PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de González
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16 16 MEDIA ANTHROPOLOGY: MEDIA ANTHROPOLOGY: MEANING, EMBODIMENT, MEANING, EMBODIMENT, INFRASTRUCTURE, AND INFRASTRUCTURE, AND ACTIVISM ACTIVISM
Bryce Peake, University of Maryland, Baltimore County email@example.com
Learning Objectives Learning Objectives
• Describe the history of media anthropology including initial resistance to media as a topic of anthropological study.
• Identify the major categories of media that are studied by anthropologists.
• Explain how anthropologists explore the meaning of media and media experiences including the ways meaning can be shared or contested by individuals and communities.
• Evaluate innovative approaches to media anthropology including autoethnography, photo voice, participatory photography, and fabrication.
• Assess the importance of mechanical and cultural infrastructure for the exchange of ideas.
Media is a word that can be used to describe a set of technologies that connect multiple people at one
time to shared content. Media anthropologists study mass communication (broadcast radio and tele-
vision) and digital media (Internet, streaming, and mobile telephony) with a particular interest in the
ways in which media are designed or adapted for use by specific communities or cultural groups. Many
research projects focus on media practices, the habits or behaviors of the people who produce media,
the audiences who interact with media, and everyone in between.
Many classic anthropological concepts are incorporated in studies of media. For example, in her
ethnography of Egyptian television soap operas, Dramas of Nationhood (2004), Lila Abu-Lughod sought
to understand how watching these programs contributed to a shared sense of Egyptian cultural identity.
In her ethnography, Romance on the Global Stage (2003), Nicole Constable examined how the Internet
was transforming ideas about marriage and love by contributing to new kinds of “mail-order bride”
economies in which men in the United States could communicate with women thousands of miles
away. Utilizing classic ideas about ritual and community life pioneered by Margaret Mead and Bro-
nislaw Malinowski, Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life (2015) explored the ways that
people were building realistic communities using virtual reality software like Second Life. Anthropo-
logical concepts of ritual, magic, taboo, and organic solidarity can be used effectively to examine the
role that media plays in the lives of individuals and communities. Like other specializations in anthro-
pology, studies of media are also organized around a commitment to long-term ethnographic fieldwork
and cultural relativism.
This chapter introduces some of the theories, insights, and methodologies of media anthropology. At
the heart of media anthropology is the assertion that media practices are not universal. Whether we
are discussing how television is viewed, how public relations coordinators negotiate corporate hierar-
chies, how Facebook statuses are created and circulated, or how cellular towers are built, the local cul-
tural context plays an important role.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEDIA ANTHROPOLOGY
Media anthropology has a surprisingly long history. In 1950, Hortense Powdermaker completed the
first ethnographic and social scientific study of Hollywood studios. Her book, Hollywood: The Dream
Factory, preceded by approximately a decade the formation of the academic field of media studies and
the theories of mass culture that are popular today. Powdermaker, a student of Franz Boas, was at the
forefront of mass communication studies.
Powdermaker’s groundbreaking study of media was immediately disavowed by others in the social
sciences who believed that media was a topic unworthy of study. “Hollywood as ‘Dream Factory’ Just
Nightmare to Femme Anthropologist,” a book review in Variety read.1 A review of the book in the Amer-
ican Sociological Review dismissively stated: “The notion, for some time suspect, that previous investiga-
tion of a primitive tribe uniquely qualifies a person to study a sophisticated society… is now revealed
to be absurd. The anthropological method here [in sophisticated society] consists of little more than a
series of inane analogies.”2 And so, with the continuation of time, anthropology left the study of mass
media to scholars in sociology, political science, and psychology.
408 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 1: Anthropologists have only recently begun ethnographically studying journalists. Here, a Latina journalist working for a conservative, Catholic news outlet interviews a Donald Trump impersonator at a pro-Trump Rally. How, anthropologists might ask, do transnational identities and religion impact perceptions of American politics? Photo by Bryce Peake.
Mass media became a central part of life after
World War I and influenced even those cultures
that outsiders considered isolated or “primitive.”
Anthropologists of that era developed two differ-
ent excuses for avoiding the study of media. The
first was the need to distinguish cultural anthro-
pology from journalism. As Elizabeth Bird (2009)
wrote, ethnographers were often dismissed as
overqualified journalists. Anthropologists who
wanted to be seen as scientists (as sociologists
often were) wanted to distance themselves as much
as possible from mass media, a subject regarded as
unserious. Cultural anthropologists also suspected
that elitist book and journal editors might dismiss
poor ethnographic work as “mere journalism”
undeserving of “serious” scholarly consideration.
