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P015


Engaged media anthropology in the digital age [Media Anthropology Network] 
Convenorss:
Philipp Budka (University of Vienna)
Sahana Udupa (LMU Munich)
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Discussantss:
Birgit Bräuchler (Monash University)
Elisabetta Costa (University of Groningen)
Format:
Network affiliated Panels
Sessions:
Friday 24 July, 8:30-10:30, 11:00-13:00 (UTC+1)

Short Abstract:

What forms of engaged media anthropology have emerged in the digital age? This panel foregrounds two interrelated aspects: community projects that involve direct participation of anthropologists and studies that envision an inclusive future through critique and resistance via digital communication.

Long Abstract

The relative ease of access and potential disruptive features of digital media have opened up new opportunities for media anthropologists to extend their field relations into durable public engagement. These possibilities have encouraged anthropologists to collaboratively design various public engagement initiatives to harness digital media technologies and infrastructures for social justice goals including health, education, environmental protection, gender parity and political inclusion. Such direct interventions have gone hand in hand with critical perspectives on how "the digital" has played a key role in enabling political cultures of indignity and injustice - from online extreme speech to digitally enabled surveillance and algorithmic bias. This panel will foreground these two distinct, yet interrelated, aspects of engaged media anthropology: community projects that involve direct participation of anthropologists in designing digital platforms and applications, and in supporting local forms of media/digital activism; and studies that envision an inclusive future through public intervention strategies of critique and discursive resistance. 

A key question that drives this panel is whether the latest examples of engaged media anthropology that are enabled by digital technologies and infrastructures have signaled a break from the imperial logic of upliftment and betterment as a means to consolidate colonial power or whether enduring injustices are questioned through new means of collaboration and dialogue. What are the promises and limitations of engaged media anthropology in the digital age?

Accepted papers:

Authors:

Erkan Saka (Istanbul Bilgi University)
Suncem Kocer (Kadir Has University)

Paper short abstract:

Engaged anthropologists in Turkey are by default active participants of counter-publics. The political context harnesses digital/alternative media as venues of public scholarship. Anthropological work may reach to broader public spheres to perform multiple voices from social science to activism.

Paper long abstract:

In the context of rising authoritarianism and polarization, engaged anthropologists in Turkey are, by default, active participants of counter-publics. The political context harnesses digital and alternative media as venues of public scholarship where anthropological media work potentially reaches beyond the scholarly communities to broader public spheres, rendering a possibility of anthropology to bear the means of performing multiple voices from social science to activism for social and political ends. Our media work from nationwide news channel, to a local TV sports channel and our involvement in the emergence of several citizen media platforms, carried anthropological values of empowerment, collaboration, and dialogue into the domains of activism around social justice including the issues of health, education, environmental protection, gender parity, and political inclusion. As engaged anthropologists, we have continuously switched positions and performed multiple roles as academics, media producers, and activists. While, in traditional settings, we acted as guides with relatively didactic voices strategically performing a hierarchical standing, in citizen media contexts we built upon the intellectual capital we accumulated to collaborate with media activists. Thus we became active participants in public debates around media freedom, digital equality, and citizen rights. However, playing an active role in media activism means that engaged anthropologists can quickly become targets of authorities or can be trapped in sectarian struggles in a particular community. This presentation will highlight the opportunities and constraints of engaged media anthropology in affecting a social and political change in an increasingly authoritarian and polarized setting as in Turkey.

Author:

Sreedhar Nemmani (Temple University)

Paper short abstract:

The role of digital technologies in facilitating social change received considerable scholarly attention, both supporting and problematizing their affordances. This paper deliberates on the aspects of collaborative social movements and what it means for scholars to develop a collaborative platform.

