Skip to content

Now online: What is the point of media anthropology?

July 31, 2009

tempThe final published version of my Social Anthropology debate with Mark A. Peterson “What is the point of media anthropology?” is now available via the Social Anthropology site as well as below. Thanks for all your previous comments on the draft version – they were very helpful – and I look forward to your reactions to the full debate in which I argue that media anthropology needs to add historical depth to its impressive geographical breadth.

Postill, J. 2009. ‘What is the point of media anthropology?’  Social Anthropology 17(3), 334-337, 340-342.

After long decades of neglect, the anthropological study of media is now booming. The period between 2002 and 2005 alone saw the publication of no less than four overviews of this emerging subfield (Askew and Wilk 2002; Ginsburg et al. 2002; Peterson 2003; Rothenbuhler and Coman 2005) as well as the founding of the EASA Media Anthropology Network, which by May 2009 boasted over 700 participants. Anthropologists have now undertaken media research in many regions of the world, from the Arctic and the Amazon to Western Europe and New Guinea, and worked on media ranging from writing, film and television to software, Second Life and mobile phones. Media anthropologists are also at the forefront of recent theoretical advances in media and communication studies in areas such as cultural activism (Ginsburg 2008), transnational media (Mankekar 2008), mobile telephony (Horst and Miller 2006), virtual materiality (Boellstorff 2008), free software (Kelty 2008) and media practice theory (Bräuchler and Postill forthcoming). These are very exciting times indeed for the anthropology of media.

Yet a nagging doubt remains. Given anthropology’s late arrival at the study of media and communication, what can our discipline hope to contribute to this long-established field of interdisciplinary research? What is, in other words, the point of media anthropology?

Mark A. Peterson (2003: 3) has suggested that media anthropology has three main contributions to make: thick ethnographies, a decentred West and alternative theories. First, in contrast to other media scholars, media anthropologists conduct relatively extended, open-ended fieldwork in which media artefacts and practices are but one part of the social worlds under study. Second, media anthropologists are as likely to work in remote corners of the global South as they are in metropolitan areas of Europe or North America. This wide geographical scope allows them to broaden the media research agenda from its traditional North Atlantic heartland. Third, media anthropologists bring to the study of media a long disciplinary history of grappling with sociocultural complexity through theories of exchange, social formations and cultural forms. This theoretical expertise, argues Peterson, can help the field to finally leave behind the simple models of communication that dominated its earlier history.

Whilst concurring with this assessment, I wish to suggest that there is one crucial dimension missing from Peterson’s and other existing media anthropological programmes, namely history. Let me illustrate this absence by means of a few examples from the literature. For instance, Ginsburg et al.’s reader Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain opens with a Michael Leunig cartoon entitled ‘The consumers’ in which a Stone Age family is sitting in front of a cave wall painting of a deer as if watching a primitive form of television (2002: xvii). However, the remainder of the book is most decidedly not about the prehistoric origins of media consumption but rather, with one or two exceptions, about ethnographic research into contemporary media. Similarly, Askew and Wilk’s (2002: x–xi) reader The Anthropology of Media opens with a two-page ‘timeline of media development’ (Croteau and Hoynes 2000) that takes us from the invention of paper in China in 100 CE through Gutenberg’s 1456 Bible to the advent of digital television in 1998. Again, the media anthropological texts presented throughout the rest of the book make scant mention of such developments and instead concentrate on contemporary media worlds. Finally, in Peterson’s (2003: 3–8) own introduction to media anthropology he follows Hockett (1977) in suggesting that mass media transformed the ‘normal setting’ for human communication, i.e. the face-to-face dyad or small group, but does not pursue the matter historically. In sum, by and large these authors equate media anthropology with media ethnography.