Second, through the 1980s, the discipline of cultural anthropology wanted to distinguish itself from the
rising fields of American and British cultural studies, disciplines that had a central interest in interpret-
ing media as “texts” that could reveal cultural values. The cultural studies approach was generally not
based on holistic ethnography, which cultural anthropologists continued to see as the defining feature
of their profession.3
Today, media is a much more mainstream object of analysis in American cultural anthropology and
media research also offers a significant career path for many young anthropologists. The company
ReD, for example, hires anthropologists as consultants to help telecommunication and media compa-
nies innovate new technologies. These anthropologists use social theory and ethnographic methods
to help create media technologies for the future. Similarly, major technology companies like Intel and
Microsoft employ a number of anthropologists in their artificial intelligence, social media, networked
systems, and “Internet of Things” labs. These anthropologists combine corporate work with research,
publishing some of the most cutting edge research in the fields of anthropology and technology in dis-
ciplines like Human Centered Computing. These professionals draw on debates in media anthropology
to inform new developments in media technologies, communication and advertising strategies, and cul-
What do media anthropologists do to better understand media practices? Media anthropologists typ-
ically organize their studies of media in two ways. First, they choose a category or type of media:
mobile telephones, radio, television, Internet, or others. The choice of media to be studied varies widely
between anthropologists. Some media anthropologists work on a topic that crosses multiple technolo-
gies (such as radio, which is both broadcast via airwaves and streamed via the internet). Others con-
cern themselves with a particular technology like mobile phones (which play music, allow for phone
calls, and support gaming communities) and explore how that single technology contributes to different
types of media practices. Some media anthropologists even study the people who study media (such as
Figure 2: Media anthropologists frequently study the connection between politics and representation. Here, a Brexit information booth sponsored by the Gibraltarian government provides an Instagram frame to pose with. An anthropologist might ask: why do people think Instagram, and photos, are a medium for political participation? Photo by Bryce Peake.
a study of people who work as advertising researchers, or studies of media scientists in different coun-
Second, media anthropologists locate their ethno-
graphic studies within a particular community. The way
media anthropologists define “community” varies.
Some may choose to study a “virtual” community like
Tom Boellstorff did in his study of the virtual reality
platform Second Life. Others may choose to study how
a geographical community, such as a town or a region,
uses, adapts, or transforms under the influence of a cer-
tain kind of media or technology. This is the approach
taken by Lila Abu-Lughod and Nicole Constable in the
examples mentioned above. Media anthropologists may
also study the ways that mass communication and digi-
tal media connect diasporic communities, cultural com-
munities dispersed from their original homelands.
Many media anthropology projects have focused on
questions of meaning. Meaning refers to the ideas or
values that accompany the exchange of information.
Historically, some media scientists assumed that the
meaning of information was unaffected by its transfer
between communities or by the medium of its transfer.
In other words, they believed that information would be
interpreted the same way regardless of how it was communicated, or who was receiving it. Anthropol-
ogists have demonstrated that the reality is much more complex. In her book Dramas of Nationhood, Lila
Abu-Lughod asked questions about how nationally televised Egyptian soap operas were interpreted by
those who watched them. Her research revealed several important insights. First, what soap opera
directors and writers intended for a television show to mean was not necessarily what communities of
watchers interpreted the show to mean. Simply put, producers cannot wholly control meaning or the
value(s) that will be identified by a group of watchers. Second, different media give different messages
or meanings. If the same message is broadcast on radio and television, the histories and cultural associ-
ations of these two technologies affects the meaning of the message being conveyed. Televised soap
operas were interpreted quite differently, for instance, than the spoken poetry Abu-Lughod had studied
in her previous research in Egypt. Third, Abu-Lughod demonstrated that there is no universal way of
consuming media; media consumption is bound to culture. How Egyptian women participate in lis-
tening to or watching soap operas together, the practices of who sits where, of what can or cannot be
eaten during a show, or of when a show might be aired, is all bound to the norms and values of the
community. These three assertions about meaning are broadly applicable to all cultures and have set the
agenda for most academic and professional research in media anthropology.
Unlike other academic fields that study media and meaning, media anthropologists focus on how
producers and audiences share or contest different types of meaning. Ethnographies by media
anthropologists typically focus on the ways producers of media assume, or seek to stimulate, a particu-
lar set of feelings in audiences, and how audiences can give feedback to media producers. In his ethnog-
raphy of advertising agencies in Sri Lanka, for example, Steven Kemper (2001) observed that “when
they are able, advertising agencies hire local staff” because they can “think like,” and thus sell to, local
audiences.4 In the process, local advertising staff become the audiences they imagine others to be and
410 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 3: Media anthropologists frequently ask how transnational media create a sense of community and change the ways people engage with their environments. At this Indian restaurant on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, restaurant owners have removed a street sign and mounted a TV in its place in order to show Italy playing in a European Union Football Association Cup Match. A family sits and eats. As Mario, the man on the end, explained “It was the only seat to watch the match left in the entire [village]… I would be the only person on the island that didn’t [watch it] if I wasn’t here.” Photo by Bryce Peake.
their work helps to define a new class of consumers who purchase globalized media products. Media
production and consumption are interconnected, one creating the conditions for the other.
