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New media and social change

June 4, 2010

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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2010 5:22 am

    I think the notion of fields of practice is interesting, though “field” in this case seems to reference both “ground” and “invisible expression of some force”, which is where this is very similar to the kinds of approaches I am looking at.

    There is a tension in practice between its material traces and the manifest motions of bodies and the motivating worlds of relations that give rise to these motions and traces. Bourdieu points out how the subjective and objective are interpenetrated, but this is not an insight fully realised in hos work.

    Since bodies (and one can include inanimate ones in this) are both constituted by and constitutive of these relations, there is no easy way to define fields. Ingold’s effectivities and affordences is one stab at a material / social dialectic, but it does not quite carry through the issue of affordences through webs of social relations.

    Here Latour is interesting. He considers a classroom, and all the technology, technique and social context that goes into making what happens there possible. These are historical traces passed through networks of practice, where these traces are worked on and passed on before having their imminence in the situation in question. So the dialectic becomes complex and multi-lectic, and the passage of traces (of agency) through practice is actually constitutive of agency-in-practice.

    However these traces do not give access to the whys of these agents. Here the “invisible force” needs to be explained, and on a collective basis, as people do not learn activities over again on their own, re-inventing the wheel as it were. Here the ideas of “communities of practice” are interesting. In terms of operating in a field, the gang you cite is a grouping that is oriented towards carrying out certain tasks in certain ways, and membership of the gang is partly based around that.

    There will be ways of being a person within the gang that relate to the gang’s activities. At the same time the gang members have social relations with members of other gangs, as well as being exposed to images of recognisably “gang-like” activities. In other words their practices and identities are mutually constitutive, and on within a series of communal networks and more or les enduring collective representations (social aggregates or articulations if you will).

    The point of this is that the two senses of field interact in complex ways, and this is the mutual constitution of these senses of field, in constitutive relations, that to me is the ethnographic coal face.

    What does this mean? Well in the examples you give, which very much mirror the work I am doing, the circulation of ideas, and these groups are very much involved in a political economy of struggle over ideas and evidence, at least in the environmental areas I am working with, the rationalities (or publics if you like) that bring these groups together (legal epistimology, a sense of the role of the third estate, scientific naturalism, conservation discourse, the need to sell papers, to get elected, to win public relations battles etc) mediate the play of relations and the usage of technology by them, every bit as much as the technology mediates the circulation of these kinds of ideas.


  2. June 5, 2010 10:44 am

    Thanks Daniel, a lot to think about here, as always. I think we’re going to need a media anthro network e-seminar on your environmental research, e.g. sometime in the winter?

    I’m very interested in the evidence-based nature of the struggles you describe. I imagine photographic evidence will play a key role? Is it possible to identify specific technologies that are absolutely crucial to the struggles of a given field (or set of entangled fields, e.g. journalism, activism, development, to stick to our example) and distinguish these from more peripheral and/or obsolescent technologies, e.g. typewriters?

    And here we come back to specific technological affordances: do the inherent technical capabilities of photography (esp. the direct physical bond, or Peircean index, it creates between the representation and the represented, e.g. between the picture of a polluted river and the polluted river itself) make it an absolutely crucial medium for social/political activists? Presumably drawing will not do? (on the indexicality of photographs, see Knappett 2002:

  3. June 5, 2010 12:52 pm

    I haven’t mentioned, on second thoughts, that elusive entity variously known as ‘the community’, ‘the beneficiaries’, ‘the people’, etc., of developmental and activist interventions. A field-theoretical approach would seek to understand the inter-relations not only among professional fields but also between these and the social field(s) constituted by the intended beneficiaries of a development project or activist campaign.

  4. June 5, 2010 1:22 pm

    Yes, professionalism is a weakness in community of practice debates, communities are held togerher by their practices in a variety of ways, thought the performative character of membership and becoming with that is still significant.

    One of the key technologies in my case is GIS. Mapping is crucial and this is highly technologically mediated. Another is walkie-talkie radios, part of the currency of tiger reserve protection and a “gift” that seals part of the relationship between WWF and the Forest Depratment here.

    Films and photographs and even google earth are used by activists here, so there are definitely inflections on the circulations that are implicated with the properties of various technologies, although always driven within political agendas it seems.

    I would like to do an e-seminar sometime. I may be able to cope in the winter, I think spring next year is more likely though. Surely the mediated character of these struggles is worth discussing.

  5. June 7, 2010 2:43 pm

    This is really an interesting discussion, and I for one look forward to hearing more from Daniel in an e-seminar. I had a couple of thoughts to add on the entanglement of journalism, development and activism in debates characterised by competing claims regarding ideas and evidence. As John suggests in the original post, the field of journalism includes a number of different forms that effect different approaches to social change, and are promoted variously by different pedagogical, journalistic and development institutions.

    In environment and science journalism – which as noted previously, is often marked by competing claims based on evidence and ideas – there is one model of reporting that emphasises the journalist’s role in recording and representing as many different points of view as possible, to inform and educate the reader in a “balanced” manner. However, especially in developing countries, governmental and non-governmental institutions alike tend not to promote this model, but understand environment and science journalism as a way to bring about changes in social norms and cultural values.

    In representing a story, the journalist is expected to act as a referee, weighing up those values that are judged to be beneficial to the developing society or to a broader paradigm such as global sustainable development. This is not to say that journalists are mere pawns in the global hierarchy of value. As John notes, the line between journalists and activists can often be quite thin: this is true in my fieldwork among China’s environmental journalists, many of whom become passionately engaged in activism. But I would suggest that when journalists are working within the tightly controlled state system, they too are expected to work for the improvement of social norms and behaviour, and to make choices about representation based on these values.

