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New media, socio-cultural change and the Manchester School of anthropology

April 16, 2010

I’m working on how to theorise the relationship between new media and cultural change. It’s hard work, especially as there appears to be a chasm between the two main literatures I am drawing from: (a) media and modernity/globalisation theory and (b) the anthropology of media.

One counter-intuitive way to connect the two could be via the Manchester School of anthropology. After all, in the 1950s and 1960s they found  new ways of conceptualising and researching socio-cultural change with their groundbreaking ethnographies in Southern Africa and other regions. What insights and concepts can we apply and adapt from the Manchester School? Tentative suggestions:

* Manchester scholars’ careful attention to processes of change and continuity is not something we often see in new media studies, driven as they are by an excessive attention to the potentially revolutionary implications of a new technology of media platform – yesterday it was radio, television and the internet, today the mobile web, twitter, and so on.

* Social/political fields: for the Manchester scholars, fields vary much more in their scale, longevity, and dynamics than they do for Bourdieu; they can range from a few small villages in rural Zambia to a rebellion that spread across colonial Mexico to the entire field of Cold War politics. Any media studies? I’ve used aspects of the Manchester notion of field to study local online activism in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, but can it be applied more widely? If so, in what ways?

* One key insight worthy of note is Epstein’s discussion of how some regions of a social field (e.g. the field of local government in a Zambian mining town) will be better insulated from the winds of change than others (thus in the mining town, ‘traditional’ marriage customs were more resilient to change than work practices).  How would this apply, say, to today’s heavily mediated trasnational fields, e.g. the field of international politics, the global film industry, or the field of cyberwar?

* Social drama: a field conflict that erupts after the perceived breach of the existing moral order;  see studies of Aldo Moro’s kidnapping and murder in 1978 and Theo van Gogh’s assassination in 2004 which use this concept – What part did the various media available at the time play in the unfolding of the dramas? What light do the dramas shed on cultural cleavages and processes at work in Italy and the Netherlands at the time? See also at a much smaller scale, Matthew Durington’s study of a moral panic (and perhaps a linked social drama), in mid-2000s suburban Texas, and comparable studies in suburban Kuala Lumpur (Postill), Melbourne (Arnold, Shepherd and Gibbs 2008), etc. Any examples of social dramas in the ‘residential politics’ of Second Life (Boellstorff 2008) or in the history of Free Software? (Kelty 2008) – I seem to recall both monographs provide instances of social dramas (albeit not by that name).

* On the other hand, not all field crises or social dramas are man-made; take ‘acts of God’ such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis which can lead to conflicts across a number of fields and to far-reaching societal changes, especially if the authorities are not seen to have responded adequately following the catastrophe, or if they are blamed for its fatal consequences, e.g. following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, many parents blamed the authorities for the numerous collapsed school buildings and used both old and new media to vent their anger and mobilise against the authorities (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody).

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rex permalink
    April 22, 2010 5:55 pm

    Seems like the Abner Cohen/Anthony Cohen angle on the symbolic construction of community might be relevant here – esp. as Anthony’s “Symbolic Construction of Community” came out in the same year as Imagined Communities. The Abner Cohen festschrift might be relevant as well.

  2. April 22, 2010 11:21 pm

    Thanks Rex, will revisit them!

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