Many media anthropology projects have focused on mass communication, the process of sending a
message to many people in a way that allows the sender complete control over the content of a mes-
sage—although, as described above, not control over the meaning. This is the definition of mass com-
munication: one-to-many communication that privileges the sender and/or owner of the technology
that transmits the media. Such a description is not without its challenges. As Francisco Osorio (2005)
argues, talking drums like those used in New Guinea not only fit the definition of mass communi-
cation—a message sent from one to many that privileges the sender—the talking drums example also
reveals the ways in which there is an implicit prioritization of electricity in media anthropology, an
assumption that mass communication involves electrical technology. This is ethnocentric given the
uneven distribution of electrical infrastructure. Dominic Boyer, an anthropologist who has written
ethnographies about both energy infrastructures like electricity and German journalists writing inter-
national news, proposed that we move from media anthropology to an “anthropology of mediation.”5
Rather than use a universal definition of what counts as media to the anthropologist, Boyer’s term
anthropology of mediation focuses on the way images, speech, people, and things become socially sig-
nificant or meaningful as they are communicated. The focus is shifted away from the technology itself, a
controversial approach that some have criticized for transforming media anthropology into an “anthro-
pology of everything.”
As a result of this proposal for an anthropology
of mediation, some anthropologists have started to
study the physical human senses that make mean-
ingful interactions with media possible. As Charles
Hirschkind (2006) argues for example, the power
of a cassette tape sermon in Egypt in “lies not sim-
ply in its capacity to disseminate ideas or instill
religious ideologies but in its effect on the human
sensorium… the soundscape produced through the
circulation of this medium animates and sustains a
substrate of sensory knowledges and embodied
aptitudes.”6 Hirschkind is suggesting that the feel-
ing that Muslim listeners experience while listen-
ing to the sermons—rather than the precise
meaning or value of the information— is more sig-
nificant for understanding the appeal of these
tapes. This is an example of research that focuses
on mediation rather than simply assessing the
meaning of the information transferred.
Sensory approaches to mediation present some methodological dilemmas. When media anthropolo-
gists study meaning ethnographically they can ask audiences what a particular example of media means
or what a person finds meaningful about it. Anthropologists studying the sensory dimensions of media-
tion do not have direct access to how audiences feel media. We can ask how audiences feel, but describ-
ing a feeling involves translating physical sensation into language, a difficult process. To get around this
problem, ethnographers of mediation have used innovative approaches to participant-observation that
include techniques from psychoanalysis,7 depth interviews that closely analyze how audiences create
meaning rather than what meaning is,8 and autoethnographic approaches in which the anthropologist
explores his or her own personal experiences. These research techniques are used to reduce the gap
between what people experience and what they can describe.9
Debates about the significance of media, mediation, meaning and the senses have occurred primarily
in the context of studies of mass communication because mass communication technologies like broad-
cast radio, television, and cinema are the most globally available. While people in Europe and the United
States might speak of the death of older “legacy” media like radio and VHS tapes, these mediums play
crucial roles in the lives of peoples in other places. Lynn Stephen (2012), for example, describes how the
takeover of a local radio station by a group of women protesters was crucial to their efforts to orga-
nize around human rights issues in Oaxaca, Mexico.10 Brian Larkin (2008) has discussed the economic
importance of pirated VHS tapes of recent films in Nigeria, a country in which gross domestic product
cannot be easily calculated due to the size of various shadow economies.
While mass communication is a form of one-to-many communication typically broadcast on widely
available channels, digital media is a much more personalized many-to-many communication that
involves the use of digital signals. In her ethnography of LGBT youth in rural America, Mary Gray
(2009) argued that the Internet’s more closely controlled access points allowed queer youth to carve
out online spaces for their emerging identities. The importance of these online spaces for developing
personal identity also meant that it was difficult to distinguish between “online” and “offline” personas.
Gray took a meaning-focused approach to understand the ways in which rural LGBT youth create iden-
tities and feelings of belongingness in concealed online worlds. Jeffrey Juris (2008) has argued that the
Internet interactions allowed anti-corporate, anti-globalization activists in Spain, Indonesia, and the
United States to feel the threat represented by the Group of Eight summit (a meeting of eight of the
largest world economies). These feelings generated a sense of solidarity that was not reducible to lan-
guage. Both these projects demonstrate the relationship between meaning and feeling that is a part of
If digital media has opened up a space for us to think critically about the transformation of mass
media and people’s relationships with it, so too has digital media opened up new career paths for
anthropologists. Increasingly, media anthropologists are taking key positions in technology, advertis-
ing, public relations, and broadcasting industries. Dawn Nafus, an ethnographer who works and con-
ducts research in open-source software communities, has led multiple user experience research projects
at Intel Labs. Her time is divided between writing academic publications on the anthropology of emerg-
ing technologies and doing user testing for Intel’s latest innovations in computing and wearable tech-
WHAT MAKES MEDIA POSSIBLE?
412 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 4: In Madrid, cables for internet, telephony, and television run alongside the train tracks. Historically, train routes have been principle to media infrastructure. How, media anthropologists ask, does media infrastructure change our understanding and relationship to travel? Photo by Bryce Peake.