Paper long abstract:

The spontaneous youth uprisings across the world, from Chile to Hong Kong, and from Europe to South Asia have once again brought the focus on the digital media in enabling the formation of virtual coalitions that facilitate on-ground resistances. A careful parsing of these resistances, however, highlights the need for taking emerging scholarship on the limitations of the affordances provided by the digital media platforms into consideration. While some scholars observe that digital resistances, like those that sprung in the Arab world, had more on-ground mobilization than earlier acknowledged, others contend that neither is digital equality a reality, not does access to digital platforms ensure socio-political equality based on their class, race, gender, and in some cases caste, among others. Based on the learnings gleaned from four-month fieldwork conducted in rural Southern India and based on an ongoing project of building a digital avenue for decentralized collaboration of the student-led protests in India, this paper highlights the need for reconsidering the concepts of media interventions. The paper argues that to achieve a truly collaborative effort the platform has to be truly decentralized. The paper deliberates different strategies that could be engaged in the creation of such a platform.

Authors:

Monika Palmberger (University of Vienna)
Philipp Budka (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

This paper strives to open up a discussion for a novel methodological framework by critically exploring explicit collaborative ethnographic research in times of increasingly personalized digital communication and interaction.

Paper long abstract:

Even though media and digital anthropology have the potential to dig deep into mediated social relations, ethnographic fieldwork and especially the relationship between ethnographers and research partners need to be rethought to meet the research challenges of an increasingly digitalized world. We are currently facing pressing methodological (including ethical) questions: How can we do participant observation when communication and interaction are increasingly 'individualized' and veiled due to digital technologies, particularly the smartphone? How can we meet arising issues concerning confidentiality and intimacy? How can we reach towards explicit collaborative research and the continuous inclusion of research partners throughout the research process? And what collaborative forms of collecting, interpreting and representing empirical data do we aspire for? We will discuss these questions by drawing on case studies from our fieldwork on the role and consequences of digital communication media in the contexts of refugee experiences in Austria and indigenous engagements in Canada. In doing so, and by critically reflecting upon conceptual approaches such as 'collaborative ethnography' (Lassiter, 2005) and 'decolonizing methodologies' (Smith, 1999), we aim to open up a discussion for a new methodological framework that is grounded in explicit collaborative ethnographic research in digital times. We thus provide a necessary methodological perspective for the project of an engaged media anthropology.

Author:

Jaron Harambam (KU Leuven)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the Dutch conspiracy milieu, I show how the internet is both the information sanctuary for hidden knowledge and a complex warzone where the manipulation of people's minds is central. I critically review the anthropologist's position amidst these battles.

Paper long abstract:

Conspiracy theories - in all their variety - are attractive for many different people for similarly varying reasons. As my ethnographic fieldwork in the Dutch conspiracy milieu made clear, the internet proved for many people the information sanctuary where they could learn about facets of life that, in their eyes, have been hidden or obscured before, but what is now open for everybody to see. In recent years, it has become clear that the internet is no longer the emancipatory open space in which information freely travels, but is increasingly structured and manipulated by various strategic actors and platform infrastructures alike. What does this mean for the circulation and popularity of conspiracy theories? And what role do anthropologists play here to keep the internet a free space where quality information thrives and people are in control over the information they get to see. In this paper, I document this historical shift in the way information circulates on the internet, and based on my research, critically review current efforts to deal with this new but precarious situation. These boil down to 1) educating or empowering people, 2) platform (self) regulation, which both have potentials but serious limitations. I conclude by proposing alternative options for anthropologists to engage with various publics and the information they hold dear to foster deliberation instead of manipulation. These are inspired by STS efforts to include laymen in epistemic controversies and here take form as citizen knowledge platforms assessing the quality and credibility of online knowledge.

Author:

Sahana Udupa (LMU Munich)

Paper short abstract:

What kind of participant observation is possible when online right-wing trolls are the subject matter of media anthropology? This paper asks how anthropology, in its excavation of the normative, has to reconcile its own methodological ethics in times of digitally enabled right-wing politics.

