After our successful Media Practices and Cultural Producers workshop (you can see the videos of the presentations and abstracts) we will held an open post-workshop debate at the list of the Media Anthropology Network of the European Asociation of Social Anthropologist (EASA), it will runs from the 2th to 13th of december. Sigurjón Hafsteinsson, the network coordinator, will be the moderator and Mark Deuze, the discussant. I am opening the floor by sharing my impressions and thoughts about the two main objectives of the workshop and posit some questions for the debate. And here it are the opening statements for the debate:
There were two main objectives of the workshop:
The first objective was to bring together researchers, scholars, professionals and students interested in an anthropological perspective of media but with an open minded inter-trans-mixed disciplinary approach in order to reinforce our common projects and the interchange of research experiences. We think that this objective was fully accomplished in that for two days we reviewed work-in-progress research on topics such as: co-presence and self-image in videoconference and webcam communication; Canadian networking indigenous self-representation; collective memory, pop venues and digital people’s practices; favelas (shanty towns) on the Internet and Internet in the favelas: Internet localisation and the digital divide in Brazil; Internet activism: expectations and frustrations with the trade union movement in Britain; media activism in digital documentary film in India; the making of Islamist religious TV series in Indonesia; the limits of production and distribution of young people’s videos with violent content in Spain; the rise of a mourning self-help online community in Italy; fan communities and media outlets in Brazil; and many other posters, debates and informal discussions around the imbrications between cultural production, media practices and digital technologies. The common understanding was that nowadays we cannot study current media production and consumption without taking into account digital media-related practices. (Abstracts and papers presentations are available on the media anthropology network and mediacciones websites).
The second objective of the workshop was to explore ways of doing research on digital media practices and their implications for the understanding of people’s interaction with media. This will be the focus of the conversation that I wish to open on this list with the following remarks on the Barcelona workshop. What follows is a very personal and summarised version of the four keynotes in which speakers tested the foundations of the very concepts that sustained the workshop’s claims, that is how we use theoretical concepts and how we think about ‘cultural producers’ and ‘media practices’.
Questioning ‘cultural producers’
Dorle Drackle opened the workshop by challenging the term ‘cultural producers’ as a way of understanding people’s interactions with media. She argued that ‘cultural producer’ describes what people do with digital technologies in terms of ‘content production’ and ‘joining social networks’, a flat description that involves a cultural industry perspective and to identify people as audience or consumers, and people’s products as commodities, seeing their activity as alienated or confronted to mass media hegemony. She claims that ‘producing’ does not take into account other people’s activities related to digital technologies such as being present to others, acting as mediators between worlds, acquiring literacy skills, being a social entrepreneur, connecting with friends and family, engaging people in common goals, bringing electricity to an isolated village as technological developers, relating people with artefacts and political issues, etc. All these activities are not understandable in the ‘classical’ or ‘critical’ paradigm of media studies (Frankfurt School). They might be better understood in terms of ‘cultural mediation’, understanding ‘mediation’ in the sense of transformative practices (Latour). Digital technologies are not passive intermediaries but actants that are put into work in very different ways creating heterogeneous networks and processes of cultural mediation, so people engaged with those networks’ in-between activities could be better defined as ‘cultural mediators’.
Des-articulating media and technology narratives
Don Slater discussed the main question of studies of the ‘impact’ of ICTs on society and how they help or not to reduce poverty. The idea was to reveal the narratives that involve development policy programmes, arguing that such narratives are based on unequal North/South relations in which the North brings the theories and the South provides the data. The problem is then what are the ‘best practices of technology introduction’ without questioning the narratives that articulate North/South relations and the ‘global’ narratives of the so called ‘Information Society’. He argues that the notion of ‘media’ does not provide a sturdy frame for the study of people’s worlds as it carries with it the presupposition that ‘media’ is the same in different cultural contexts. We must search for an analytical symmetry to des-articulate the language of legitimation of policies based upon the impact of ICTs in society. This has to be based upon an analytic language different from these performative narratives. ‘The media’ is a Western term (Raymond Williams), it has to do with urbanization, producer/consumer relations and has also a political agenda. Instead of speaking about media, it might be better to speak about ‘communicative practices’ or ‘communicative ecology’, understanding it as the whole structure of communication and information flows in people ways of life. The question then is: what are people assembling to make communication happen? And to look at the mundane bricolage, routines and stabilizations, to seek the actors know-how and to understand ecology as an orchestration of spaces. To understand people’s communication ecologies, it is necessary to do ethnography first, and not to impose our previous narratives and categories such as Media or ICTs in our questionnaires. We must depart from studies that only want to measure the impact of determinate media in people’s life or the frequency of exposure to it. This ethnographic research strategy with a conceptual reformulation of communication technology that eludes the topics of western narratives opens an array of new possibilities to understand people communicative ecology in different contexts and settings, such as rural Ghana.
