Mass Media and Anthropology Research Paper

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According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a medium is a channel or an intervening agency by means of which something is conveyed or accomplished. By this definition, languages and rituals are probably the examples of the earliest forms of media because ideas of belonging are conveyed and contested through words, rites, ceremonies, and practices. Also, just as all other kinds of media, rituals, as Victor Turner (1974) noted, have a sensory aspect, that is, they engage our senses of sight and sound and have an ideological aspect. They convey important messages. Thus, the study of human society cannot proceed without looking at the media, and both the language and the ritual have been concerns of the anthropologists for a long time. Yet the study of mass media has to emerge as a separate subdiscipline in anthropology because of the improvements and spread of technologies of mass communication and mediation on an unprecedented scale in the post–World War II era. This ubiquity of media worldwide made it increasingly difficult for anthropologists to study rituals and interactions without looking at how they take place in settings saturated with information, images, sounds, and ideas dished out by different kinds of media, such as television, photography, film, radio, and the Internet. Such empirical urgency led the anthropologists to understand the significance of mass media in the lives of the people whom they study. Thus, to emphasize the centrality of mass media to life in the late 20th century, Arjun Appadurai (1991) invented the concept of “mediascapes” in the early 1990s. During the same time, Debra Spitulnik (1993) pointed out a major lacuna in anthropological understanding of human society by announcing that “there is as yet no anthropology of mass media” (p. 293). Since the 1990s, anthropologists have been deeply engaged in study of mass media and have, thereby, contributed much to the understanding of the media-saturated world in all its aspects. Therefore, the theoretical understanding of media-related social practices has advanced so much that Spitulnik’s lament seems untenable in the 21st century. The following is a brief overview of the major theoretical and methodological contributions that the study of mass media has made to the general understanding of nationalism, globalization, modernity, and society.


The Anthropological Perspective on Mass Media: Questions the Anthropologist Asks

The invention of printing in the 1400s and appearance of newspapers in the 1600s were watershed moments in human history. Since then, developments and improvements in mass media technologies not only transformed the way space and time was experienced and imagined, but they also changed intimate relations among individuals and groups. Therefore, an anthropological perspective on mass media is chiefly concerned with people’s engagement with media and how that shapes their ideas of themselves and of the intimate and the distant, the places and peoples, and economic, political, religious, and cultural actions and their practices. Thus, ethnographic studies of production, transmission and reception of mass-mediated images, sounds, and ideas are concerned with how media technologies mediate between people rather than simply looking at the effects of media on individuals. The questions that anthropologists explore are: What meanings do individuals and groups make out of mass-mediated images and sounds? How do they negotiate ideas, practices of domination, power, and stereotyping embedded in the massmediated programs? How do media technologies enable new forms of social interaction? How do existing social formations, such as the nation, the state, and ethnic groups, get transformed? How does engagement with media transform the conceptions of space and time? How and to what effect do the marginalized groups use mass media?

Although anthropology came late to the study of mass media, the latter as a domain of inquiry had a profound effect on anthropology’s core concept—culture. Faye Ginsberg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin (2002) wrote that for many years mass media were seen as almost a taboo topic for anthropology, “too redolent of Western modernity for a field identified with tradition, the nonWestern, and vitality and authenticity of the local culture” (p. 4). In the post–World War II era, anthropologists working in non-Western settings routinely encountered processes in which media played an increasingly important part. For example, Lila Abu-Lughod (1993), one of the pioneers of the subfield that emerged in recent years, came across rapid commercialization of local popular songs among the Bedouins in Egypt and observed the ensuing generational conflicts depicted in national media forms, such as radio soap operas. Abu-Lughod (1993) questioned the “otherness” of the non-Western societies, and it made her rethink the bounded character of one’s field site. Such doubts, which challenged the fundamentals of anthropology, had serious implications for the axiomatic understanding of postwar social and political geographies. An analysis of porous boundaries meant that the anthropologists were more attentive to the flows and traffic of people, goods, images, and sounds across the geographical spheres that were also imagined in temporal terms of modern and traditional. Thus, rural and urban and/or first and third worlds came to share the same geographical and historical space. Consequent ruptures in anthropological theories and methodology of the 1980s and 1990s led to the development of the “anthropology of the present” (Fox, 1991). Anthropologists recognized that they work in societies where media were more central and that electronic media were influencing societies once considered beyond their reach. These shifts catalyzed a critical reorganization of the concept of culture by unleashing the concept from its traditional “bounded” moorings.