Paper long abstract:

Engaged media anthropology implies a normative position that considers research interlocutors as partners—co-creators of knowledge, rather than research subjects—patronized, exploited and spoken for. The crisis of representation and subsequent shift towards reflexive anthropology have institutionalized, with laudable effect, the ethic of recognizing interlocutors and researchers as co-travelers in the journey of "being human" (Miller 2018). Such ethical standards undergirding "engaged media anthropology" become strained and even appear preposterous, when digital mobs who vandalize digital safety and dignity become the focus of research. How can we see trolls as co-travelers, let alone "partner" with them? What kind of participant observation is possible and legitimate in contexts where online right-wing trolls are the subject matter? Beginning with Miller and Horst's astute observation that anthropology is one of the few disciplines equipped to "immerse itself in the process by which digital culture becomes normative culture" (2013, p.30), this paper asks how anthropology, in its excavation of the normative, has to contend with the difficult challenge of reconciling its own methodological ethics in times of digitally enabled right-wing politics. It begins this inquiry by delving into three aspects of digital anthropological fieldwork on right-wing political cultures: lurking, lags and empathy.

Author:

Benedict Mette-Starke (University of Constance)

Paper short abstract:

This panel contribution focuses on collaborative knowledge production as both a means and a limitation to an engaged media anthropology of digital rights activism in Myanmar. Can knowledge production through alliances mediate inequalities in knowledge production?

Paper long abstract:

Working as an anthropologist in relation to digital rights activism in Myanmar necessitates engagement, in both the sense of direct participation and critical studies. Digital rights activism both works through digital media as well as critically on the digital.

My interlocutors produce knowledge as a support for activism and to grasp processes otherwise subject to interpretation, like who disseminated which news for what reason. Through collaboration, I get to critically engage and contribute to their activist knowledge production. The facticity of their research helps activists, for instance, in carving out spaces for ‚free speech' and against ‚hate speech'. Through their campaigns and advocacy, they try to build sustainable non-violent infrastructures.

The freedoms they envision in the process are sometimes encompassed within human rights, e.g. freedom of expression. Addressing human rights could land people in jail until the recent so called 'opening up' (Wiles 2015; Chua 2018). What kinds of privileges rights entail today and who accepts them is not fixed, both when it comes to social media companies and locals. Therefore, activism depends on relating through difference. While they are envisioning an inclusive future through their relations and alliances, who is supposed to be included in what on a larger scale remains an issue.

As a remainder, those alliances, with others and me, potentially disrupt the encompassing (compare Strathern 1988) or totalising (compare Rio and Smedal 2008) tendencies in knowledge production. They can contravene empire building locally, through leaders who accrue fame, as well as in knowledge production.

Authors:

Roger Canals (University of Barcelona)
Gemma Orobitg (Universidad de Barcelona)
Gemma Celigueta Comerma (Universitat de Barcelona)

Paper short abstract:

How can we bring together and visualize the plurality of voices involved in the ethnographic research? This paper critically tackles this question by exposing the preliminary results of the project MEDIOS INDIGENAS, an investigation on indigenous and afroamerican communities' uses of new media.

Paper long abstract:

Since the end of the 20th century, indigenous and African-American peoples have played a leading role in the redefinition of numerous Latin American states and societies. New indigenous and African-American media have emerged, mainly radios, digital news agencies and video producers, reaching an outstanding presence in the social networks.

Indigenous media have revealed themselves as active platforms for political agendas and new forms of social mobilization. In addition, they are devices for discussing and redefining cultural diversity and ethnic stereotypes and challenging the imposition of political patterns.

INDIGENOUS MEDIA (http://mediosindigenas.ub.edu/) is based on a set of ethnographic studies whose objective is to understand the relationship between indigenous and Afro-American minorities and the new media. It is also aimed at investigating the actual uses of indigenous and afroamerican media, delving into their meanings and their social effects.

The main objective of the project is to develop a set of "indigenous and African-American theories" of media communication. To do this, we designed a website, still under construction, with a triple objective: (1) Mapping and making visible the diversity and span of indigenous and African-American media. (2) Acting as a meeting platform among indigenous and African-American communicators, anthropologists, experts and a general audience thus fostering the research itself; (3) Setting up a communication channel for this multi-modal and collaborative project -which includes films, photos and texts.

This approach is committed with the ethical and epistemological urgency to integrate the plurality of voices and worldviews that intersect in an ethnographic investigation about media.