Since the 1990s, anthropologists have success-
fully studied a range of mass communication and
digital media, but it is only recently that anthropol-
ogists have started studying the technologies that
make these forms of connection possible. Broadly
speaking, infrastructures are the material techno-
logical networks that allow for the exchange of
goods, ideas, waste, people, power and finance
over space. When used to refer to media, infra-
structure includes the pipes, concrete, wires, peo-
ple, values, electricity, software protocols and
other technologies that allow for the movement of
information. Brian Larkin (2008), a media anthro-
pologist working in Nigeria, noted that the geo-
graphical location of cinemas in the city of Kano
was based on the colonial requirement that there be a 440 yard buffer zone between white and black
populations. This requirement controlled the ways that electrical grids and transportation routes were
developed. In this way, various entangled infrastructures are implicated in the forms of taboo, desire,
and fantasy shared by members of a society in locations like the movie theater. Similarly, in his ethnog-
raphy of Brazil’s first telecommunication engineers, Gerald Lombardi (1999) describes how engineers
“spoke in reverent tones about the selfless dedication of … fellow workers as they fought… to keep
Brazil at the forefront of telephonic progress.”12 “Telephonic progress” via infrastructure was an ideal
of the Brazilian state and its workers because it was considered “modern” and made Brazil competitive
in the eyes of global spectators. It was not phones that made Brazilian engineers feel or describe them-
selves as modern, but the capacity for making telephony possible.
There are two types of media infrastructure: mechanical infrastructure and cultural infrastructure.
Mechanical Infrastructure includes the apparatuses that bring networks of technology into existence.
Cultural Infrastructure refers to the values and beliefs of communities, states, and/or societies that
make the imagining of a particular type of network possible. In the foreword to an ethnography on
India and the rise of historical archives, Nicholas Dirks (2002) captures the sense of a cultural infra-
structure perfectly when he describes how archives function, that is how the archive does ideological
work, in producing and preserving ideas about Indian nationalism. It was the belief in nationalism that
made the colonial archive possible as a container of various media—letters and notes, newspapers and
telegraphs believed to define the Indian state.
Figure 5: Media anthropologists frequently use unique methods to better understand how technology users make sense of their use habits. Here, anthropologists with Intel Labs use a pile and sort approach, asking the user to write down meaningful types of data on sticky notes they will then organize. Photo by Bryce Peake.
Complicating the study of mechanical infrastructure is
the fact that this infrastructure consists of the same tech-
nology it uses to run. Information systems, for instance are
both made of and run by computers. Typically, an infra-
structure is different from a technology. A road is the
infrastructure for a car; a pipe is the infrastructure for oil.
As Graham and Marvin (2001) argue about the computer,
computing is made possible by the electricity that powers
the computer, the system of telematics that allow comput-
ers to transmit and receive information, and software pro-
tocols that delimit a computer’s uses. The electricity, the
telematics, and the software protocols all rely on comput-
ing. What may distinguish the twenty-first century is its
reliance on computing as the infrastructure of everything,
from oil production to data storage, electricity manage-
ment to the production of concrete.
For media anthropologists, the ways in which media and
communication infrastructure organize everyday life are
significant. Mechanical infrastructure affects not only the
engineers and bureaucrats who execute and plan projects,
but also the millions of people who rely on information
exchanged through the infrastructure, drive vehicles
through the infrastructure, and whose property rights are
often usurped by the construction of infrastructure. At the
same time, cultural infrastructure is also important. As
Christian Sandvig (2012) describes in his ethnography of
building indigenous Internet infrastructure on the Santa
Ysabel Native American Reservation, anthropological
studies of media and communication infrastructure must
weave together considerations of both kinds of infrastructure in order to understand how these infra-
structures are transformed by cultural values, technological standards, legal regulations, and scientific
and engineering techniques. Some anthropologists work professionally designing media technologies
or consulting with engineers, bureaucrats, and communities on the construction of media infrastruc-
tures. Cathy Baldwin, for example, is an anthropologist at the World Resources Institute Urban Devel-
opment and Mobility Project. She is known for her research on civil engineering and community
participation. Working with communities to maximize various forms of access, Baldwin’s career is
based on the belief that physical and natural environments should strengthen a community’s capacity
to stay resilient when afflicted by human-created and natural disasters—particularly climate change.
Practicing Anthropologist: Cathy Baldwin Practicing Anthropologist: Cathy Baldwin Cathy Baldwin is an interdisciplinary anthropologist, writer, musician, and consultant who has done anthropological research on city and urban infra- structure, environment, and health.
How did you bring your anthropological training into consultancy work? How did you bring your anthropological training into consultancy work?
My objective was always to be an applied researcher working in policy or think tanks, but I didn’t think about how until I graduated. During my
414 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
doctoral fieldwork, I gave regular feedback to a government minister (Member of Parliament in my fieldwork town) who was working on a pro- gram to promote an inclusive British identity. After graduating I did some applied research and a book chapter for a think tank at Oslo University on how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used information and computing technologies (ICTs) to empower poor communities in develop- ing countries.
What types of collaborators does an anthropologist studying infrastructure encounter? What types of collaborators does an anthropologist studying infrastructure encounter? When doing impact assessments in the infrastructure sector, you work with distressed community members worried about uncertain change,
so it’s crucial to have a sympathetic, diplomatic manner in order to talk effectively with them. You also need to be able to find ways of commu- nicating social issues to engineers. This can be challenging as it is often unfamiliar territory and beyond their concerns. The most effective solution is to be able to present community concern as it might apply to them and their family members. For instance, “How would your mum feel if….” The policy world is full of people who like findings summarized in short bullet points in non-anthropological language. By the time you are ready with your material to do so, any theory used to underpin an argument that leads to a practical, implementable recommendation has been amalgamated into a point expressed in everyday language. It is still possible to use anthropological ideas at this stage, but they have to be grounded in practical action.