Recognition of the role that the mass media played brought the mediated quality of culture to the foreground. Thus, Louisa Schein (2002) stated that “the way the people understand who they are and how they belong is never anterior to, indeed is inseparable from, the kinds of media they use or consume” (p. 231). In other words, self-understanding and identity is not given to one in its authentic form, but it is produced, of course, within relationships of power and domination and is constituted within a system of representation.


Representation and systems of representation are key concepts in the anthropology of mass media. According to Stuart Hall (1997), the meaning is produced, communicated, and understood within systems of representation. The systems of representations work like languages, not because they are spoken or written but because they all use some element to stand for, or represent, what we want to say and to express. They communicate a thought, concept, idea, or feeling. Sounds, musical notes, words, items of clothing, facial expressions, gestures, body movements, and digitally produced dots on the screen do not have any clear meaning in themselves, but they signify. They operate as symbols and carry meanings as vehicles or media. In short, they function as signs. It is in these webs of signification that we make sense of ourselves.

Thus, Hall (1997) framed the study of mass media in terms of production and reception or encoding and decoding of meanings within systems of representations. This encoding/ decoding formulation allowed for multiple interpretations of media texts during the process of production and reception. However, Hall was quick to point out that representational strategies prevalent in media practice try to fix the meanings of images, sound bytes, and visuals. Power, Hall argued, works through such representational strategies, such as those that try to fix the meanings and thereby invoke an ideal viewer/listener. Nonetheless, Hall emphasized the active participation of the audience and actors involved in the production of media. Audiences interpret and read the media texts in ways other than what has been intentioned in the strategies of who control the production of the media text. Thus, meaning of mass mediated images and sounds are slippery. Hall brought to media studies a perspective that went beyond the model of mass media as simply a tool in the hands of the authorities to propagate their images and views of the world. Hall’s model provided anthropologists with a theoretical framework to study production, dissemination, and reception of media ethnographically.

The Medium and the Message

While Hall emphasized the importance of participation and representations in communication, Debra Spitulnik (1993) turned our attention to technological forms of mediation and social contexts in which such technologies are appropriated. While Hall’s encoding/decoding model helps us to imagine an active audience, an attention to technologies of mediation helps us to realize how a medium shapes the social relations and the audience’s perception. For Marshall McLuhan (1964), the message of any medium or technology is in the way it changes the scale or pace or pattern of human interaction and affairs. McLuhan connected the rise of the print media to increased individualism, social separation, continuity of space and time, uniformity of codes, and nationalism. McLuhan’s contentions were reasserted by Benedict Anderson (1991), who showed that print media was one of the necessary factors for the spread of nationalist consciousness. Nationalist consciousness was not simply produced through the nationalist thought and rhetoric that the print media disseminated. Equally important, the print media enabled participation of millions of people in the practice of imagining an inclusive community.

This ability of the mass media to facilitate the imagination of social entities—larger than those arising from the immediate and concrete contexts—inextricably links the study of mass media with discussions on identities arising out of nationalism and transnationalism. The national frame of reference with which citizens of a nation tend to identify is partly produced through media productions, and the idea of nation is continuously in formation. Spitulnik (1999) showed that radio helped create the postcolonial nation in Zambia by formalizing language hierarchies in a multilingual state, influencing speech styles, signifying modernity itself, and even embodying the state. Similarly, Purnima Mankekar (1999) argued that the televised Indian epic Ramayan “might have participated in reconfigurations of nation, culture, and community that overlapped with and reinforced Hindu nationalism” in the early 1990s. The televised epic, Mankekar notes, was part of a sociohistorical conjuncture in which inclusion and exclusion within the Indian national community was constructed in terms of being a Hindu. Also, the media may transform nationalistic feelings for the purposes of specific commercial imperatives of selling commodities to a particular group. Arlene Davila (1999) examined the construction of “Latinidad” by the U.S. Hispanic advertising industry. Davila’s work leads us to the consideration of the relationships between the media and capitalism and the state and corporate powers. One of the pioneering studies in this area was carried out by the American anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker (1950). While doing her fieldwork in a small town in Mississippi, Powdermaker was struck by the fact that going to the movies was the primary source of entertainment for her survey respondents and other residents of the town. This realization led Powdermaker to carry out an ethnography of the Hollywood film industry from 1946 to 1947. Although she produced a very dense and insightful ethnography of the Hollywood film industry, her theoretical conclusions were partly influenced by the theorists of the Frankfurt school such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Powdermaker concluded that Hollywood represents totalitarianism because the overriding profit motive underlying formulaic and dehumanized Hollywood productions not only “mechanizes” creativity, but also makes the audience passive by making it conform to certain aesthetic standards of entertainment. Thus, for Powdermaker, the film industry was an organ of mass deception in capitalist society dominated by big corporations, which hinders the development of autonomous and independent individuals.