Authors:

Petra Žišt (Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute)
Christopher Csikszentmihalyi (Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute)

Paper short abstract:

The paper presents a socio-technical innovation in fostering local community radio as a social media. A mix of analogous and digital technologies, their affordability and accessibility open up a new space for collaboration in the community, as well as between the people, researchers and engineers.

Paper long abstract:

Digital media has opened up a space to think critically about the transformation of mass media and people's relationships with it, as well as opened up new work opportunities for anthropologists (Peake 2018). This paper will present a community media project development that involves participation of anthropologists and social scientists at an interactive technologies institute in co-designing and supporting a local form of social media. This socio-technological innovation project combines analogous and digital technologies - radio as an old media and the Rootio software (a platform on the cloud that can be controlled on the website or on the phone) and hardware (an antenna made from irrigation tubes; low cost transmitter in a bucket, phone) - that enable an affordable and easy community radio station (without the need for a real studio). The paper will shed a light on this community radio vision in the context of recent theories in engaged media, applied and digital anthropology, design anthropology, STS studies, open source software and others (Bessire 2012, Pink and Abram 2015, Correia 2019). Public engagement initiative to harness digital media technologies and infrastructures for fostering access to information, inclusion, civic participation and media pluralism, communication and community deliberation in isolated, small and rural communities (or in an art festival urban community) is necessarily a collaborative and interdisciplinary work between engineers, social scientists, and communities. This collaboration and dialogue is based on ethnography and participatory design techniques and some instances of this work from Madeira and Cape Verde will be presented.

Author:

Gerhard Schönhofer (Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt)

Paper short abstract:

How can media-anthropology contribute to critical evaluations of production, presentation and circulation of short films, beings produced in workshops by minor refugees? Incorporating sociological practice theories, presumed positions on representation of the self and the other will be evaluated.

Paper long abstract:

Since 2015, mass migration of refugees is regularly represented as threat by German media . As one consequence, various institutions and organizations have established film-workshop formats for minor refugees in order to address the problem of invisibility by collaboratively producing audio-visual media . But what exactly can be identified as constituting agendas of these initiatives? How can media-anthropology contribute to a critical evaluation of processes such as production, presentation and circulation in the context of researching such collaboratively produced short-films? In my talk, I will give insights into my research on workshop formats, that aim for participation, integration and empowerment. Encountering participants and coordinators, I found myself at crossroads between socially constructed categories which - as prior works have shown - depend on historically grown traditions of thought. Promoting ideas of empowerment, inclusion, equality and media-accessibility, coordinators co-construct subordinate positions of their "clients". Incorporating sociological practice and performance theories , these presumed positions and their contribution to (self-)perception and representation, will be questioned.

Author:

Daniele Karasz (ENSA Paris La Villette)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focusses on the development of a digital platform at neighbourhood level. In this context, the interplay of physical vicinity and online anonymity exposed engaged neighbours to racist campaigns. I discuss the positioning of engaged media Anthropology in the field of social housing.

Paper long abstract:

In 2011, I started to develop a digital platform for the Viennese neighbourhood "Monte Laa" in cooperation with an initiative of residents. Financed by the municipality, the project should foster the living together of neighbours with different background in an area of subsidized estates. We conceived a system of online platforms including a digital museum of the neighbourhood, an online forum, etc. Since 2019, I am, finally, involved into the renewal of the platforms on behalf of a housing association. As applied research, both projects did pursue policy goals, such as social sustainability and social mix.

The paper first describes the experiences of engaged neighbours that were especially involved into the development of the local online platforms. I will discuss how the digital platforms became a possibility for them to organize activities, such as festivities and language courses. At the same time, the platforms entailed risks, linked to the interplay of physical vicinity and digital anonymity. Active neighbours exposed themselves in their direct residential environment. Especially if stigmatized as migrants, they were confronted with anonymized, violent, racist campaigns against their open engagement for an active, diverse neighbourhood (according with the policy goals). In the light of this experience, I will discuss the difficult positioning of engaged media Anthropology in the field of social housing. While much work in digital ethnography focusses on the overcome of physical distance in social relations, the field of housing offers specific challenges, due to the growing importance of digital communication for explicitly localized social relations.