Amelia and I are engaging in media anthropology, we claim. And/or digital anthropology. But terms are just terms.

Given the prominent role of (mass, electronic, lately digital) media and (in Benedict Anderson‘s terms) of imagined communities — partly or entirely produced by media, and in cultures all around the world for past decades — it’s surprising how little research has explicitly been labelled as media anthropology. An exception would be the study of virtual realities that has been ongoing for quite some time, and produced such delightful projects as Boellstorf’s (partly autoethnographic) work  Coming of Age in Second Life.

Having conducted plenty of qualitative, ethnographic audience research, I still struggle with the exact borderline between sociology and anthropology. Both fields use the same method. Perhaps in the field of communication and media studies, a discipline without it’s own grand theory or methodology, but an eclectic mix of humanities and social sciences-oriented approaches, the distinction between how A or S approach media as they topic is particularly vague.

Some talk about aim and angle (sociology being more geared towards relationship with the society, and with the focus often on social justice issues, anthropology traditionally studying other cultures). Pardon my ignorance, I’m thinking aloud, but haven’t two of my heroes conducted anthropological work , the UK sociologist Morley on everyday life and television, the Finnish scholar Kytömäki on television viewing and families (latter, in fact, for the Dept. of Social Psychology).

I recently read a wonderful Finnish-language book on media anthropology (or, as the term is sometimes stated, anthropology of the media), first of its kind, by Sumiala. Her clever take was to frame the idea of the field around rituals (how media mediates as well as creates them, and thus creates communities). She discussed rituals related to production, media texts themselves, and reception. While this focus on rituals works, I intuitively find it slightly limiting, as well as the three categories, especially as my interest is in participation (and that nowadays tests  the boundaries of production, text and reception…)

Dunno. In our project, we actually aim at some point to connect political economy and macro-level considerations of socio-cultural and economic conditions to our descriptive micro-level ethnography. The reason why I’d like to call it anthropology is that I’d like the research to be about communal,  individual, cultural, social. I’d like to see culture as the umbrella, under which all other aspects such as social and economic structures are constructed.

There has been so much theorisation about digital media as a platform for new public spheres and so on. Most of the related empirical research is about global social movements. (More about this e.g, in a recent working paper by Erickson & myself).

Instead, I’d like out micro-level examination be as inductive., ‘grounded’, as possible. About the everyday of everyday people. And i should say that I’m quite an ‘other’ regarding the context of India, somewhat other in the USA, and slowly becoming an other regarding Finland 😉

IMHO: Whatever labels,  one thing is for sure. These times are made for communication research. (I’m not the only one to claim this, the World Bank bloggers agree 🙂  There’s no longer a need to see the field as an odd one out. The eclectic, inclusive nature of the field can now easily be utilised in multidisciplinary, multi-method research efforts — the kinds that can truly uncover aspects of our increasingly media-saturated cultures.

PS: My fave blog on media anthropology: http://johnpostill.wordpress.com

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