New media and social change
How do different global fields of practice (e.g. journalism, development, activism) appropriate and transform new media? How do internet and mobile media help to transform these fields? What kind of theoretical framework can we use to compare and contrast these various field appropriations?
If we take the fields of journalism, development and activism as our case studies, the first thing to expect is that the three will be thoroughly entangled with one another. However, one important difference is that where activism and development are both by definition for social change (in the sense of a quest for social improvement), journalism is not necessarily so – although here we will find a broad contrast, I think, between rich and poor countries, with journalists in the latter sometimes doubling up as pro-democracy activists.
One possible theoretical approach would combine field theory, practice theory and an extensive socio-technological lexicon. Journalists, development specialists and activists all operate within and across fields of practice with their own histories, logics, laws, stations and arenas (Postill in press). Fields not only interact with one another, they are also internally differentiated, and change occurs within them at varying rates. Different field sites are bound to have different mixes of people, practices and technologies, and we want to monitor closely over time a number of these sites to gauge the extent and quality of new media adoptions. For example, the field of journalism in town X may have recently adopted mobile web technologies. These will be used unevenly and for specific purposes across the various field stations and arenas, with the costs and rewards of using such technologies still being assessed and debated by field practitioners under conditions of flux.
We often hear in new media studies – and rightly so – about the need to attend carefully to the technological affordances (i.e. the limits and possibilities) of different media, say, mobile phones vs. landlines. But what about the affordances of different types of social formations (e.g. peer groups, families, firms, gangs, clubs, armies, etc.)? Whilst it is useful to separate technologies and social formations for analytical purposes, we then have to put them together again, in their cultural and historical context. For instance, a 1996 neighbourhood gang without mobile phones is quite a different proposition from a 1996 gang that has recently adopted mobile phones – especially if the two occupy adjacent territories. The joint social and technological affordances of m-gang have been significantly altered, those of l-gang (landline gang) have remained the same – for the time being. In other words, we must speak of socio-technical formations and of socio-technical affordances: the affordances of a club-owned mobile will differ from those of a family-owned mobile.
But gangs don’t operate in a social vacuum any more than churches, patrols or pubs do. They operate within and across ‘semi-autonomous socio-technical fields’ (to adapt Falk Moore’s phrase), fields that are neither independent from, nor totally subservient to, more powerful fields, e.g. the fields of policing, local government or journalism. To understand the diffusion and appropriation of mobile phones among local gangs in neighbourhood Y we need to see these gangs as part of a dynamic field of endeavour.