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Media anthropology and the anthropology of mediation

June 18, 2013

By Dominic Boyer via Rice University Anthropology

Media Anthropology and the Anthropology of Mediation. In The ASA Handbook of Social Anthropology, R Fardon (ed.) Sage, forthcoming.

When one speaks of media and mediation in social-cultural anthropology today one is usually referring to communication and culture. This is to say, when anthropologists use the term ‘media’, they tend to remain within a largely popular semantics, taking ‘media’ to mean communicational media and, more specifically, communicational media practices, technologies and institutions, especially print (Peterson 2001; Hannerz 2004), film (Ginsburg 1991; Taylor 1994), photography (Ruby 1981; Pinney 1997), video (Turner 1992, 1995), television (Michaels 1986; Wilk 1993; Abu-Lughod 2004), radio (Spitulnik 2000; Hernandez-Reguant 2006; Kunreuther 2006; Fisher 2009), telephony (Rafael 2003; Horst and Miller 2006), and the Internet (Boellstorff 2008; Coleman and Golub 2008; Kelty 2008), among others. These are the core areas of attention in the rapidly expanding sub-field of anthropological scholarship often known as the ‘anthropology of media’ or ‘media anthropology’, which has spent much of the last 40 years researching how the production and reception of communicational media texts and technologies have enabled or otherwise affected processes of cultural production and reproduction more generally.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this established focus on communication, and media anthropology has certainly thrived, particularly in the past 20 years, cementing its subdisciplinary substance and legitimacy through, among other things, a series of fine review articles (Spitulnik 1993; Ruby 1996; Mazzarella 2004; Coleman 2010), edited volumes (Askew and Wilk 2002; Ginsburg et al. 2002; Peterson 2003; Rothenbuhler and Coman 2005), professorial chairs and research and training centres (e.g., the USC Center for Visual Anthropology, the Program in Culture and Media at NYU, the Programme in the Anthropology of Media at SOAS, the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at Manchester University, the MSc in Digital Anthropology at University College London, among others), and research networks (e.g., EASA’s media anthropology listserv).

Yet, as my fellow practitioners of media anthropology would likely agree, it is very difficult to separate the operation of communicational media cleanly from broader social-political processes of circulation, exchange, imagination and knowing. This suggests a productive tension within media anthropology between its common research foci (which are most often technological or representational in their basis) and what we might gloss as processes of social mediation: i.e. social transaction in its broadest sense of the movement of images, discourse, persons and things. The problem of mediation obviously raises the question of practices of communicational media-making and media-receiving, which media anthropologists have addressed at length, especially in the last 20 years. But mediation also raises the question of how we should conceptualize ‘media’ in the first place.

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