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Personal networks, social fields

June 20, 2008

Postill, J. (in progress) Personal networks, social fields: grassroots leadership and digital media in a Malaysian suburbto be submitted to Ethnos

The author (right) at a youth basketball tournament in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya-USJ with Dato’ Lee Hwa Beng, a local politician who has just presented him with a photographic memento of the occasion.

Draft abstract (last revised 24 July 2008):

After long years of neglect, anthropologists have in recent times rediscovered an interest in networks (Riles 2000, Knox, Savage and Harvey 2006). This article joins ongoing efforts at critically rethinking and experimenting with the notion of network from an anthropological perspective. It does so in the context of internet research but seeking to avoid both the community/network trap lying at the heart of Internet Studies (Postill 2008) and the reductionism of the ‘networked individualism’ model (Wellman and Lee 2008, see also Foth and Hearn 2007). It draws from recent ethnographic research on internet activism in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) as well as from conceptual work on the field and practice theories of both Bourdieu and the Manchester School of anthropology. The ethnography tracks the networking practices of three grassroots leaders as they traverse – both online and offline – different fields of practices, including the fields of local government, party politics, policing, blogging and journalism. The analysis shows that although a range of internet and mobile technologies affords these practitioners an historically unprecedented ability to cultivate vast personal networks, like all other forms of personal networking theirs is still highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the life course (Amit 2002, Bidart and Lavenu 2005) and strongly shaped by the specific ‘logics’ of the social fields (Bourdieu 1996, Turner 1974) in which it takes place. Thus a local politician seeking re-election is compelled to use every networking opportunity to digitally document (esp. photographically) his ability to understand and solve local problems – an indexical rather than symbolic imperative (Knappett 2002, cf. Turner 1974) that defines his way of ‘networking the fields’. In conclusion, there is no evidence to suggest a shift towards an overriding logic of ‘networked individualism’ among grassroots leaders in the suburb (pace Wellman and Lee 2008), a finding that echoes Horst and Miller‘s (2006: 81) ethnographic research on mobile phones and social relations in Jamaica. Instead, what we find in the Kuala Lumpur suburb is networked collectivism, i.e. individual leaders with an ‘interest in disinterestedness’ (Bourdieu).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2008 3:03 pm

    Yes, this is very relevant to Malaysia at the moment. Blogging is the flavour of the month and politicians are jumping on the wagon from all directions. You mention indexicality – it seems to me that many of them believe that having a blog is indexical of ‘listening to the people’ and being a 21st century political player. However, they need to learn how to use the blogs effectively, and that is another story.
    Whether or not they are successful would depend on the factors you mention (and probably others); however, it’s interesting to note that during the elections Jeff Ooi (for example) did not use his blog very much – though it is probably thanks to his blog and other work that he got selected as candidate MP. However, YouTube, internet, other websites, and distribution of CDs were very important.
    It will be an interesting paper, I’m looking forward to seeing it 🙂

  2. June 25, 2008 12:17 am

    Thanks Julian, now I’ve only got to write it!

    Meanwhile, see NYT report on uses of videocameras by Palestinians to produce documentary evidence in conflict with Jewish settlers


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  2. Anthills, cobwebs and Internet Studies « media/anthropology
  3. The anomaly of personal networks « media/anthropology

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