socio-technical diachronic perspective. And this is proving quite difficult and tedious, because too many works either take a sort of technological linear stance, in which one technical innovation by one man leads fluidly to another one either by the same man or by another one, going from prehistory all the way to Web 2.0, or they take an ideological stand, by which they try to show that the book was the best thing that ever happened to humanity and everything else afterwards is just decadency. I did find some articles and books that take a more interdisciplinary approaches, especially among Cultural Studies authors, and historians with somewhat a social bending, who either use people’s recollections of the media of their youth or dive into the media archives to analyze the self-observatory discourses that were produced in the past about media. Some of them are in French (Roger Chartier, Régis Debray, Frédéric Barbier & Catherine Bertho Lavenir, Serges Proulx & Philippe Breton, Armand Matellart, François Jost & Gerard Leblanc, etc.), and other in English (Shaun Moores, Henry Jenkins, Lisa Gitelman, Abé Mark Normes, Aaron Barlow, James Bennett & Tom Brown, etc.). It is true that most of these works are quite recent, none of them being much older than the 1990’s. The other thing that I found out, while attempting to retrace the history of practices and uses that lead to the DVD, is that I needed to look again at the definition of such black-boxed notion as “media”, “culture”, “globalization”, etc. At some point, it got so mixed up, that I almost gave up the whole work.

    • June 2, 2009 9:43 pm

      What about the ICT domestication approach developed by Silverstone, Hirsch, Morley etc in the UK? It seems to me that your interest in DVDs both as technologies and as content providers fits in very well with this approach – but see recent critique by Helle-Valle and Slettemeas:

      • Ariane Beldi permalink
        June 3, 2009 7:06 am

        This is absolutely true. I do have read writings by these authors. Sorry, for not mentioning them above. I cited those I have been reading or citing lately in my preliminary thesis (in which I’m up to my neck). I also still have more readings to do, but I have to submit something soon. My point was that these researchers from other fields can (in my opinion) provide part of that historical backgrounds on the socio-technical evolution of practices linked to so-called “new” and “old” media. I also forgot to mention the special double issue of new media & society, for their 10th anniversary, which I just received yesterday. I’m just starting to read it now, but it seems like it is right on the point you were making. Unfortunately, it is not yet appearing on the journal’s website at Sage Publications. Also, thank you for the recommendation. I’m downloading it now. 😉

  4. June 3, 2009 5:03 pm


    I really like the idea of historicising the study of the media, and cannot but agree with a lot you say, but I have to say this is quite a challenge.

    I met a friend who was an archeologist who had written a paper on Archeology based on a rave. She had described the day after a rave party, and asked, would it be possible to reconstruct the event from those remains. She had attended the party, and of course pointed out no, because so much of it was in the moment, ironic or just for the hell of it. And this just the morning after the night before, so pity the archeologists…

    I imagine that understanding media would have similar problems if taken historically. I think looking at more or less public articulations of how various media are regarded as Genres theat unfold might work in the long duree, but reception and articulations with the other practices of a life-world would be brutally hard to study historically.

    Not that I am disagreeing with the importance of this kind of understanding, but the methodological and analytical challenges are huge.

    Is there a historian web-list that one could debate this with. Gives me an idea also, we could do a book, in the Collingwood vain, entitled, “The Idea of Media.”

    As ever, liking where you are going.


    • June 4, 2009 9:56 am

      These are very helpful thoughts, Daniel. I think I’ll revisit Larkin’s historical/anthropological work on cinemas in colonial Kano (Nigeria) and any other historical work of this kind I can track down to see how they went about it.

      At any rate, I don’t think it makes sense to subject historical or archaeological research to an ethnographic test but rather to regard them as perfectly valid approaches in their own right (not that you’re suggesting that).

  5. June 3, 2009 5:06 pm

    Of course, Rothenbuhler and Carey somewhat got there first, but I am sure there is more work to be done in the way that nature and history were treated, on the social implications of how media and mediation have articulated with epistamology and the making of social histories.

    I mean the Wensch video unpacks this forward in time, why not backwards?

    Just a thought.

    • June 4, 2009 9:59 am

      Thanks for the tip-off about Rothenbuhler and Carey, will follow up: what specific refs did you have in mind?

      Do you mean the famous Michael Wesch video about Web 2.0? I thought it was more about existing Web 2.0 practices and technologies?

  6. June 7, 2009 12:20 pm

    There is a similar debate ongoing in discourse analysis. One of the loudest voices in this debate is Jan Blommaert: in his latest book, A Sociolinguistics of Globalization, he argues that the study of language in society lacks spatial and temporal depth – two serious flaws in any approach to globalization.

    In the theoretical exposé that follows, he develops a framework that focuses on resources (i.e. linguistic varieties, literacies, codes and styles, as opposed to ‘languages’) and temporal and spatial trajectories (i.e. the mobility of resources).

    I have not been able to read the whole book, so it’s too early for me to judge it. I do think that it is a very relevant and timely exercise, and not just because Blommaert’s approach to language is deeply ethnographic.

    A draft version of the book can be found here:

  7. June 7, 2009 7:17 pm

    Thanks a lot Tom, this is all news to me so I look forward to finding out more about Blommaert’s work etc. I’ve just read a passage from the book you recommend about linguistic exchanges in Blommaert’s own multiethnic neighbourhood in Flanders and it’s fascinating. Will have to read on!

  8. July 31, 2009 4:35 pm

    Thanks everyone. The full debate is now published here (I look forward to your comments):


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