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«ABSTRACT The meeting between cultural anthropology and mass media is, in fact, a meeting between an object of research and a scientific discipline. ...»

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Media Anthropology: An Overview

Mihai Coman

University of Bucharest, Romania



The meeting between cultural anthropology and mass media is, in fact, a meeting

between an object of research and a scientific discipline. In such a situation, the discipline

brings with it certain delineations, a number of investigating methods, and a group of

relatively specific concepts and theories. In the case of media anthropology, the fact that various researchers do not assume that clear disciplinary identity (with roots in sociology, cultural studies, narratology, history, etc) yet use concepts specific to cultural anthropology, as well as research methods intimately related to this science (ethnographic methods), may appear as a random meeting, and a passing experience. Especially since the authorized representatives of cultural anthropology have treated these attempts with skepticism. On the other hand, border-crossing and interpreting mass media phenomena from a cultural anthropology perspective can also be understood as the beginning of delineating a new subdiscipline of cultural anthropology, or of communication studies, a sub-discipline that has as its research object a specific form of cultural creation - the mass media. Or as the first step in the creation of a new anthropological frame for the study of the global and mediated cultural phenomena.

“For many years mass media were seen as almost a taboo topic for anthropology” (Ginsburg et al, 2003:3). Faye Ginsburg’s formula states a truth and hides another. Indeed, anthropologists have not been interested in mass media, or have reduced it to a simple work tool for (what they thought it represented) an “accurate” recording of social facts, or to an accessory in the study of other social and cultural phenomena. But why have they overlooked mass media with such fervor? Why was media “a kind of forbidden object to anthropologists working non-Western settings” (Ginsburg, 2002: 369) and Western-settings too? Where does the reluctance to accept media anthropology as an interdisciplinary field come from? Why have they acted as if mass media were a taboo?

Media, Mass and Anthropology A common sense definition for media anthropology would say that it represents the application of instruments (theories, concepts, research methods) from a field of science, cultural anthropology, onto an investigated object, in this case media (i.e. communication mediated by technologies and institutions, be it mass or group, “big” or “small” – Spitulnik, 2002:179-184). It exactly what suggested one of the first approaches to the field: “We feel that media anthropology is an awareness of the interaction (both real and potential) between the various academic and applied aspects of anthropology and the multitude of media” (Eiselein, Topper, 1976:114). This phenomenon is not new, because several sciences can claim the interpretation of the same social system (history of tourism, sociology of tourism, geography of tourism, anthropology of tourism). In this case, besides older actors of mass media research such as sociology, economics, history, law, ethics, and psychology, anthropology as well can find a place under the sun of mass media, interpreting, with its own tools, the same realities interpreted, in an already legit manner, by its sisters. This point of view is suggested by Coman and Rothenbuhler (2005:1), who believe that “media anthropology grows out of the anthropology of modern societies, on one hand, and the cultural turn in media studies, on the other. It turns its attention from “exotic” to mundane and from “indigenous” to manufactured culture while preserving the methodological and conceptual assets of earlier anthropological tradition. It prepares media studies for more complete engagement with the symbolic construction of reality and the fundamental importance of symbolic structures, myth, and ritual in everyday life.” But in the case of media anthropology things are not simple, firstly because of the ambivalent relationship between the sciences (now) in dialogue: for cultural anthropology, confronted with an identity crisis, it would be reluctant to widen its borders, while mass media, confronted with a growth crisis, has the tendency to lose its identity by extending without limits toward the most heterogenous areas of social life. In other words, “selfcanibalism” (Argyrou, 2002:75) for anthropology is media studies bulimia. From this stems the eclecticism (theoretical and methodological) specific to many representatives of media studies (who must conceptualize permanently emergent processes) and the jacobinism of many representatives of canonical anthropology, who are preoccupied to defend and relegitimize a theoretical system confronted with an identity crisis. This fracture generates more series of ambiguities and paradoxes.

The Paradox of Definitions “The term media anthropology itself was coined in a brief flurry of activity following the 1969 American Anthropological Association meetings” and had as starting point “the concern of a growing number of anthropologists about both the death of public knowledge of anthropological concepts and their own lack of skills and channels to disseminate them” (Allen 1994:2). According to the same author, the debates and research within this field have led to the development of two branches: (1) the research branch, which “studies structure, function, process, impact, etc., of media information, technologies, professionals, audiences” and (2) the applied branch (1994:27). The latter, in its turn, has two functions: “The function of the direct or academic division of the applied branch is to communicate anthropological information and insights through media channels in widely acceptable styles and formats, but through more or less traditional anthropological subject matter (...) In the more indirect division, media anthropologists – with training in both anthropology and communication – may assume a role traditionally associated with the media. Rather than focusing only on anthropological subject matter per se, it seeks to expose people to information that can generate a more universal perspective” (1994:29). The applied field also attempts to promote anthropology in various media by influencing journalism practices to add a sixth “W” – Whole – to the conventional list of “who, what, when, where and how,” in order to “to create an alternative method of gathering and presenting information that can help fill the educational vacuum, not with more detail, but more perspective” (Allen 1994:24). In essence the applied branch appears as a form of public relations or media relations, whose purpose is to promote the anthropologists’ accomplishments and anthropology’s vision about the world, by adapting communication techniques to the specifics of the journalistic work and in some cases through efforts to model the profession’s values according to some values of cultural anthropology.