To adapt Tim Ingold’s (2008) recent argument about anthropology vs ethnography, my thesis is that media anthropology is not media ethnography. I am not proposing, though, that we abandon our ethnographic investigations. Instead I am saying that we should add historical depth to the geographical breadth of media anthropology. Ingold (2008: 74, 78) understands history as the continuous emergence of social-life processes, rejecting with Kroeber and Evans-Pritchard any notion of history as ‘abstract’ chronological time. To my mind, this is an unhelpful dichotomy that downplays historical discontinuities, not least the worldwide spread of clock-and-calendar time that accompanied the rise of global capitalism and the nation-state system (Postill 2002). Moreover, without chronological tools it is hard to envisage how media anthropologists with an historical bent could go about tracking the uneven spread and adoption of media innovations such as writing, radio or mobile telephony. And how could we possibly study media events such as 9/11 in America (Rothenbuhler 2005), People Power II in the Philippines (Rafael 2003) or the assassination of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands (Eyerman 2008) without chronicling the unfolding of these events in real time across different media platforms and physical settings? In my own study of internet activism in suburban Malaysia (Postill forthcoming), I was able to reconstruct from Britain a local mobilisation against the municipal council that took place after I had left the field. This was possible thanks to the multiple digital trails left by actors across a number of online archives which allowed me to date and time the sequence of key public events down to the minute.

But as we all know from bitter experience, digital contents are not always as reliable as in this instance (Peterson 2003: 6–7). Internet and SMS users, for example, can often modify contents without leaving a trace, an ability that casts a long shadow of societal doubt over the trustworthiness of digital representations. Doubts over the veracity of a forwarded email or SMS text can arise at any point in its social life cycle, and entire digital genres such as ‘solidarity’ email chains (e.g. in support of political detainees, see Cortázar Rodríguez 2004) carry a heavy burden of suspicion in a cyberspace teeming with urban legends, hoaxes and rumours. There is nothing new, however, about people questioning the truth-claims of certain representations. In his cross-regional historical survey of societal ambivalences towards icons, paintings, sculptures and other representations, Jack Goody argues that ‘[a] wariness about re-presentation that, by definition, is not ‘the real thing’, is one element in the worldwide history of culture’ (1997: 152). Although having doubts about representations is for Goody inherent to human cognition, he found that the expression of these doubts varies greatly across cultures and historical periods. Particularly striking was the rarity of iconoclasm in Africa when compared to the Near East and Europe – a contrast that Goody links to the presence or absence of writing. Faced with the cognitive contradictions of seeking to represent the divinities through figurative art, religious leaders in Israel, early Christianity, Islam or Protestantism stressed the need to rely exclusively on the written word of God (Goody 1997: 53). An engagement with such longue durée studies of media congeries can provide media anthropologists with a broad comparative canvass against which to set their own micro-historical accounts. Applying Goody’s scheme to the present age of digital reproduction raises questions for future research about the kinds of cognitive ambivalences that digital representations may trigger, and how these compare with those triggered by previous (analogical) representations. In turn, an ethnographic sensibility honed in the study of contemporary media can be invaluable in the reconstruction of past media practices and events in collaboration with cultural historians, cognitive anthropologists and other specialists.

To recapitulate, I have argued that media anthropology has four main contributions to make to the interdisciplinary study of media and communication. In addition to Peterson’s three contributions (ethnographic, geographical and theoretical), I have proposed a fourth one: media historical research. It is time, I suggest, to venture beyond our ethnographic comfort zones and into the media worlds of our ancestors.

Response by Mark A. Peterson

I recently began watching the 1943 Columbia movie serial ‘The Phantom’ with my seven-year-old son. The serial fascinated him. Why was it broken into pieces? Why does each piece end with a cliffhanger? I tried to explain the context to him – kids of his grandmother’s generation spending their Saturdays at the matinee watching a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial and a movie – but he could relate this to almost nothing in his own experience. His older sister tried to compare the episodes to a television series, but his experience of TV is that of discrete stories in a timeless world of readily available DVDs, streaming video and pay-per-view. Intergenerational cultural translation is necessary not only from his grandmother’s era but across the seven-year gap between him and his sister.