But media are media…
In contrast, Nick Couldry does not think that we must depart from media studies, but to go further in developing media theory in a way that overcomes ‘mediacentrism’ and the collapse of media research after the ethnographies of reception turn and the current pluralization of media interfaces and trajectories. He argues that media research has been centred in: a)interpreting media text and analyzing media political economy; b) studying audiences reception from impact theories to encoding/decoding and ethnographies of reception that have shown the unpredictable, amorphous and ineffable ways of audience response to media (Hall, Morley, Ang, Bird). He urges a search for new descriptive languages proposing to think media AS practice. He explained that he initially has proposed to think media from a theory of practice perspective (Schatzki et altr.) but not to propose the concept of ‘media practice’, which has been so successful. Media AS practice means to de-centre text and media institutions –which claim to be ‘the’ media- from the core of the scene and to look at what people do with media or do and say related to media. To study media as practice means, for example, to study a practice such as ‘keeping up with the news’ and to look for the articulations and des-articulation of this practice with other practices such as ‘political engagement’. It implies also to look at how media is crossing different fields of activity, for example, professional health system, and which things are done through media and how. This new perspective promotes an expansion of the research field and new research questions related with how social orders emerge from practices.
What about cultural practices?
For Elizabeth Bird, the question is how media are incorporated into everyday communicative and cultural practices, such as popular rituals like weddings. She proposes to look at everyday people’s life and how media scripts and genres permeate cultural practices, from special occasions to mundane moments. Like Mark Hobart, she argues that we should focus on ‘media-related practices’ rather than people’s media responses and to analyze ‘mediated practices’ and ‘mediated moments’: how ritual and significant life moments are performed like media products, shaped by media scripts, forms or genres, and how moments of trivial life become ‘media content’, as in the YouTube popular celebrities cases of ‘I like turtles’ or ‘Don’t tase me, Bro!’. Our popular cultures, she argues, are interwoven with media scripts and texts. In ‘media-saturated’ cultural contexts, cultural production cannot be explained by a clear division between producers and audiences. So Bird does not propose a radical theoretical break. Classical anthropological concepts and theories are still useful but we need an intercultural perspective and to develop a methodology based on three angles: we must not forget rhetorical analysis but anchor it in ethnographic fieldwork and cross-cultural comparison.
So, what do we mean by media?
To recap, the threads of discussion running through these challenging proposals have to do with the destabilization of taken for granted concepts regarding media studies, the necessity to be careful with the theoretical concepts we use in relation to transcultural comparison and understandings, and to develop methodologies ethnographically grounded as a guarantee against ‘big’ theories that not take into account people’s agency and cultural ontologies. In that sense, ‘practice’ was generally accepted as a wide theoretical-methodological frame for understanding people’s doings but ‘media’ was more problematic:
Does ‘media’ have to be understood in terms of ‘mediation’ following the Latourian turn, as processes of translation and transformation, so mediation technologies do not necessary refer only to digital mediated communication nor to mass media outlets?
Must the term ‘media’ be dropped from our analytical vocabulary because it is a folk concept of western societies that implies power narratives?
Is the concept of ‘communication’ more inclusive and exhaustive for cultural comparison than ‘media’? What are the implications of both terms? What do they exclude or include?
Can we talk about ‘media’ as a useful concept to understand an array of practices that involve the unequal production, distribution, broadcasting and circulation of symbolic products in contemporary societies?