If you could choose one substantial contribution anthropologists can make to both the development and study of city infrastructure, what If you could choose one substantial contribution anthropologists can make to both the development and study of city infrastructure, what would it be? would it be?
Social anthropologists are well equipped to foresee, understand, and analyze how dynamic social change processes springing from the physi-
cal, biophysical or industrial landscape affect communities, and to study how people engage with technologies. These are important skills that can guide the design of projects or structures, and inform strategies adopted to manage the good and bad effects. While I see my colleagues mapping economic, environmental, or physical changes and processes, I can insert the social aspect.
What advice do you have for current anthropology students interested in working on infrastructure, and perhaps media and communications What advice do you have for current anthropology students interested in working on infrastructure, and perhaps media and communications infrastructure, in the future?infrastructure, in the future?
Diversify your skill set as much as possible beyond just ethnographic methods as they are just one small option outside academia. Intern at
the World Bank in one of its urban programs, or a large engineering consultancy, or an urban development think tank or policy organization. Media and communications infrastructure is a totally separate topic, but there are some urban firms that look at telecommunications infrastruc- ture as well as standard city systems.
ICT4D, or information and communications technologies for development, is an interesting branch of international development where there are studies and NGOs working on practical projects with communities and anthropological input is valued. Also some of the ICT or technology companies such as Microsoft and Intel employ anthropologists to do consumer studies of how people use media and technologies. Genevieve Bell is the most famous employee of Intel, as their in-house corporate anthropologist.
With all infrastructure topics, anthropologists inevitably analyze how people interact with their structures, use infrastructure, what its social and cultural effects are, what values and assumptions inform its design etc. You need to be good at thinking in practical terms about the social and community consequences of hard structures. Understanding dynamic social change processes is also an asset, and how much change is caused by structural as opposed to subjective factors.
I would say that working as an anthropologist outside academia can be very lonely unless you are in a consulting firm that has a special focus on ethnographic methods. At both the civil engineering firm and think tank, I was the only one with my skillset and missed having others to learn directly from. That said, I have enjoyed becoming friendly with economists, civil and environmental engineers, environmental scientists, public health specialists and others. The field attracts nice people with the practical skills to implement things, which I prefer to academic anthropology.
Interview by Bryce Peake
PARTICIPATORY MEDIA AND MEDIA ACTIVISM IN ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 6: Maltese film makers make a short film celebrating the history of their village. Where indigenous media projects were initially crucial to introducing new technologies to cultural communities, today many communities have robust media infrastructure and channels. Media anthropologists frequently ask how these outlets influence and are influenced by global media industries. Photo by Bryce Peake.
The resurgence of media anthropology in the
1980s and 1990s was heralded by experiments,
research, and debates in visual anthropology
and ethnographic film surrounding indige-
nous media, media produced by and for
indigenous communities often outside of the
mainstream commercial market. Portable
recording technologies, televisual production,
and copy-making technologies made it possi-
ble for local communities to use media for cul-
tural expression. People like Eric Michaels
(1987), Faye Ginsburg (1991), and Terry Turner
(Crocker 1991) used new technologies to help
indigenous communities produce media about
their local cultures, and the various environ-
mental, legislative, social, and cultural threats
they faced. In the Kayapo Video Project,
anthropologist Terence Turner understood his
role as empowering local Kayapo leaders, who then compiled a comprehensive video archive of Kayapo
culture, including ceremonies, oral history, ecological knowledge, and mythology, recounted by older
members of the community whose knowledge would disappear with their death. As Turner wrote, “in
addition to the uses of video self-documentation for education and as a repository of cultural knowl-
edge against losses from death and acculturation, many Kayapo see video as a means of reaching out to
non-Kayapo, presenting their culture and way of life in a form that others can understand, respect, and
support. They see this as an essential part of their struggle to sustain and defend their society and envi-
For anthropologists, projects like the Kayapo video sparked a debate: do Western inventions like the
movie camera endanger or replace indigenous forms of storytelling, or do they empower new forms of
cultural creativity and experimentation? How, anthropologists on one side of the debate argued, could
technologies used to create the Disney film Fantasia, the American television show Dallas, and other
Western televisual and cinematic stories possibly create the complex narrative forms traditionally used
for storytelling in other cultures? On the other side of the debate, media anthropologists asked why one
would assume that these technologies could not be used in new ways?
416 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 7: A student in the Off the Beaten Track fieldschool videotapes her edits of an audio ethnography she made with café workers at a local Gozitan cafe. Photo by Bryce Peake.
