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Free culture at a distance

March 3, 2011

During the Second World War, leading anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead embarked on an ambitious project at New York’s Columbia University funded by the US Office of Naval Research. Prevented by the war from conducting fieldwork in Asia and Europe, they set about studying the cultures of China, Poland, Germany and other nations ‘at a distance’ – through media such as poetry, novels, and films [1]. After the war, as conditions improved and researchers could return to their fieldwork sites, anthropological interest in media research all but disappeared until the late 1980s, when the anthropology of media took off in earnest [2].

Today we no longer study cultures at a distance – or do we?

I am asking this question because earlier this evening I attended an event in Barcelona ‘at a distance’, via a computer in England. The meeting was the third in an itinerant series called by its Twitter name of #redada. These are sessions organised by prominent free-culture activists in their struggle with the Spanish government and culture lobbies over the future of the internet. Participants coordinate these sessions via the internet and those who cannot attend in person can do so live via a free streaming platform and put questions to the panelists over Twitter.

When I realised that my unplanned trip to England clashed with the first #redada ever to be held in Barcelona (my current field site) I was very disappointed. For a moment, I had forgotten that much of what goes on within the social universe I am now focusing on – the world of free culture activism in Spain – takes place ‘at a distance’, especially via Twitter. How much did I miss by not ‘being there’ in the flesh [3]? Well, I probably missed a few chances to talk to and network with participants, perhaps over a beer and dinner after the event. On the other hand, from the comfort of my English study, undisturbed by the rich contextual cues of a co-present situation [4] I could pay attention to other features of the event, not least the social media uses of contemporary activists that are a key part of my research.

Moreover, like all other inhabitants of this social universe I can’t be physically present at all gatherings. Like them, sometimes I am remotely co-present, and sometimes I am absent. As this example shows, many of us today experience our (sub)cultures at a range of distances and through varying technological mediations.


[1]  Mead, M. and Métraux, R. 2000.  The Study of Culture at a Distance.  Oxford/New York:  Berghahn.

[2] Peterson, M.A. 2003.  Anthropology and Mass Communication: Myth and Media in the New Millennium.  Oxford/New York:  Berghahn.

[3] Geertz, C. 1988.  Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author,  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

[4] Liang Wenxin, He Kekang, “Effects of Contextual Cues and Support Requirements of Multimedia Animation on Children’s English Learning,” ettandgrs, vol. 1, pp.98-103, 2008 International Workshop on Education Technology and Training & 2008 International Workshop on Geoscience and Remote Sensing, 2008

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