Media and Power: Transnationalism, Capitalism, and Multiple Modernities

However, the relationship between the media and the state and corporate interests are more complex than it is often thought. Media are also used by activists and indigenous groups, which is discussed later. But what implications do the contradictory interests of the state have for the media? Ruth Mandel (2002) studied the reception of a television serial called “Crossroads” produced by a private British company as part of a British government-funded project for teaching capitalism to communists in the post-Soviet state of Kazakhstan. Mandel shows how a Thatcherite propaganda tool for teaching privatization, market reform, and democracy to ex-Soviet citizens was repeatedly hijacked and transformed—even derailed—until ultimately it became, at least in part, the voice of a nationalized highly censored, state-controlled media empire not dissimilar from its Soviet predecessor. But such Kazakhstan statecensored broadcasts were also used to transmit diverse and competing messages outside the domain of the state censors. Similarly, Mayfair Yang’s (1994) ethnography of post–Mao China draws attention to the contradictions arising out of the Chinese state’s embrace of capitalism and encouragement of links for investment to overseas Chinese. The overseas, or pan-Chinese, connections thrive through films, popular music, and television from the mainland. Such transnational subjectivities and desires threaten to shake the authority of the communist regime.

Mayfair Yang’s ethnography of media practices in post–Mao China brings a new perspective to the anthropology of mass media, which also studies how media productions circulate across the boundaries of nations. Anthropologists have tried to go beyond the dominant framework of cultural imperialism of the West or cultural resistance of indigenous people. The popularity of Hindi films in places beyond the Hindi-speaking part of the Indian subcontinent and in diverse locations, such as Egypt, Kenya, Japan, and Nigeria, underscores the significance of the alternative circuits of media flows that operate outside the West. Also, there are circulations of small media serving an audience of diasporic communities as Yang has shown. Another very important example of circulation of small media is the circuit of Hmong videos that span across continents. Louisa Schein (2002) studied how the Hmong, who came to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War, have developed both a pop music world of their own and a thriving video industry. Through these videos, Schein notes that Hmongs not only create a community that transcends the boundaries of nations but also market it as transnational and emphasize the role of the Hmongs Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruits during the Vietnam War. Schein theorizes the effect of such media circuits in terms of the concept of “transnational subjectification.” While national subjectification is an understanding of oneself as a citizen of one nation, transnational subjectification is an anchoring of one’s identity in transnational interstitial space. For the Hmong such a transnational space has deep historical significance in terms of wars and conflicts with dominant groups in various nations.

The cultural imperialism model of looking at transnational media circulation has also been complicated by Richard Wilk (1994) in his study of the consequences of the introduction of direct access to U.S. television in Belize through a satellite hookup. Such access to U.S. television, Wilk argues, gave the people in Belize a sense of coevalness that disturbs their ideas about themselves making them feel backward or lagging behind the metropole. Instead, such access reinforced an idea of nationhood in the minds of people who could see the difference between Belize and the United States in terms of cultural difference rather than a historical time lag.

The cultural imperialism model has been further complicated by anthropologists of the media who discovered that ideas and practices generated by circulation of nonWestern films, television serials, and popular songs create new sensibilities signifying modernity in various countries. In his study of media in northern Nigeria, for example, Brian Larkin (1997) used the concept of parallel modernities to describe the worlds of those who are not mobile but who, nonetheless, through media participate in imagined realities of other cultures as part of their daily lives. Larkin argues that spectacles and plots of Indian films and their indigenization in a local genre of soyyaya (“songs”) books as well as in locally produced videos offer Hausa youth of Nigeria a medium to consider what it means to be modern. Similarly, in Kathmandu, Nepal, circulation of Hindi and Hollywood films, “teen” magazines, pirated cassettes, and interactive radio shows create a transnational public sphere that provides the experience of modernity as a space of imagined possibilities defined by commodities (Liechty, 1994). Thus, media circulation, production, and reception occur within political, economic contexts that define access to cultural and material resources and occur within the constant gaze of the state trying to control its representations to the citizens. Yet new subjectivities and sensibilities and networks that surpass the national and state borders emerge to form a transnational public sphere that span geolinguistic regions and beyond.

As we can see, ethnographic studies enable subtle understanding of operation of power and actions of individuals and groups by looking at influences of state ideologies, histories of migration, and transborder connections on reception and appropriation of images, sounds, and ideas dished up by various kinds of media. Ethnographic focus on particular sites of production makes anthropology of mass media richer. Thus, recent work on media has been described as bifocal as it attends to both the institutional structures and the agency and circumstances of cultural producers. These works emphasize how producers of programs imagine the audience. For example, Barry Dornfeld (1998) demonstrated that the production of a 7-hour educational documentary series on childhood for American public television entails complex negotiations. The audience, Dornfeld shows, is not only anticipated but is also constructed and reconstructed at every stage of the production. Public television workers bring certain assumptions about the particular class fraction of “the American public” that they imagine and hope will watch their work.

Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin (2002) commented that media technologies are not neutral. Each new medium impresses on society not simply new interpersonal relations. But a medium transforms one’s relations to the body and perception and to time and space as theorists from McLuhan (1964) to Jack Goody (1977), Walter Ong (1991), Jean Baudrillard (1984), and Friedrich Kittler (1999) have argued. In recent years, Brian Larkin (1997) has examined the ways in which cinema halls were part of the construction of public space under colonial rule in Nigeria. Cinema halls along with other new spaces, such as libraries, parks, and theaters, created new modes of racial, social, and sexual interaction that raised anxieties about social hierarchies and spatial segregation in Nigeria.

Use of Media Technology in Anthropology

So far we have seen how anthropologists have engaged with questions of production and contestation of identities in a mass-mediated world. An equally important and closely related concern has been the use of media technologies in the production of truth. By emphasizing the mediated quality of truth, anthropologists not only question positivist celebration of value-free science but also turn the critical lens of inquiry on themselves as figures who authoritatively comment on others. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson introduced the use of camera (both still and moving) in their 1930s research on Balinese culture and personality. Although they disagreed on how to use camera, they accepted that the camera constituted a privileged medium for scientific research (see Askew, 2002). Similarly, Franz Boas encouraged the use of phonograph for documentation purposes. Use of media technology in early ethnography reflected the positivist concern for truth, objectivity, and science. Photography, however, was never an innocent technology. Photography was used in categorization and classification of human subjects, especially the criminal, the mentally ill, and the culturally exotic. Yet careful scrutiny of who was photographed and under what conditions reveals in every case a whole host of precursory judgments that negates the purported objectivity of the medium (Askew, 2002). Similarly, by analyzing the photographs in National Geographic, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins show that the magazine relies on two intertwined strategies in the marketplace of images. National Geographic’s reputation is built on humanism— that under the skin all humans are basically the same. But this foundational idea contradicts the Western commonsense knowledge about the hierarchy of races. Thus, they demonstrate how photographs and the stories told through them in the National Geographic reflect the EuroAmerican notion that the people of color are poor, dirty, technologically backward, and superstitious. They further argue that photographs also distinguish bronze people from black by portraying the former as less poor and more technologically adept than the latter. An idea of a fatalistic link between skin color and progress underlie the so-called objective photographs of the National Geographic, contend Lutz and Collins.

Media and Activism

The use of media technologies and perpetuation of power and dominance has been a well-commented topic. The marshalling of media technologies in modernization and racialization projects, which often lead to genocides, is not uncommon. However, McLuhan and others viewed media technologies as tools available to disenfranchised members of society that can be used to undermine existing power relations and to instigate societal change. Since the 1980s, indigenous and minority peoples have begun to take up a range of media in order to talk back to structures of power that have distorted their interests and realities. Such cultural activism, as Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin (1997) called it, emphasizes the political agency and the ability to intervene in the production of the representations. George Marcus and Michael Fischer (1986) identified an activist imaginary in such cultural productions that tends to pursue not only broad-based social change through identity and representation but also produces a utopian desire for “emancipation” by raising fresh issues about citizenship and public sphere.

