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Thinking outside community

October 21, 2009

“Thinking outside community: a Malaysian field of residential affairs and its multiple socialities”

A presentation by John Postill to the public forum Reconceptualizing Sociality: Ethnographic Interrogations

Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, SUNY at Buffalo

Friday, October 23, 2009

Presentation outline:

1. Brief overview of my Internet localisation fieldwork in suburban Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).

On returning to Britain I had trouble trying to fit my findings into the community/network mould of current Internet studies. This led me to a field-theoretical approach to Internet localisation that draws from both the Manchester School of anthropology and from Bourdieu’s field theory.

2. A field of residential affairs.

In this part of the presentation I outline the resulting model of Internet localisation. This model posits a domain of practice (or field) in which variously positioned agents and agencies (residents, councillors, politicians, news organisations, etc.) compete and cooperate over matters of concern to local residents, often over the Internet. This field takes the form of an inverted T, with the vertical axis representing the three-tiered system of government and the horizontal axis running from civil society on one end to the private sector on the other, with the municipal council at the intersection of both axes. No local agent, however Internet-savvy or politically astute, is above the fundamental laws (Bourdieu) of the field.

3. A field with multiple socialities.

There is no homogenous sociality within Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs. Instead I found a number of distinct field socialities that varied in their field location, technological mediations and discursive praxis. Here I describe but three types: patrol sociality, committee sociality and Web forum sociality. Some of these sites of sociality were more vulnerable to conflict and/or less insulated from external pressures than others. At certain historical junctures, a site of everyday conviviality and field reproduction such as the Web forum can morph from being a ‘station’ (Giddens) into being an ‘arena’ (V. Turner) only to revert later on to its original forum state.

4. Conclusion: Thinking outside community.

In this talk I have described how I went from thinking about Internet localisation (how local agents and agencies appropriate the Internet for their own goals) in terms of local communities and social networks to a theoretical model centred on the idea of internally differentiated fields of endeavour that have evolved multiple forms of sociality.

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