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The Internet and national cultures

December 17, 2009

I’ve been blogging a little about a huge question: the Internet and global cultural diversity. I’m thinking one possible route into this mingbogglingly complex issue could be a comparative study of Internet practices in different national cultures. I realise this notion of ‘national cultures’ is dubious, but for now I can think of no better term to refer to the unique web of cultural practices that we find in sovereign (and quasi-sovereign) states such as Brazil, East Timor, Taiwan, China, Madagascar, Canada or Spain.

News of the imminent death of the nation-state has been announced so many times in the last couple of decades that sometimes it’s tempting to believe that nation-states are no more. Against this prognosis, my own research in Malaysia (Postill 2006, 2008), personal experience of international travel and, more importantly, of living and working in seven very different countries (Spain, Indonesia, Britain, Japan, Germany, Romania and Malaysia) tell me that national cultural practices are alive and well. For instance, the way you eat and drink in Spain,  Britain and Malaysia is strikingly different – this is not cultural essentialism; it is pure embodied experience. (Try walking into a pub in Sheffield or a mamak coffee-shop in Petaling Jaya and order by saying “Hola, me pones un vermú y un bocata de calamares” and see what happens).  

Crucially, recent studies suggest that the Internet seems to strengthen rather than undermine the distinctiveness of national cultural practices, e.g. Miller and Slater’s (2000) work in Trinidad or my own research in Malaysia. I need to be careful, though, not to prejudge the issue. What does recent Internet research tell us about present and emerging cultural practices in different parts of the world? Can these be unproblematically placed alongside other cultural practices found in that territory? What about ‘failed states’ such as Somalia, Papua New Guinea or Afghanistan in which there is not much of a national culture, let alone Internet-related cultural practices? And what about the numerous transnational Internet sites and practices, from online games to social network sites to blogs? Aren’t they proof of an emerging global culture?

A second note of caution is in order here, as I’m now in danger of slipping into the vague present continuous (“we are increasingly seeing that…”) so common in ‘new media’ commentary. If we are going to gauge broad cultural changes we need a historical baseline, i.e. we need to establish what the state of national cultural practices was at two points in time, and then compare them. For instance, take Britain and Spain in 1990 – just before the advent of the Web – and study their dense tangle of cultural practices, including those relating to the then sparsely knit Internet. Now fast forward twenty years to 2010. What are the main continuities and changes within each tangle of practices, including the now expanded subset of Internet practices?  Are these tangles more recognisably part of an emerging pan-EU culture area? Are they also still distinctively Spanish and British? My guess would be ‘yes’ to these two last questions: the ‘thick’ culture areas of Britain and Spain are interpenetrated by a thin layer of EU culture as well as by another thin layer of USA culture. Both countries are hybridised culture areas, but they remain distinctively their own cultural melanges.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 12:16 pm

    see National level culture and global diffusion: The case of the Internet
    CF Maitland, JM Bauer – Culture, technology, communication: …, 2001 –

  2. Sarah Pink permalink
    December 17, 2009 12:47 pm

    I think its interesting that you are writing about ‘internet practices’, while yes this is a valid way to look at the question, there is also another way – which might be more rooted in what people think they are doing (something that would need to be researched). But when I switch on my e-mail and connect to the internet I do not think I am engaging in an internet practice, but I think I am checking my e-mail, shopping, talking to people on facebook or other social media, looking for information about this or that. Yes these are all internet practices but they are also practices that have a lot of continuities with other elements of our everyday lives, and for their practitioners are embedded in those other practices.

  3. December 17, 2009 4:55 pm

    Yes, this whole issue of delimiting where a practice starts and another ends is really messy ‘in practice’ – as argued by Christensen and Røpke in “Can practice theory inspire studies of ICTs in everyday life?” In Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds, in press) Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

    For instance, these authors talk about the folk practice of ‘holding things together’ among Danish families (I forget the Danish phrase for this), a practice that entails the use of digital technologies to coordinate family activities but seems very hard to separate in the real world from other practices, e.g. shopping, texting, emailing, etc.

    That said, I don’t see how we can bridge the inevitable gap between the researcher’s own social mapping and the mapping undertaken by the research participants. In some cases there will be agreements (e.g. both Tom and I may agree that when he’s playing an online game he’s engaging in an internet practice), in others disagreements (e.g. Tom and I have different views on where to draw the boundary between his blogging and his Facebook activities).

    You can root your account in what people think they are doing, but this is not always congruent with what *you* think they’re up to in terms of your research question and theoretical apparatus.

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