There is so much going on in this tiny scrap of data. My son’s socially constructed, technologically mediated viewing practices confronted texts produced for a very different kind of imagined audience with its own now extinct media practices and led him to seek to put them in an historical context. As he watches, his intertextual knowledge responds to correspondences between this and other Phantom texts from other times, places and media. My son is a bit of a Phantom fan – he enjoyed the 1996 Paramount film, which he has seen on DVD, the cartoon series ‘Phantom 2040’, which he saw on television, and he has a couple of hardbound collections of the comics he picked up at a bookstore in India. These texts themselves reveal much about changing production contexts. A transnational intertextual artifact, the Phantom is, at best, a Colonialist fantasy about Black tribal peoples who live in peace thanks to the guidance of a line of wise and powerful white men. At its worst, as in this 1943 serial, the representations are overtly racist. My son’s comics are printed by Eurobooks, an Asian imprint of the Scandinavian Egmont corporation which has, since the death in 1999 of the Phantom’s creator, Lee Falk, used a different writer/artist team than the King Features Syndicate that publishes the Phantom in the US. And because these books were published in India, the Phantom’s mythical homeland of Bangalla had become Denkali to avoid confusion with India’s own Bengal. The viewing itself is part of a gendered, kinship experience: for my son and daughters, Dad is the one you watch superhero movies with. But there are social consequences: my son can’t play The Phantom with his friends because this character is outside the local shared ludic repertoire dominated by Batman, Spiderman and the X-Men.

There is nothing unique about this anecdotal account. Indeed, I chose it because it seemed simpler to describe and contextualise than some other, similar accounts I might have used, such as a Sudanese refugee TV-watching party in Cairo in 2000 or the ‘electronic Ram Lila’ offered by the local BJP party in Malviya Nagar, Delhi during Navratra in 1993. Any would serve to illustrate my point that most media consumption throughout the world is simultaneously an everyday experience and a deeply complicated transcultural and transhistorical one. Media practices simultaneously serve functions in the immediate social milieu, engage with textual structures themselves part of a complex web of intertextual meanings indexed during consumption, and link such acts to similar acts elsewhere in time and space through historically contingent flows of images, technologies and economic exchange. Every act of media consumption or production offers insight into a world of meanings, relationships and systems of interaction.

Anthropology is better positioned than many other disciplines to explore media practices around the world. Ours is a discipline accustomed to linking the richness of everyday social action to broader structures. More importantly, ours is a discipline that tends to look at media as situated within other sets of human action rather than approaching social phenomena with a priori assumptions about what media ‘is’.

This is especially apparent in the fact that a growing amount of ‘media anthropology’ is being written by anthropologists who are not particularly interested in the media. Increasingly anthropologists studying very different topics – Indonesian gay and lesbian subjectivities (Boellstorff 2003), African tourism (Bruner 2001), Japanese wedding speeches (Dunn 2006) – find themselves writing about media. Anthropology is an empirical discipline, and increasingly our informants themselves are engaged in media practices and talking about them in every aspect of their lives.

John Postill’s challenge that part of what anthropology can offer media studies is a processual and historical perspective is thus a little puzzling. I am quite sympathetic to anthropologists of media making use of history in understanding human engagements with media. In addition to the work Postill cited, Thomas Wolfe (2005) and Natalia Roudakova (2008) offer fine examples of historically informed, nuanced approaches to changing media cultures in post-Soviet Russia. I myself have recently hazarded an effort at longue durée studies by attempting to track some of the twisting global trajectories of jinn from Islamic doctrine and folklore through their transmogrification into wish-granting genies by 18th-century print capitalism and 20th-century television and film productions around the world (Peterson 2007). Nonetheless, Postill’s vision remains largely programmatic rather than descriptive of what anthropologists actually do.

More to the point, why history as a defining aspect of media anthropology? There is already a field of media history with its own journals, associations and canonical texts. Certainly anthropology should be prepared to attend to historical contexts where relevant – the anecdote above suggests two distinctly relevant historical contexts, that of intergenerational access to media and that of changing representations of race and political agency – but history, as Levi-Strauss (1966) pointed out, is not always equally relevant.

This brings us back to the wider question of ‘What is the point of media anthropology?’ which is, after all, another way of asking whether there is a specifically anthropological approach to examining human engagement with media or whether there are merely anthropologists engaged in interdisciplinary media studies.