Later, without a direct link to the efforts of this scholars from applied anthropology discipline, other researchers have launched various labels to name an anthropological approach of mass media: media anthropology, anthropology of media, anthropology of mass media, mass communication anthropology, anthropology of culture and media. Each of these implies a difference in the design of the conceptual framework and of the subject matter.

Debra Spitulnik (1993:293) believes, “Given the various modalities and spheres of operation, there are numerous angles of approaching mass media anthropologically: as institutions, as workplaces, as communicative practices, as cultural products, as social activities, as aesthetic forms, as historical developments”. Despite the vast areas of investigation, the studies reviewed by Spitulnik have so far focused only on visual anthropology and ethnographic films, indigenous and alternative media, national media, and interpretative practices at both ends of the mass communication process. K. Askew (2003:3), who uses both the terms media anthropology and anthropology of media, defines this type of approach as an “ethnographically informed, historically grounded, and context-sensitive analysis of the ways in which people use and make sense of media technologies”. From this perspective, the field is defined by the technological dimension of the modern forms of communication, and the angle of approach is fundamentally (and restrictively) ethnographic.

For F. Ginsburg et al (2002:23) an anthropological perspective on media should explore “the dynamics of all these social processes of media consumption, production, circulation”. And Osorio (2005: 36) writes: “Mass media anthropology is a field within the discipline dealing with the relationship between the mass media and culture. The specific point of this is how culture is transmitted through the mass media. Therefore, we study a process or system by means of which society is shaped. Anthropology is the social science studying culture.

Therefore, mass media anthropology is the field within anthropology studying the way in which culture shapes us through the mass media”.

The previous definitions vacillate between to poles: accordingly, media anthropology is or should be only a tool for applied anthropology or a theoretical perspective on media and anthropology.

The Paradox of Actors

Many investigations have been carried out, from within the cultural anthropology, focusing on the consumption and production of mass media messages in non-modern communities, be they in the Third World, or “exotic” enclaves in Western countries (synthesis in Askew 2002, Dickey 1997, Ginsburg et al, 2002, Kottak 1996, Peterson, 2003, Spitulnik 1993). These studies were done in the light of classical anthropological themes such as cultural difussion, acculturation, the relationship between indigenous societies on one hand, and modernity and globalism on the other, creation and loss of local memory and identity, the relationship with the ritual system, literary and artistic traditions and religion.

„Authentic” anthropologists have been much less interested in how the media are produced and consumed in the modern society. These studies have been developed under the flag of “cultural studies”. The numerous and very popular studies of this kind have dealth either with the ethnography of reception, or with the ethnography of the production, in Western or Westernalised societies (synthesis in Barker, 2000, Berkowitz, 1997, Cottle, 2000, Moreley, 1992, Nugent, 1997, Tuchman, 1991). Neither of these approaches have been conducted starting from an anthropological program as such, but rather from a major theme of cultural studies: the role of culture as terrain of battle between the hegemonic force of the dominant classes and the resistence of popular classes. In these studies anthropologic tools were perceived as a solution to evade from the (classical) theoretical and methodological frames of the sociology of mass communication: „Significantly, media scholars invoke anthropology at precisely the point at which scientific approaches to society prove manifestly inadequate” (Hobart, 2005:26). Consequently and paradoxically, in the exact moment when anthropology was at the maximum point of „disciplinary anxieties” (Apadurai, 1995:204), of criticism up to self-distruction of its conceptual and methodological aparatus, media studies scholars have resorted to the anthropological „tool box” as a tank of saving concepts and methods, adequate to the interpretation of modernity and above all epistemologic doubts.

Another perspective, involving both media scholars and anthropologists was devoted to the study of the connection between media contents and elements of the symbolic production of reality such as myth, ritual, religion (synthesis in Coman, 2003, Coman and Rothenbuhler, 2005, Couldry, 2003, Hoover, 1988, Saebo, 2003, Thomas, 2005).

The Paradox of the Fields The approaches coming from the anthropologists’ camp seem to offer several privileged fields. One refers to the use of media techniques and media systems by anthropologists in order to (a) better record, “save” and disseminate the social practices of the insiders, (b) promote their field or (c) improve the content of the journalistic practices. Another refers to the investigation of the ways in which different “indigenous” groups use media in order to disseminate their culture and to affirm a specific identity. Another perspective looks to mass media as a specific “field”, employing cultural anthropological methods and concepts in order to interpret the “media culture”. Within this field I would include (a) the study of the influence of channels (oral, scriptural, audiovisual or Internet) on media content or media consumption, (b) the studies of the processes through which these cultural products are institutionally created and distributed by specialists in the mass media industry, (c) the investigation of processes by which these products are consumed and invested with meanings by different types of audience and (d) the analysis of media contents. All these phenomena could be adressed at a local, national, transnational or “global” level and in relationship with various social agencies. The vastity of the mass media system leads to some authors underlining the material dimension (ethnographically noticeable) and putting at the center the mediation phenomena, and the contributions of the actors involved in this process (Figure 1), and others preferring to focus on the study of contents and the construction processes of cultural representations in and by these contents (Figure 2).

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