Faye Ginsburg is more identified with this
debate than any other media anthropologist. Gins-
burg described her position in the 1990s: “I am
concerned less with the usual focus on the formal
qualities of film as text and more with the cultural
mediations that occur through film and video
works.”14 For Ginsburg, indigenous media consti-
tutes a means for “reproducing and transforming
cultural identity among people who have experi-
enced massive political, geographic, and economic
disruption,” and her work among Australian abo-
riginal and indigenous media-makers and docu-
mentary collaborators is focused on exactly those
goals.15 Ginsburg works with her research subjects
on media projects, using media-making as a form
of fieldwork. The result is an ethnography of the
process of media creation and collaboration. Rather than asking how indigenous peoples interpret rep-
resentations, Ginsburg’s work examines how indigenous media producers create representations of
their and other cultures. Her fieldwork addresses the debate about the limits of Western media tech-
nologies, while also pushing video-based media in new directions. Both Ginsburg and Turner’s work
can be seen as an argument against anthropologists who suggest that the use of new technologies to
capture indigenous stories or concerns constitutes a form of imperialism. These anthropologists,
Turner suggested, hold an outdated and static perception of indigenous groups. Rather than assuming
that maintaining traditional modes of communication or storytelling is the only way to safeguard cul-
tural traditions, he suggested that new media technologies can aid indigenous activists in transmitting
cultural beliefs into the future.
In addition to documenting traditional cultural beliefs, media technologies can be absorbed into com-
munities in ways that strengthen them. Zeinabu Davis’ videowork on Yoruba trance rituals, for exam-
ple, demonstrates the way in which the meaning of media is not set by the technologies used to create
it. For the Yoruba ritual actors who were the subjects of the film, and who watched the film follow-
ing its production, portable video technologies increased the ache (Yoruba for “power of realization”) of
both trance states and Yoruba communities. According to Yoruba spiritual ideas, images have a pres-
ence and can bringing things closer together. The actors believed the video would help grow and sustain
the Yoruba community by bringing viewers closer to the spiritual dimensions of the ritual. Meaning, in
other words, was not the only source of meaningfulness for Davis and her Yoruba partners.
Practicing Anthropologist: Kyle Jones Practicing Anthropologist: Kyle Jones Kyle Jones is an anthropologist who completed his fieldwork with hip-hop artists in Peru and now works in human-centered design. Below, Kyle
talks about applied anthropology and experimental methods.
Your ethnographic fieldwork on hip hop in Peru was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropology, with some funds dedicated Your ethnographic fieldwork on hip hop in Peru was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropology, with some funds dedicated to the to the appliedapplied dimensions of your project. What is applied anthropology, and how did it figure into your project? dimensions of your project. What is applied anthropology, and how did it figure into your project?
To me, applied anthropology is about taking the next step in the research process to translate what you’ve learned into other domains of practice, often toward some kind of solution to a problem someone faces. The Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Osmundsen Initiative urges anthropol-
ogists to think about the broader social concerns and contributions of their research projects. For my project, I had learned that one of the most important activities for the young people I was working with was putting on various kinds of events, such as concerts or workshops. Despite their obvious passion for hip-hop and motivation to produce events, a lack of funds (among other factors) nearly always proved a significant barrier to their efforts. So what I did was try to support those efforts by facilitating the production of events among each of the three groups I was researching. Led by these different groups in different cities, these events took many different forms, from a series of relatively small con- certs, workshops, and competitions spread out over two weeks to large all-day festivals in city plazas. Methodologically, these events dove- tailed with the other collaborative and participant-driven methods I was using, and also led to new opportunities for exploring my research topics.
In your ethnographic work, you use some very different methods: photovoice and participatory photography. What are these, and how do you In your ethnographic work, you use some very different methods: photovoice and participatory photography. What are these, and how do you relate them to applied anthropology? relate them to applied anthropology?
PhotovoicePhotovoice is a method used across scholarly, policy, and many other types of research that puts cameras into people’s hands so they can make their own representations of their lives and the activities related to your research questions. I similarly engaged in collaborative media production, which included such things as helping to film video clips, playing and recording music, taking promotional photos, promoting and producing events, and designing and circulating imagery. In these things, I played a supporting role, using what resources I had to facilitate the projects of the groups I was researching. These methods are participatory in the sense that they encourage collaborators to get involved in the research process and help bring questions about power in research interactions to the fore. From an epistemological standpoint, these methods might be better termed participant-driven because of how they enable individuals to actively shape the direction of the research through the conscious creation of media (i.e. the research data itself). These methods were also particularly useful in doing research across locales because they can be done remotely via the internet; I could keep up conversations and data creation-collection even when I wasn’t in the same city as my interlocutors, including when I was back home in the U.S.
While I did not view them as applied at first because of how they developed in the context of my graduate training, I now see them as a valu- able part of my applied/practicing toolkit. Using the media that my collaborators themselves created is a powerful way to tell a story no matter the context of the work. They also entail that element of pushing your work into new domains of practice and problem-solving, while also prompting you to think reflexively. These kinds of methods help in recognizing the power and privileges that you bring as a researcher, but then also entail thinking through how you can translate the resources those things confer (expertise, time, technology, social connections, etc.) to support the efforts of your interlocutors on their own terms.