Many anthropologists have an aversion to the policing of disciplinary borders. They draw broadly from comparative literature, cultural studies, critical race theory, gender studies, performance studies, philosophy, post-colonial studies, queer theory and social history. Efforts to determine what is or is not media ‘anthropology’ may be viewed as insular and self-defeating.

Other anthropologists argue that it is important to locate the disciplinary centre of media anthropology, to find a feature or set of features that make the work of anthropologists studying media specifically ‘anthropological’. The most common feature selected is ethnography – understood as long-term, intimate research engagement with a community rather than the range of less complex engagements that go by that name in cultural studies (Nightingale 1993).

I recognise the appeal of locating a clearly anthropological ‘centre’ to the work of media anthropologists. At the same time, I would hesitate to toss out work by Bateson (1980), Drummond (1995), Feldman (1994), Kottak (1982), Traube (1991) and others simply on the grounds that they are not rooted in ethnography.

I embrace the Geertzian (1977) approach that anthropology is what anthropologists do – a cop-out, perhaps, maybe even a tautology. But when I review the large and growing literature by anthropologists writing about media, I come to the conclusion that the point of media anthropology is to broaden and deepen our understandings of human engagements with media through the application of the anthropological perspective – broadly comparative, holistic in its approach to complexity, ethnographically empirical, aware of historical contingency and relativistic. This is, I hope, more than sufficient to justify media anthropology.

Response to Mark A. Peterson

The problem with Mark A. Peterson’s assertion that ‘anthropology is what anthropologists do’ is that it is formulated in the present tense. The implication is that anthropology is what anthropologists do at present. Instead, I would suggest that anthropology encompasses what anthropologists did in the past, what they do now, and what they will or might do in the future. The main aim of my opening statement was precisely to open a public debate on the future(s) of media anthropology, an exercise that is already taking place in other subfields (see Pink 2006; Rylko-Bauer et al. 2006) but is long overdue in the anthropology of media. Having clarified this point, I can now address Peterson’s question of why I have chosen history ‘as a defining aspect of media anthropology’.

First, because history has been a defining aspect of sociocultural anthropology for at least 30 years – as it was indeed before Malinowski’s ‘fieldwork revolution’ (Kuklick 1996; Kuper 1992). Historical research is not merely something that anthropologists do if and when it is ‘relevant’ to a specific project, as suggested by Peterson’s brief reference to Levi-Strauss (1966). In fact, some of the more influential – and contested – anthropological works of the past three decades have been historical studies, including Geertz’s (1980) Negara, Rosaldo’s (1980) Ilongot Headhunting, Wolf’s (1982) Europe and the People Without History, Sahlins’ (1985) Islands of History and the Comaroffs’ (1991, 1997) Of Revelation and Revolution. This does not mean, though, that all areas of anthropological inquiry have engaged equally with historical anthropology. As the Manchester School has taught us, all social fields are internally differentiated, with some sectors of the field (i.e. subfields) enjoying better insulation from external influences and changes than others (Epstein 1958). The field of anthropology is no exception. Thus whilst the anthropology of colonialism has been profoundly shaped by historical concerns and methods (Merry 2003), the anthropology of time has remained an oddly ahistorical enterprise in which clocks, calendars, radios and other chronometric media have been largely ignored (Postill 2002). At present the anthropology of media lies somewhere between these two poles, but perhaps closer to the ahistorical pole: although media anthropologists have conducted a number of historical studies (as pointed out by Peterson), to date the bulk of studies have concentrated on coeval media worlds.

The second reason to focus on history is because I believe anthropologists have an important contribution to make to the historical study of media. Take, for instance, the second edition of Briggs’ and Burke’s (2005)A Social History of the Media, a groundbreaking work translated into more than ten languages. In their introduction, these authors give pride of place to a well-known debate between two anthropologists, Jack Goody (1977) and Brian Street (1984), around the sociocultural consequences of writing. What these anthropologists, and particularly Goody, brought to the debate was both an ethnographic sensibility to social context as well as an understanding of the uneven processes of cultural appropriation that have accompanied the global spread of writing. Another example is the media historical work of the anthropologist Brian Larkin (2002), who has studied the materiality of cinema theatres in colonial Kano, northern Nigeria. Like Sahlins (1985) or Goody (1977) before him, and Kelty (2008) after him, Larkin deftly combines archival research with fieldwork to produce a compelling account. My point is not that the historical anthropology of media does not exist, but rather that we need more studies like Larkin’s – media studies that avoid the twin parochialisms of geography and history (see Burke 1992: 2–3).

