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Media and social change since 1990

December 29, 2009

I am interested in the question of media and social change, especially from the 1950s to the present. Some historical processes and phases of particular interest include:

* decolonisation and launching of multiple nation-state projects across Africa and Asia-Pacific; government-controlled mass media; Suez disaster confirms French and British decline & USA rise to dominance

* Cold War era: a bipolar world order; proxy conflicts in the ‘Third World’ (Malaya, Vietnam, Chile…); a divided Europe; civil rights movements in West; politicised Islam; in 1980s wave of democratisation in Latin America and Africa; Japan’s economic growth and influence peak; radio, TV, cinema, print media, PCs

* 1990s, first post-Soviet decade: delusions about end of history and triumph of ‘market economy’; increasingly commercialised media; rapid spread of Web in global North; 1997 financial crash in Asia; anti-globalisation movement; growth of politicised Islam; uneven democratisation in Eurasia and SE Asia

* 2000s: dotcom crash; 9/11 and ‘War on Terror’; digital surveillance; EU expansion; strengthened China;  leftist turn in Latin America; explosive growth of Google, p2p music, social media (esp. global North) and mobiles (everywhere); mobile Internet; 2008 financial crash; 2009 climate change in the media spotlight

What do we know about media and social change? Media anthropology has the latter two periods reasonably well covered, with ethnographic research having been conducted in many parts of the world from the late 1980s. Before that, the media ethnographic record is scant, see M.A. Peterson’s Anthropology & Mass Communication – one exception being Zambia where Powdermaker did research in the 1950s and Spitulnik in the 1980s-90s.  Two quick notes:

* Media anthropologists have tended to stress cultural continuity over cultural change in their efforts to reject avoid technological determinism (whilst unwittingly veering too close to sociocultural determinism?). For instance, in a 2008 article on mobile ICTs in rural West Bengal published in the JRAI, Sirpa Tenhunen argues that media anthros have overstressed social reproduction at the expense of social change. This is an issue well worth exploring further.

* We appear to lack historical baselines with which to adequately gauge social and technological changes in a given locale (e.g. country, region, locality). Future repeat visits to field sites would be a way to address this problem, e.g. in my case to field sites in Sarawak, East Malaysia.

It’d be a worthy exercise to look at the media ethnographic record from circa 1990 (when the anthropology of media takes off in earnest, roughly coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet bloc**) to the present – 2010 – a twenty-year period in which to track some of the main social changes and their media dimensions. The idea would be to avoid the US-centrism that characterises most English-language accounts of ‘new media’, ‘the social Web’, etc, by drawing from ethnographic research conducted on every inhabited continent. USA is of course a big player but not always spearheading technological changes, e.g. relative laggard when it comes to mobile phones. Finally, let’s not forget that only 5% of the world population lives in the US.

NB ** a pure coincidence, I am sure

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 7:08 pm

    Media and social change since 1979 wouldn’t be bad either, i.e. since the Islamic revolution in Iran and the start of Thatcher’s revolution in Britain, both of which events preceded by two years the coming to power of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

  2. October 11, 2010 10:28 pm

    By sheer coincidence, I have just stumbled on the following passage from Sasken’s (2006 ) Territory, Authority, Rights:

    “‘the elements for entering the global age were there after World War II and into the 197os. But because this was a world scale that had as its project the governing of the international system in order to protect national economies from external forces, it actually had more in common with the earlier world scale in some of its major systemic features than with today’s global scale […]. The tipping point that would take us into the global age required vast mixes of elements, and these did not come together until the 1980s” (2006: 17).

    (On the post-War era in Europe, see Judt, Tony (2005). Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Penguin Press. ISBN 1-59420-065-3.)


  1. Media and social change: ad-hoc determinants « media/anthropology

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