Interview by Bryce Peake
Research on indigenous media has primarily focused on cultural information and entertainment, but
anthropologists have also explored the capacity of indigenous media to contribute to the production
of localized science. The Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at the University of New South Wales,
for example, has designed software that allows indigenous and Aboriginal communities in Australia to
share culture knowledge about astronomy.16 For many of these groups, astronomic knowledge includes
using the sun, moon, and stars for predictive purposes in navigation, time-keeping, seasonal calendars,
and food practices. The stars in particular inform sacred law, customs and social structure, such as
totem and kinship status and marriage. This knowledge was traditionally passed down through artistic
and poetic practices that have since disappeared from some communities. The researchers in the Nura
Gili Indigenous Programs Unit are harnessing the power of Microsoft’s WorldWide telescope and Rich
Interactive Narrative technology to help new generations “reclaim” forms of indigenous knowledge
production from archival records and contemporary astronomical data in collaboration with commu-
nity elders. For these scholars, the project is not simply one of “giving back” to the community; rather,
they recognize that indigenous astronomical traditions are underpinned by a philosophy of knowledge
that enables a different understanding of how humans relate to the natural world. This knowledge can
produce new forms of intercultural understandings about climate and environmental change.
For many of these participatory media projects, the stakes are highly politicized. For those anthro-
pologists working in Australia, Africa, and South America, legacies of colonial violence are still
omnipresent. How can anthropologists use their research to not only understand culture, but to also
mitigate some of the violent residue of inequality that came from colonialism? This is a key question
that undergirds much of this participatory media research. Along with research that addresses that
418 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
question comes a host of ethical considerations: how should media recordings be stored, who should
control the intellectual property developed through media technologies, and who defines the project
and how it will be developed. These may seem as though they are only practical questions, but for
many media anthropologists engaged in participatory methods they are also research questions. They
are also questions about power and fairness. By posing and answering these questions in their projects,
media anthropologists doing participatory media methods have contributed to the development of new
approaches to ethnography.
Digital media poses several additional ethical issues particularly in terms of protecting the anonymity
of research subjects. In her work on the hackers and trolls turned political collective Anonymous,
Gabriella Coleman (2014) wrote about the fact that much of her research depended on the anonymity
of the hackers with whom she worked. How, she asked, should an anthropologist balance the hacker
collective’s need for anonymity while still confirming the validity or real identities of research subjects.
In the process of researching groups like Anonymous, how should anthropologists try to balance the
positive impact of the privacy activism this group engages in with the misogynist, anti-political antics
of some members of the group? In other words, what does it mean for a researcher to “call out”
Anonymous on its shortcomings while still protecting the true identities of its members? Similarly, in
her ethnography of online dating in Australia, Susan Frohlick found herself needing to “dis-identify”
daters who had written particularly offensive or poorly constructed dating profiles. So poorly built, or
“uniquely horrible,” were these profiles that to describe them as her interviewees did would violate the
authors’ right to anonymity.17 Frohlick argued that exploring themes of masculinity and dating were
more important to the research than personally identifying individuals with bad dating profiles.
Ethnographers working with digital and social media in particular, have devised multiple strategies
for anonymizing participatory media subjects. Annette Markham (2012), for example, has developed
the strategy of fabrication. Writing ethnographic work about child sexuality and queer bloggers,
Markham urges ethnographers to take the essence of what is being said by people, to combine or
rearrange it, and fabricate an ethnographic account that demonstrates the points most relevant for the
research. Doing so, she argues, is not new; it is common practice to use direct quotes from research sub-
jects in ethnography even though the quote may be off by a few words because it was heard while spin-
ning pots or cooking or participating in some other activity. Such a practice poses many other ethical
questions, and it is this ethical conundrum that Markham says is most important for thinking through
methodological and ethical issues in media anthropology.18 While this fabrication approach is by no
means perfect, and is open to criticism, it demonstrates the necessity of ethical considerations when
conducting methodological experimentation in media anthropology.
Figure 8: A Gozitan man shoots video and photos inside his village church to send to his parents who now live in Toronto. Media anthropologists are increasingly interested in how the mediation of spirituality is requiring new forms of theological thinking in religious communities. Photo by Bryce Peake.
Media anthropologists are concerned with many of the clas-
sic subjects of cultural anthropology: kinship, religion, mythol-
ogy, identity, and the transmission of cultural meaning. How,
for instance, does media allow people create and maintain kin-
ship ties across large geographical distances? How are religious
beliefs transformed as they are communicated through plat-
forms like television and the Internet? How does media con-
tribute to the development of a sense of self or group identities?
On the Mediterranean island of Gozo, for example, cellular
phones have allowed distant relatives in North America to
remain part of the community by participating in the yearly
celebrations of village saints. Local Catholic priests in Greece
have been forced to consider the spiritual force of religious
icons as they are transformed from a statue honored in-person
during religious ceremonies into mediated images people see
from afar.19 If the Virgin Mary appears to be weeping in a
video, but the statue shows no effect, does it count as a miracle?
Rather than answer this question, media anthropologists are
interested in why people are concerned with it in the first
While class anthropological subjects remain important,
media anthropologists are also engaging with new problems
and debates while interacting with other academic disciplines such as Media and Communication Stud-
ies, Digital Sociology, and New Media Art. For instance, media anthropologists question the assump-
tion that there is a universal media psychology that predicts the ways that people will interpret media.
