Paper short abstract:
What is the likely long-term impact of anthropology on media studies? A critical analysis of practice through ethnography is widely mooted as key. Most accounts of practice however are supplementary, rather than an alternative, to conventional analyses. So, is a more radical account possible?
Paper long abstract:
Anthropologists have had - at least in their own estimation - a significant impact on media and communication studies. Two related themes have emerged as particularly useful, both of which bear on the nature of the object of study. The first is an ethnographic approach to the structures and institutional processes of mass media, which leads to the second, namely the analysis of such structures as practices. The problem is what exactly is meant by practice, and how analyses in terms of practice relate to existing approaches. Is practice supplementary to structure or, more radically, does it seek to replace them? And what comprise relevant practices for study as, unlike structures and institutions, there are no self-evident boundaries?
In my paper I question recent anthropological approaches to the study of mass media and suggest that, for the most part, 'practice' comes close simply to a fairly conservative redescription of structures and institutions - be this media production or 'consumption', e-government or blogging - which runs the risk of reinscribing essentialized attributes to particular congeries of practices. By contrast, I wish to outline the possibility of a more radical and non-essentialist approach to practice. This approach would require anthropologists to reconsider the mass media by treating practices as constitutive not only of production, distribution and reception, but of their own analyses as well, so challenging the distinction between the object and subject of study. Such an approach however questions the possibility of media practices as a discriminable class of objects and is probably much too uncomfortable for the taste of most anthropologists.
Understanding media practices