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New paper: Webcam and the theory of attainment

October 8, 2012

Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan (UCL)
Working Paper for the EASA Media Anthropology Network’s 41st e-Seminar
9-23 October 2012
[Read full paper]

This paper consists largely of extracts from what will be a first draft of a book we are currently writing for Polity Press to be published under the title Webcam . The reason for writing such a book at this point should be obvious. Each year seems to bring some genuinely important new development in communications, whether Facebook, the smartphone or Twitter. But our sense is that over the last year the most influential development has been the widespread adoption of webcam, mainly through Skype as a mode of regular communication, often by groups such as the elderly who otherwise have been resistant to new media technologies but welcome the potential of webcam to speak to relatives abroad or admire their grandchildren. Our ethnography suggests that the core usage is of particular concern to anthropology since it is focused around close relationships, kinship, couples and best friends.

Our data comes from two main sources. A more dedicated period spent in Trinidad which included 70 more formal interviews, but in the context of a more general ethnography carried out by Jolynna Sinanan over several months in a small out of the way town. She was joined in this fieldwork by Danny though he was present for a shorter visit. The research was funded by RMIT Melbourne and from UCL. In addition Danny had carried out a pilot project interviewing mainly students living abroad. So there are around 100 main informants for this study. As the analysis and writing developed, we found that the book has also become a case study that can be used to exemplify and develop points made in the introduction to the book Digital Anthropology (Horst and Miller 2012) which has been published this month. In the new book on Webcam these ideas take on a new form which we will call a `Theory of Attainment.’ In this paper we briefly discuss the theoretical trajectories leading to this theory of attainment and provide short examples from two chapters and a longer study from a third chapter that give more of a sense of the content we envisage for this volume and why this particular theory seems appropriate as a means to appreciate the academic significance of the adoption of webcam.

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