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Media and social changing

June 21, 2012

Over at the EASA Media Anthropology Network mailing list we’re holding our 40th e-seminar. The presenter is Shaun Moores (Sunderland University) and the title of his working paper is ‘Loose ends: lines, media and social change‘. More details on how to join this free session here. I’ve just posted this comment:

Like Jens and others, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Shaun’s paper but noticed that there isn’t much in it about social change. So I’d like to ask Shaun about media and social change in connection to his own work as well as Ingold’s work on lines and movement.

Lately I’ve been reviewing the media anthropology literature and it seems to me that so far we’ve done a lot more thinking about media and ‘social changing’ than  media and social change. By this I mean that we tend to discuss *how things were changing* at the time of our fieldwork rather than how they actually *changed*, say, in the 1990s, or in 1939-1945, in any given country or locale.

In this we are no different from most other media and communication scholars who study contemporary social worlds: we write about media (practices) in the present continuous. This marries well, I think, with phenomenological approaches such as Ingold’s in which human beings are perpetually in a state of ‘becoming’, forever work in progress. The trouble with this, I would suggest, is that we end up with oddly ahistorical accounts that can tell us a great deal about social changing but less so about social change.

Shaun mentions at the outset his oral history research on the domestication of radio in NW England in the 1920s and 1930s. My question is: can an Ingoldian approach be applied to such historical periods – or indeed, to more recent times – without falling into accounts in which everything is always ’emerging’ and no socio-technical processes ever run their course? What significant difference, if any, did radio make to people’s lives after it had been domesticated for several years? In turn, how did the socio-economic upheavals of the inter-War period shape people’s radio practices, e.g. post-1929?

I think these kinds of diachronic/historical questions should be asked not only by social historians of media, but also by ethnographers interested in media and social change (see also Postill 2009).

(Indeed, I’d be very interested to hear if anyone knows of any existing collaborative projects between media historians and media ethnographers.)



Postill, J. 2009. ‘What is the point of media anthropology?‘ Social Anthropology 17(3), 334-337, 340-342.


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