    For me, these overlaps make the question of how these fields approach, appropriate and transform new media quite interesting, since it likely helps point to where these entanglements do shake free of each other. Perhaps where an online map of use to an activist becomes too politically ambiguous for a journalist; or a photograph intended to shock a newspaper reader into action seems too socially destabilising for a development worker…


  6. Ursula Rao permalink
    June 7, 2010 11:50 pm

    Thank you John, for involving me in this discussion. I agree with John that fields are complex structures, they interact and are internally differentiated. This makes the question of what is a field vexing. How can we distinguish one field (developmentalism) from another (activism). I treat fields as social fictions (see Rao, U. 2010, News as Culture, Berghahn), or with Luhman, one could say they are second degree observations, theories society has about itself. Social ‘fictions’ of fields (e.g. professions, classes) are backed up by institutions (e.g. news companies, NGOs, etc) that perpetuate the notion of the distinctiveness of various fields, by defining particular aims and procedures for these professions (considered to constitute a field) and by policing the borders of their professions.

    Bourdieu connects the notion of field to that of habitus. A field (the material conditions in a field) nurtures a particular habitus. Fields move towards internal homogenization and external differentiation. I assume that John means something similar when he speaks about the “affordances of different types of social formations” (I am not clear about how social formation relates to field). While the habitus within specific social formations will influence the way new technology is appropriated, I like to think of technological innovations as provoking a field/social formation. The frequency of technological innovation undermines Bourdieu’s notion that we are dealing with more or less stable material foundation that function as anchor for the perpetuation of a habitus.

    I find the question of how technological affordances are related to social affordances fascinating. Treating social formations as fictions (that need substantial ideological input to be perceived as distinct social formations) I am interested in the way technology provokes fields and the fictions of fields. The potential of new technologies to undermine/disrupt cherished social arrangements activates the law making activities of social formations. New rules and regulations create/direct field related habitus that are deemed appropriate (like rules regarding when are we supposed to or not supposed to use the internet or mobile phones in our private and professional lives…).

    I guess what I am trying to say is that if we talk about social affordances we need to move beyond the notion of potentialities, possibilities or alternatively habitual limitations. We also have to consider how authority structures are mobilized to prevent and limit the potentialities of new technologies. Which values and ideologies are used to convince us that we should not use technologies in ways we would like to.

  7. June 8, 2010 9:23 pm

    Many thanks, Sam and Ursula, for your contributions.

    @Ursula – it’s interesting to note that whilst Gluckman and his Manchester school associates would agree with you when you say that fields are fictions (e.g. see the 1966 volume Political Anthropology where V. Turner et al define ‘political fields’ as researchers’ constructs that are useful for analytical purposes), Bourdieu wouldn’t agree; for him, fields may be invisible and hard to delimit – see his conversation with Wacquant – but they are all too real nonetheless.

    I am with Bourdieu on this one – the fields of sociology or art or boxing may be invisible qua fields but their effects on people’s practices, trajectories, power relations, etc, are all too real: they are, in sum, real domains of endeavour held together by practitioners’ unique positions within an objective set of social relations. A keen apprentice who’s only been in the field for six months may already feel like a master, but objectively speaking he is still an apprentice.

    @Sam – yes, I agree neighbouring fields can overlap in places and that in others practitioners ‘draw the line’, as it were. Also, in some spheres of life certain fields are more clearly differentiated and delimited than in others, e.g. social scientists can easily operate at the intersection of two neighbouring fields by playing ‘games’ that are hard to tell apart (e.g. the game of participating in an academic seminar or in a journal that brings together sociologists, social anthropologists and other social scientists). By contrast, sports professionals play highly distinctive games (there is no chance of confusing a boxing fight with a tennis match).

  8. June 9, 2010 4:19 am

    @John @Ursula

    I think the notion of the field as fiction or not is dealt with by understanding that all practices are communicative to some degree as a condition of possibility of them being social practices.

    So this discussion has to be about degrees of communicativeness in practice and degrees of how much self-identification such professional groups operate with (conversely no practice is purely communicative, it must have material traces also).

    I understand that there is a level of people deploying “strategic essentialisms” or “imagined communities” in what Ursula is saying, but I do not think that there is a sharp discontinuity between that and the embeddedness John is outlining.

    I think some very interesting ethnographic points of enquiry emerge from this: How do the stories that groups [professional groups, fields of practice, communities of practice] tell about themselves emerge out of and yet become constituted as “ideological” in some way, their practices and the communicative content thereof (the associated subject positions and framings of their object-relations, and framings of communication and their rationalities), and vice-versa.

  9. June 9, 2010 5:20 pm

    thanks Daniel – I won’t be online much till monday but will try to respond at some point!

  10. Ursula Rao permalink
    June 12, 2010 8:04 am

    @john @daniel, I would be the last person to deny that ‘field’ embody power and structure power relations. Institutions structure behaviour to make field real and effective, even if they constitute arbitrary divisions. Let me go back to the question of media. What can our studies about media practices contribute towards understanding how power-fields are activated and changed. How do fields or social formations generated practices that domesticate or tame media technologies, channel their potential in way that dominant power relations are preserved. Do they?

  11. June 15, 2010 8:50 pm

    @ursula, can you give us an example of the ‘power-fields’ you have in mind?

    @daniel, I’m not sure I follow – are you suggesting in your last paragraph that we should investigate how only certain fields or communities of practice come to be seen as ‘ideological’ (e.g. radical activists) whilst others come to be seen (by many) as ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ (e.g. a public broadcaster like the BBC World Service)?


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