A third and final reason is that a more historical approach to media will enable media anthropologists to make new connections across different kinds of media and specialist literatures. It is telling in this regard that the medium of writing is still not part of the emerging media anthropological canon. For example, whilst Don Kulick’s co-authored work on film-viewing practices in a Papua New Guinean village (Kulick and Willson 2002) is featured in the reader The Anthropology of Media (Askew and Wilk 2002), his study of literacy practices in that same village appears in Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy, a volume edited by Brian Street (see Kulick and Stroud 1993). The explanation for this epistemic segregation between the anthropology of writing and that of other media is not hard to find: most contemporary media anthropologists have studied ethnographically one or two ‘modern’ media (radio, television, film, blogging, etc.) but paid little heed to the long social histories of earlier media such as writing.

John Postill’s references

Askew, K. and R. R.Wilk (eds.) 2002. The anthropology of media. London : Blackwell.

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of age in Second Life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton : Princeton University Press.

Bräuchler, B. and J.Postill (eds.) forthcoming. Theorising media and practice. Oxford and New York : Berghahn.

Briggs, A. and P. Burke 2005. A social history of the media, 2nd edn. Cambridge : Polity.

Burke, P. 1992. History and social theory. Ithaca , NY : Cornell University Press.

Comaroff, J. and J. L. Comaroff 1991, 1997. Of revelation and revolution. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Cortázar Rodríguez, F. J. 2004. ‘Rumores y leyendas urbanas en Internet. Archivo del Observatorio para la CiberSociedad ( Accessed June 2009.

Croteau, D. and W. Hoynes 1997. Media/society: industries, images and audiences. Thousand Oaks , CA : Pine Forge Press.

Epstein, A. L. 1958. Politics in an urban African community. Manchester : Manchester University Press.

Eyerman, R. 2008. The assassination of Theo van Gogh: from social drama to cultural trauma. Durham : Duke University Press.

Geertz, C. 1980. Negara: the theatre state in nineteenth century Bali. Princeton : Princeton University Press

Ginsburg, F. D. 2008. Rethinking the digital age, in D.Hesmondhalgh and J.Toynbee (eds.), Media and social theory. London : Routledge.

Ginsburg, F. D., L.Abu-Lughod and B.Larkin (eds.) 2002. Media worlds. Anthropology on new terrain. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Goody, J. 1977. The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. 1997. Representations and contradictions: ambivalence towards images, theatre, fiction, relics and sexuality. Oxford : Blackwell.

Hockett, C. 1977. Logical considerations in the study of animal communication, in The view from language. Athens , GA : University of Georgia Press.

Horst, H. and D. Miller 2006. The cell phone: an anthropology of communication. New York : Berg.

Ingold, T. 2008. ‘Anthropology is not ethnography’, Proceedings of the British Academy 154: 69–92 ( Accessed June 2009.

Kelty, C. 2008. Two bits: the cultural significance of free software. Durham : Duke University Press.

Kuklick, H. 1996. Diffusionism, in A.Barnard and J.Spencer (eds.), Encyclopaedia of social and cultural anthropology, 160–2. London : Routledge.

Kulick, D. and C. Stroud 1993. Conceptions and uses of literacy in a Papua New Guinean village, in B.Street (ed.), Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Kulick, D. and M. Willson 2002. Rambo’s wife saves the day: subjugating the gaze and subverting the narrative in a Papua New Guinean swamp, in K.Askew and R. R.Wilk (eds.), The anthropology of media. London : Blackwell.

Kuper, A. 1992. Introduction, in A.Kuper (ed.), Conceptualizing society. London : Routledge.

Larkin, B. 2002. The materiality of cinema theaters in Northern Nigeria, in F. D.Ginsburg, L.Abu-Lughod and B.Larkin (eds.), Media worlds. Anthropology on new terrain. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Levi-Strauss, Claude 1966. ‘The scope of anthropology’, Current Anthropology 7 (2): 112–23.

Mankekar, P. 2008. Media and mobility in a transnational world, in D.Hesmondhalgh and J.Toynbee (eds.), The media and social theory. London : Routledge.

Merry, S. E. 2003. ‘Hegemony and culture in historical anthropology: a review essay on Jean and John L. Comaroff, From revelation to revolution, Vols. I and II’, American Historical Review 108 (2): 460–70.

Peterson, M. A. 2003. Anthropology and mass communication. Media and myth in the new millennium. New York and Oxford : Berghahn Books.

Pink, S. 2006. The future of visual anthropology. London : Routledge.

Postill, J. 2002. ‘Clock and calendar time: a missing anthropological problem’, Time and Society 11: 251–70.

Postill, J. forthcoming. Grounding the internet: an ethnography of cyberactivism and local governance in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Oxford and New York : Berghahn.

Rafael, V. 2003. ‘The cell phone and the crowd: messianic politics in the contemporary Philippines’, Public Culture 15: 399–425.

Rosaldo, R. 1980. Ilongot headhunting 1883–1974. Stanford : Stanford University Press.

Rothenbuhler, E. 2005. Ground Zero, the firemen, and the symbolics of touch on 9/11 and after, in E.Rothenbuhler and M.Coman (eds.), Media anthropology. London : Sage.

Rothenbuhler, E. and M.Coman (eds.) 2005. Media anthropology. London : Sage.

Rylko-Bauer, B., M. Singer and J. Van Willigen 2006. ‘Reclaiming applied anthropology: its past, present, and future’, American Anthropologist 108 (1): 178–90.

Mark A Peterson’s references

Bateson, Gregory 1980. ‘An analysis of the Nazi film “Hitlerjunge Quex”’, Studies in Visual Communication 6 (3): 20–55.

Boellstorff, Tom 2003. ‘Dubbing culture: Indonesian gay and lesbi subjectivities and ethnography in an already globalized world’, American Ethnologist 30 (2): 225–42.

Bruner, Edward 2001. ‘The Maasai and the Lion King: authenticity, nationalism, and globalization in African tourism’, American Ethnologist 28 (4): 881–908.

Drummond, Lee 1995. American dreamtime: a cultural analysis of popular movies and their implications for a science of humanity. Lanham , MD : Littlefield Adams.

Dunn, Cynthis Dickel 2006. ‘Formulaic expressions, Chinese proverbs, and newspaper editorials: exploring type and token interdiscursivity in Japanese wedding speeches’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 16 (2): 153–72.

Feldman, Allen 1994. ‘On cultural anesthesia: from Desert Storm to Rodney King’, American Ethnologist 21 (2): 404–18.

Geertz, Clifford 1977. Thick description, in Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures, 3–30. New York : Basic Books.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip 1982. The father strikes back, in Conrad PhillipKottak (ed.), Researching American culture: a guide for student anthropologists, 98–104. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press.

Levi-Strauss, Claude 1966. ‘The scope of anthropology’, Current Anthropology 7 (2): 112–23.

Nightingale, Virginia 1993. What’s ‘ethnographic’ about ethnographic audience research? In G.Turner (ed.), Nation, culture, text: Australian cultural and media studies, 164–77. London : Routledge.

Peterson, Mark Allen 2007. ‘From jinn to genies: intertextuality, media, and the rise of global folklore’, in Mikel J.Koven and SharonSherman (eds.), Folklore/cinema: popular film as vernacular culture, 93–112. Logan : Utah State University Press.

Roudakova, Natalia 2008. ‘Media–political clientelism: lessons from anthropology’, Media, Culture and Society 30 (1): 41–59.

Traube, Elizabeth 1992. Dreaming identities: class, gender and generation in 1980s Hollywood movies. Boulder : Westview.

Wolfe, Thomas C. 2005. Governing Soviet journalism: the press and the socialist person after Stalin. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    March 22, 2010 4:14 pm

    Would love to read this back and forth, hidden behind a paywall.


  1. Workshop in Media Anthropology of Turkey – Donya Alinejad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: