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Book review of Cultural Diversity and Global Media (Siapera 2010)

December 3, 2010

Review of Cultural Diversity and Global Media: The Mediation of Difference by Eugenia Siapera (2010, pubs. Wiley-Blackwell). This is a draft only, for the final version please see in due course the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics.

This ambitious textbook pursues two related arguments. First, cultural diversity is always mediated. Second, because of this it is caught in a double bind of control and instability, that is, representations of diversity will be subject to conflicting efforts to manage and destabilize them. Although the book has no marked sections, several key clusters can be distinguished. The text opens with a helpful introductory chapter featuring an overview of the book and its main arguments (chapter 1). This is followed by a review of multicultural policies and practices in various parts of the world (chapters 2-4), by a discussion of existing media theories in relation to cultural diversity (chapter 5), the production of cultural diversity with special reference to minority and diasporic media (chapters 6-7), theories and regimes of representation (chapters 8-10), ending with media audiences and online mediation (chapters 11-12).

Cultural Diversity and Global Media has a number of strengths. First, it argues forcefully that there are no permanent ‘solutions’ to multiculturalism, no end in sight to the need to constantly revise our understanding of what it means to be an ethnic minority – and indeed an ethnic majority – in a contemporary nation-state. Second, the book identifies a blind spot in our present understanding of this phenomenon, namely its media dimensions. Although the author is clearly sympathetic towards the idea of an increasingly diverse world, this is no naïve celebration of diversity. Rather we are constantly reminded of the power struggles attending the portrayal of ethnic minorities both within these minorities and in the wider society. For example, Siapera rightly points out that diasporic media often import the homeland’s conflicts and divides into their host society, e.g. Turkish minority media in France. Third, the book’s epistemic itinerary is both far-reaching and sophisticated, as we are taken across a vast corpus of specialist literatures across media and cultural studies, nationalism studies and adjacent fields. Most theorists get a fair yet critical hearing as the book progresses. One among many examples that could be given is Siapera’s take on Edward Said’s well-known notion of Orientalism: whilst lauding its denouncing of entrenched power/knowledge asymmetries between East and West, Siapera correctly notes that Said’s account all but denies Asians historical agency in the production of knowledge about their own societies. Fourth, the book offers readers a superb commentary on innovative media productions such as Ali G, Borat, East is East, the Simpsons and others from which ‘no easy conclusions can be drawn’ on the subject of cross-cultural representation (chapter 10). Finally, students in particular (but also lecturers preparing their classes) will appreciate the carefully designed tables and boxes that summarise the key arguments throughout the book. These textual devices add great pedagogical depth to this work.

These merits notwithstanding, the book suffers from two main weaknesses, namely its account of the ‘racist regime’ that allegedly blights the Western mediascape, and a seemingly rushed final chapter on the internet. In a strange loss of balance and critical distance at odds with the rest of the book, in chapter 9 Siapera draws from a range of authors to argue that ‘the media’ in Denmark and other Western countries are blatantly racist.  Examples include Danish newspapers’ portrayal of Muslims, the representation of Albanians in ‘the Greek media’ and Hollywood films about Japan such as Lost in Translation. The trouble with this account is that it fails to mention that not all media outlets in the chosen countries share the same xenophobic stance. Take two of the outlets chosen as examples: the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet is renowned for its sensationalism whilst the Greek paper Adesmeftos Typos is linked to the rightist New Democracy Party. There are of course xenophobic news media across Europe – and indeed elsewhere – but their stance can only be understood in relationship to the editorial lines adopted by rival publications operating within the same national mediascape, including the left-liberal press. This is more than a quibble, as undergraduate students using this textbook are likely to follow suit and cherry-pick examples to suit their preconceptions about ‘the’ British/American/German etc. media being blatantly racist. To insist: some media outlets in those countries will adopt xenophobic stances, but by no means all. One key task of the media student is in fact to learn to (a) differentiate among the varied editorial stances likely to be found on a topical issue in any given country and (b) discover often subtle expressions of ideological biases (including xenophobia) that may not be apparent on first inspection.

The book ends with a rather disappointing chapter on the internet that gives the impression of having been written in haste. In stark contrast to the rest of the book’s carefully built arguments (bar the ‘racist regime’ discussion just mentioned) this chapter relies on notions such as the ‘network society’, ‘cyberspace’, ‘timeless time’, etc, that originate from an earlier era of internet research (e.g. Castells, Turkle, Nakamura). The result is a presentation on internet-mediated diversity that largely overlooks research undertaken over the past 10 years. In addition, parts of the chapter build on the unsubstantiated – and probably unfalsifiable – claim that ‘a well-established fact [is] that most internet use is personal’ (p. 194).

Be that as it may, Cultural Diversity and Global Media will be an invaluable resource for lecturers, teachers and students of media and cultural studies grappling with the complex issues surrounding ethnic and minority media in the contemporary era – issues that will certainly not go away. Particularly outstanding are the critical reviews of the relevant literatures on ethnic diversity, representation and nationalism, the helpful signposting, tables and boxes, and a comprehensive bibliography (except for the internet chapter).

John Postill
Barcelona, 3 December 2010

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 10:33 am

    See also Student review: Cultural Diversity and Global Media: The Mediation of Difference, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=414222&sectioncode=26

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