They have pointed out that the impact social media has on individuals is a function of culture, not just
political economic conditions.20 Media anthropologists have even engaged with questions about how
basic human ideas about beauty or the passage of time translate into mediums like film and radio.21
While grappling with a range of old and new themes, one thing continues to separate media anthro-
pologists from other media scholars: a commitment to long-term, participant-observation based field-
work. Media anthropologists push the boundaries of what counts as ethnographic research and
academic writing, but they continue to rely on deep relationships with people and holistic consideration
of the full range of media practices found around the world.
Discussion Questions Discussion Questions
1. What is the difference between interpreting and producing media? How have anthropologists studied these processes differently?
2. How do anthropologists study media consumption, media production, and infrastructure? What different types of approaches did the anthropologists in this chapter use? What sets media anthropologists apart from other types of media scholars?
3. Where do media anthropologists work? What types of topics do they focus on?
420 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Cultural infrastructure: The values and beliefs of communities, states, and/or societies that make the
imagining of a particular type of network possible.
Fabrication: A technique for reporting on research data that involves mixing information provided by
various people into a narrative account that demonstrates the point of focus for researchers.
Indigenous media: Media produced by and for indigenous communities often outside of the commer-
Mass communication: One-to-many communication that privileges the sender and/or owner of the
technology that transmits the media.
Media: A word that used to describe a set of technologies that connect multiple people at one time to
Media practices: The habits or behaviors of the people who produce media, the audiences who interact
with media, and everyone in between.
Mechanical infrastructure: The apparatuses that bring networks of technology into existence.
Photovoice: A research method that puts cameras into people’s hands so they can make their own rep-
resentations of their lives and the activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryce Peake is an assistant professor of Media & Communication Studies
and an affiliate faculty member in Gender Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore
County. His current research focuses on masculinity, media, and science in the post-World War II
British Mediterranean spaces of Gibraltar and Gozo. He has also published multimodal projects on race
in the United States, and been recognized by the American Anthropological Association for his ethno-
graphic photography. Bryce currently runs the Anthropology, Mediated workshop on the island of Gozo,
a 15 day ethnographic media fieldschool for undergraduates. Prior to arriving at UMBC, Bryce was a
Julie & Rocky Dixon Fellow in Graduate Innovation, and worked with anthropologists at Intel Labs to
develop a data-tracking application for users living with Tinnitus.
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1. The Variety headline is cited in Robert Bierstedt, “A Review of Hollywood-The Dream Factory: An Anthropolo-
gist Looks at the Movie-Makers,” American Sociological Review 17 (1951): 124-125.
3. Jon Mitchell, Ambivalent Europeans: Ritual, Memory and the Public Sphere in Malta (New York: Routledge, 2001), 5.
4. Steven Kemper, Buying and Believing: Sri Lankan Advertising and Consumers in a Transnational World (Chicago: Uni-
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8. Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics.
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Fung,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15 no. 3 (2009): 441–468.
10. Lynn Stephen, “Community and Indigenous Radio in Oaxaca: Testimony and Participatory Democracy,” in Radio
Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Lucas Bessire (New York: New York Uni-
versity Press, 2012).
11. See Dawn Nafus, “Patches Don”t Have Gender:’ What Is Not Open in Open Source Software,” New Media & Soci-
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munication 8(2014): 11.
12. Gerald S. Lombardi, Computer Networks, Social Networks and the Future of Brazil. PhD dissertation, New York Uni-
versity, 1999), 21.
13. Terence Turner, The Kayapo Video Project: A Progress Report. Unpublished Manuscript (Turner 1990), 1.
14. Faye Ginsburg, “Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?” Cultural Anthropology 6(1): 94.
16. Geoffrey Wyatt, “Dreamtime Astronomy: Development of a New Indigenous Program at Sydney Observatory,”
Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17 no. 2 (2014): 195–204.
17. See Susan Frohlick, “Fluid Exchanges: The Negotiation of Intimacy between Tourist Women and Local Men in a
Transnational Town in Caribbean Costa Rica.” City & Society 19 no. 1(2007): 139–168 and Susan Frohlick “I’m
More Sexy Here: Erotic Subjectivities of Female Toursits in the Sexual Paradise of the Costa Rican Caribbean,”
in Gendered Mobilities, ed. Tanu Priya Uteng and Tim Cresswell, 199–223 (New York: Ashgate, 2008).
18. Annette Markham, “Fabrication as Ethical Practice,” Information, Communication & Society 15 no. 3 (2012):
19. See the forthcoming 2018 article by Bryce Peake, “Gozo, Mediated” Omertaa: A Journal of Applied Anthropology:
20. Ilana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).
21. Mark Auslander, “Objects of Kinship,” Transition 122 (2017): 206–216.
424 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
- A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEDIA ANTHROPOLOGY
- MEANINGFUL MEDIA
- WHAT MAKES MEDIA POSSIBLE?412 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
- Practicing Anthropologist: Cathy Baldwin
- PARTICIPATORY MEDIA AND MEDIA ACTIVISM IN ANTHROPOLOGY
- Practicing Anthropologist: Kyle Jones
- DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR