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Researching digital media and social change: A theory of practice approach

January 26, 2012

Milan presentation notes, IULM University, 26 January 2012


Many thanks to Alessandra Micalizzi for the kind invitation. First attempt for me at connecting practice theory with media and social change.

The story behind both – until now separate – interests: EASA Media Anthropology Network, first media and practice theory (Bräuchler and Postill 2010), more recently media and social change – Paris meeting 2012 to be co-convened with Tenhunen and Ardevol. See both websites.

Digital media and social change

All digital media scholars study social change- yet surprisingly undertheorised.

We tend to fall into vague present continuous (-ing) of how people and technologies are constantly chang-ing, what people are now do-ing with this or that digital tech, etc.

… in pursuit of next big technology, we often neglect historical and diachronic in favour of contemporary and synchronic.

Dubious idea that a technology now trending in global North will soon be trending worldwide (‘imminentism’).

In fact, different neighbourhoods, cities, countries, regions, are following their own digital paths. No sign yet that the digital cultures of South Korea, Brazil, Senegal, the Vatican and Finland are on the brink of merging into some ‘global’ sameness. If anything, they continue to diverge.

At the same time, we peddle vague postmodern ideas about timeless time, non-linear time, etc. Yet there is no fairyland where time goes round in circles, or chases its own tale, or swings back and forth like a pendulum (Gell). We all go by the modern clock and calendar (Postill 2002), as inescapable as money, gravity, ageing, or death.

But how do we go about theorising what we already study but take for granted?

One useful entry point:

Tenhunen (2008) social logistics and mobile phones in rural West Bengal, India. Inspired by Horst and Miller (2006) ethnography of mobiles in Jamaica, but finds that they overemphasize cultural continuity (linked-up) over change; like practice theorists (more later) they play down human ability to strive for, and attain, social change.

More discussion needed on this issue.

 …  a theory of practice approach

Practice theory: a body of work about the work of the body (Postill 2010)

Late 1970s-1980s search for approach that would avoid twin evils of structural/systemic holism and methodological individualism.

Practice theory cannot be panacea for media and comm studies.

Especially apt for three topics:

  • Media in everyday life
  • Media production
  • Embodied media

Not so cool for processual analysis, e.g. of spread of digital epidemics (urban legends, rumours, etc.), for Arab Spring uprisings, or Spain’s indignados/15M movement (Postill 2010) – or is it?

One way of doing practice research: follow the media practitioner

As in qualitative, open-ended, ethnographic research.

We’re all media practitioners these days; various digital media woven into our practice as students, scholars, taxi drivers, activists, rock-climbers, journalists, acrobats, pensioners, etc.

If possible, during research try to learn that craft/occupation/practice too, ‘practitioner observation’

Non-media centric reflection (Couldry 2010, Hobart 2010) on what practitioners actually do with which specific media, with what results, but also what they did 5, 10, 20 years ago.

Follow them as they traverse different ‘stations’ (Giddens 1984) as well as conflict-ridden ‘arenas’ (Turner 1974) in their routine cycles of activities as well as non-routine events.

You will find that what’s appropriate in one station is not appropriate in another, e.g. a personal blog is a very different station from a Twitter hashtag thread which in turn is very different from a web forum; example of Malaysian blogger-cum-politician Jeff Ooi (Postill 2011).

Track biographical changes as well as continuities over time in digital media usage.

… but keep your methodological and conceptual toolboxes handy

 No dogmas please, we’re researchers: No need to adhere rigidly to a pre-set methodology or killer family of concepts (ANT, field theory, practice theory)…

‘Follow the practitioner’ is just one way in, by no means the only one!

In any case, broader organisational, cultural, historical context always necessary, e.g. social media activism in Barcelona cannot but refer to broader Catalonian and Spanish context.

It’s important to acquire a large conceptual and methodological vocab. The more the merrier.

Try out different concepts and methods during fieldwork, see if they work or not – you are under no obligation to honour Latour, Bourdieu, Foucault or any other French theorist whose name has an ‘ou’ in it.

If you can’t get it off the shelf, fashion your own concept or method, e.g. I had to come up with the concept ‘field of residential affairs’ to organise my internet localisation materials (Postill 2011).

Above all, no idols please – idolatry should be smashed, a la Taliban (well, maybe not a la Taliban). Only the better tools for the given job should be used, the rest can stay in the toolbox for future use.

