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Media and social change: ad-hoc determinants

December 31, 2009

I was thinking earlier about this business of media and social change and how to avoid the evils of technological determinism (the assumption that new technologies are the prime movers of social change) and its often neglected twin, sociocultural determinism (social and cultural specificities as the prime movers of social change) – the latter of which we anthropologists find almost irresistible.

Perhaps we could eschew both determinisms by examining documented cases of media and social change on their own merits, with an open mind. This is because each instance will be the result of a unique constellation of technological, social, political, economic and/or environmental factors.

Take, for instance, Jonathan Skinner’s paper on how a majority of the residents of the Caribbean island of Montserrat had to evacuate their island at short notice following a volcanic eruption in 1995. The instant diaspora found itself scattered across North America, Britain and other territories and some of them decided to keep in contact online via the Electronic Evergreen, an internet newsgroup. The prime mover or determinant of this dramatic change in Montserratian fortunes was neither social nor technological, but rather a natural catastrophe (as it was indeed in recent years with the Indian Ocean tsunami or the earthquakes in China). The specific technological practices came after the fact, in the shape of what media theorists would call a ‘remedial’ technology: the newsgroup. This pre-Web 2.0 social medium allowed displaced Monsterratians, among other things, to recreate the formerly co-present sociality of their distant homeland. The Electronic Evergreen is the result of a unique constellation of technological and non-technological factors that together contributed to Montserratian social change at a particular moment in the history of this colony.

Quite a different constellation of determinants was at work in the huge social changes surrounding the conflict pitting Muslims against Christians in the Moluccas (Indonesia) from 1999 to 2002 – a conflict in which both sides made extensive use of internet newsgroups and other internet technologies (see Braeuchler 2005).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2009 5:34 pm

    Interesting thought–the idea of looking beyond social and cultural determinants to events or conditions that could give rise to specific cultural/technological adaptations (thus moving us a degree away from prescriptivist relativism). A similar case in the domain of human rights might be the rise in use of social media (via anonymity mechanisms in some cases) in response to events such as the Iran 2009 elections, or the most recent Tianaman Square protests. There are also some interesting things happening in Burma vis-a-vis rapid digital documentation effort in an attempt to save important human rights documents before the government finds and destroys them (though it’s hard to say if this initiative came from the Bermese or from Western archivists who introduced the idea). In all of these cases, something or event “outside” of daily cultural experience (so to speak) has caused people to adapt/respond through technology. But there is an interesting related question–to what extent does such adaptation represent an extension of practices already in place?

  2. January 1, 2010 11:00 am

    Thanks, Sarah. Intriguing leads to follow up!

    I suspect that most of the new(ish) media practices that stick following a major disruption to regular day-to-day arrangements (earthquake, military occupation, regime change…) will do so because they rework one or more existing practices that people are familiar with. For instance, in the Montserrat case the practice of socialising online was a recreation of an existing face-to-face practice at a physical place called the Evergreen. That said , following such a major disruption as a volcanic eruption I would also expect to find a number of practical breaks with what came before, i.e. genuine practical innovation.

    There’s also the question of rivalry amongs human agents operating within social fields. Every major disruption to the status quo will open up opportunities for new field players and threats to the current leadership.

    Happy New Year!

    John

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