Of particular relevance to digital media practitioners and social change:

  • Before-and-after accounts, e.g. before you used Facebook/smartphone, how did you go about your business/leisure/housework?
  • Recollections of disruptions to regular digital media use, e.g. when BlackBerry was down in 2011, or in some remote rural area [update 24 Feb 2012: this is really urban-centric; disruptions can occur in urban areas as well, of course!]
  • Life histories of persons, both as practitioner and other areas of life; persons as (in)dividuals (LiPuma 19.., Helle-Valle 2010)
  • Life histories of media artefacts (Kopytoff 1986, Postill 2006)
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Revisits to previous field sites


(Digital) media and social change is emerging interdisciplinary field of research and theorisation – first task is to take stock of existing research and theories and bring them under same umbrella. Very exciting area.

We should pay more attention to diachronic, clock-and-calendar time dimension of mediated practice, including our own research and theoretical practice. More dating, please!

Follow the practitioners across socio-technical settings (online, mobile, sedentary, remote, co-present…) and across biographical and historical time. Gauge the continuities as well as the changes.

Avoid conceptual or methodological fundamentalism (but without falling into anything-goes-eclecticism). See what works and what doesn’t.

Class exercise

In groups, how would you go about researching digital media and social change within a given organisation, collective, field of practice, neighbourhood, … Choose a familiar or exotic example and come up with a brief research plan.


Coming up shortly, watch this space.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Ladner permalink
    January 26, 2012 12:22 pm

    Hi John,
    Love your stuff. I research mobile tech and time, myself. I love that you focus on time (no one else seems to; why is that?). I have to disagree a bit with you about Castells. I don’t agree that “timeless time” is not time. IMHO, he’s arguing that the globalized, networked notion of time is now dominant in ICT-intensive work and practice. I found ample evidence of this in my study on Internet design workers, who frequently worked across time zones. The local was obliterated.

    Now that said, I also found ample evidence of the normativity of modern “clock time.” But it’s adapting, as you might expect, to the new “digital” experience. Digital time is much more fragmented.

    I’m not so arrogant to think that digital time has chased away clock time, but likewise, clock time didn’t chase away religious rites and feasts either.

    Any, big fan. Wish I were there.

  2. January 27, 2012 10:57 pm

    Thanks a lot Sam, you raise some really interesting issues. Have you got a link to the research you mention?

    I’m not quite sure, though, about the difference between ‘digital time’ and ‘clock-and-calendar time’ (CCT). Could you clarify it a bit?

    Are you suggesting that digital workers and other such hi-tech people have devised some post-CCT system of time-reckoning and scheduling that is radically different from that used by other mortals, e.g. taxi drivers, rock climbers, academics, undergrads?

    Does digital time mean they no longer follow the cycles of day-and-night, weeks, months, years, or the life course that goes from birth to our inevitable biological death – after which there is no coming back. Presumably if an Internet design worker in Iceland wants to have a series of skype chats with her colleagues in Japan, they will have to time it so that they are all awake at the time, e.g. morning in Iceland, evening in Japan?

    I would agree that the spread of digital technologies over the past 10-15 years has made an important difference to the way we – at least in the global North – communicate, make and share contents, coordinate our activities, etc, but I don’t see how this ushers in a post-CCT era.

    Over to Jan A.G.M. van Dijk:

    “The relevance of time and place radicalizes [I think he means that it greatly increases, JP] as the new media offer the opportunity to be much more selective in choosing their co-ordinates. Nobody will deny the extreme relevance of (clock)time in the most advanced nerve-centres of ICT, the stock markets. Many observe the growing carefulness of transnational corporations in strategically choosing the places for their departments and computer network nodes world-wide. Castells mentions comparable radicalizations in the global economy, but interprets them differently in catchy and hollow expressions like ‘the edge of forever’ and ‘the annihilation of time’.”

    • Sam Ladner permalink
      January 28, 2012 3:08 pm

      Hi John,
      Ah, I see where you’re going. No, “digital time” doesn’t refer to the “digital people,” as it were, but the tools of time reckoning we now use, e.g., digital clocks on computers, which are “digital” themselves.

      Here’s why I think this is a post CCT era (in some ways). Digitization of any sort changes the way information is processed. Analogue medical records, for example, can only be read in their entirety and cannot be combined with Googled test results of the “normal” patient, for example. Digital EMRs, on the other hand can be sliced and diced and combined with any other type of information immediately. You can look a patient’s chart, click on an item in that chart, and see, for example, how many times that doctor has been to the hospital in a given time period, or how many continuing medical education credits he or she has. Now this particular combination of info, while possible, is unlikely, given how we structure digital systems to mirror existing power structures. It’s more likely that you can click on a link and see how often *the patient* has been to the hospital, and how “compliant” they are.

      So back to time. Digital time reckoning means that time keeping is more akin to calculation. We can calculate time down to infinitesimal slices, which are cognitively unknowable. We can also immediately combine time measurements with other information, such as how many keystrokes the worker made, how many power point slides, etc. Corporations are routinely making time “mashups” of how their workers work and what they accomplish.

      This mashing up of time+other information further alienates time from its earth-bound connection. Just like the clock was a faceless (ahem!) counter of time, with no relationship to the sun, digital time reckoning such as MS Outlook or project management software is even MORE alienated from the earth.

      Digital time is a lot like clock time, in that it is removed from the earth’s seasonal and diurnal signals. But it has this capability of combining with other data makes it something else. It is more calculable, and more “enframed” in the technology through which is it represented.

      Here’s a link to some of my research:

      Thanks, John!

      • February 6, 2012 12:04 am

        Sorry about the slow reply, but it’s the beginning of a new semester.

        Your remarks about digital time are very interesting. So are we agreed that digital time is still clock-and-calendar time (CCT) but with added data? In other words, digital technologies such as the ones you mention add, among other things, to the surveillance capabilities of organisations, states, etc. by allowing them to calculate more precisely how workers spend each hour of their working day.

        So there is no new system or regime of time-reckoning and scheduling in place? Still good old CCT but with mashed-up practices riding on this universal code?

      • Sam Ladner permalink
        February 6, 2012 12:45 am

        Hi John,
        Yes, exactly. Digital time presents more opportunities for surveillance. It also does something quite phenomenologically different: it further estranges temporal experience from locally rendered temporal sign posts. This means that Castells was right (sorry!) in some ways; timeless time is time without local meaning. So we have a globalization of time regimes that offer more opportunities for surveillance, and also are far “detemporalized” as Adam might say. This kind of time is static, modern, universal and lacking in nuance.

        This CCT / digital time is more common than you might think. I don’t have exact figures on this, but time-tracking software is used by law firms, engineering firms, advertising agencies, design agencies, web design agencies, construction firms, and technology consulting companies. Any organization that bills clients for time spent uses software like this.

  3. Sam Ladner permalink
    February 7, 2012 3:21 pm

    John, I’ve created a Mendeley group that summarizes some of the literature I’ve drawn upon. Thought you might find it interesting:

    • February 7, 2012 11:27 pm

      An incredibly useful resource, thanks for sharing. Wish I had more time for time! (Can digital time expand our day cycles beyond their current 24-hour limit?).

      • Sam Ladner permalink
        February 7, 2012 11:29 pm

        I have a habit of “investing” time in “labour-saving” technology. Turns out I waste time mostly, but sometimes, I have a magic button that everyone wishes they had. This is one of those cases!

  4. February 17, 2012 9:40 am

    “Plants, animals and even bacteria go through a daily 24-hour routine, known as a circadian rhythm. Jet lag is what happens when the body gets out of sync with its surroundings after crossing time zones. It has been known that there are variations in the immune system throughout the day. Researchers are now drilling down into the details.”

    Therefore can we say that the daily, seasonal and annual cycles of clock-and-calendar time are non-arbitrary, whilst the division into weeks and months is arbitrary?

  5. February 23, 2012 9:34 am

    “Stages of sleep

    Every 60-100 minutes we go through a cycle of four stages of sleep

    Stage 1 is a drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and sleeping – breathing slows, muscles relax, heart rate drops
    Stage 2 is slightly deeper sleep – you may feel awake and this means that, on many nights, you may be asleep and not know it
    Stage 3 and Stage 4, or Deep Sleep – it is very hard to wake up from Deep Sleep because this is when there is the lowest amount of activity in your body
    After Deep Sleep, we go back to Stage 2 for a few minutes, and then enter Dream Sleep – also called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – which, as its name suggests, is when you dream

    In a full sleep cycle, a person goes through all the stages of sleep from one to four, then back down through stages three and two, before entering dream sleep

    Source: Gregg Jacobs”


  1. Researching digital media and social change: A theory of practice approach « Hybrid Digital Culture
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