However, indigenous and marginalized use of media raises many debates and questions about representations of culture. Mediation of an objectified culture to an urban or Western audience can create political cultural assets that can be deployed to make moral and economic claims over land. But many scholars also question if the objectification also results in a paradox of primitivism that often distort the processes that indigenous people are committed to preserving. Ginsburg (1991) suggested that indigenous use of media presents a kind of Faustian contract with technologies of modernity, enabling some degree of agency to control representation under less-than-ideal conditions. Daniel Miller (1992) accepted the objectification of indigenous or local cultures but said that an anthropologist’s first concern is not to resolve these contradictions in theory but to observe how people sometimes resolve or commonly live out these contradictions in local practice.

Methodological Issues and Future Directions

Media and Methodological Issues in Anthropology

Anthropological studies of production, distribution, and reception of mass media not only help us see mass media in a different way, but the studies also have left a deep influence on the way anthropologists do fieldwork and conceive of culture. Thus, Abu-Lughod (1993) has argued that the study of media forces us to represent people in distant villages as part of the same cultural worlds we inhabit—worlds of mass media, consumption, and dispersed communities of the imagination. Yet William Mazzarella (2004) noted a contradiction in narratives of globalization. He points out that in the various discourses on globalization and its implication, there is a growing awareness of the role media and mediation in people’s lives; however, there is also a simultaneous disavowal of mediation. This tendency, Mazzarella says, manifests itself in the ideas of “resurgence of the local,” “cultural proximity,” and “hybridity” (p. 352). The celebration of the local is based on the assumption that we value things, which we know from our immediate surroundings. Such assumptions and ideas give rise to a substantialist or essentialist or “unmediated” view of culture. Accounts and analyses based on such assumptions tend to portray the media as something that happen to or are imposed on alreadyconstituted local worlds. The local, in this view, is composed of a certain set of cultural values and practices in which media intrude in beneficial or deleterious ways. But rarely is it acknowledged that mediation and its attendant cultural politics necessarily precede the arrival of what we commonly recognize as “media”: that, in fact, local worlds are necessarily already the outcome of more or less stable, more or less local social technologies of mediation.

Thus, William Mazzarella (2004) and Rosalind Morris (2007) proposed to push anthropology of media and globalization further in order to develop an anthropology of mediation. Mediation, Mazzarella claims, is the general foundation of social and cultural life. Mediation, for Mazzarella, does not simply constitute what we conventionally understand as our lives represented in television, newspaper, and radio; the ritual is itself already a medium that facilitates self-understandings by routing the personal through the collective or the impersonal, the near through the far, the self through the other, and the real through the virtual. Therefore, study of mediation entails the study of the intersections, tensions, and collaborations of various systems of mediation, which includes ritual practices, as well as the production and consumption of images, sounds, and stories, dished out by the media.

The analytic of mediation helps anthropologists to do away with dichotomies such as outside and inside, global and local, technology and culture, or real and virtual. Thus, Daniel Miller and Don Slater (2000), in laying out an ethnographic approach to the study of the Internet, avoid treating the Internet as global technology that is appropriated in a locale or society. Their study of Internet practices in Trinidad shows that, contrary to the expectations, uses of the Internet are not opposed to “traditional” or “real” forms of relationship, especially kinship. The Internet, Miller and Slater find, is strongly continuous with those values that were developed first in kinship and later through the experience of mass consumption. Thus, they conclude that online and offline worlds penetrate each other deeply and in complex ways. People use the Internet to realize older concepts of identity or to pursue new modes of sociality.

In the next section, we will briefly touch on the ways of designing and executing an ethnographic project to study mass media.

Studying Media Ethnographically

The review of anthropological works on media studies gives us a range of perspectives from which one can come up with a hypothesis or a research question for carrying out an ethnographic research. For example, one may look at use of the newspaper as a source of information that forms political opinion and shapes political behavior and practice. With such a broad area in mind, the first step would be to narrow the topic of newspaper reading in two ways. One should identify one or more particular sectors of the society and sample population for studying the practices associated with newspapers in those sectors or groups. Nonetheless, one should be open to whatever one comes across. Miller and Slater in their study of the Internet used anything that seemed relevant to their understanding of Internet-related practices in Trinidad. Second, one should also try to identify an anthropological problem from certain theoretical perspectives, which has been discussed.

Carrying out the ethnography will require interviewing individuals and groups and observing them in their everyday settings. The questions that will be asked and the things that will be observed will partially depend on the theoretical framework one uses. But one must be open to details because it is the details that help one to contribute to the theoretical understanding of the mass media and the practices that they entail. The aim should not be to make statements that allow us to generalize about all people but to reveal something about the way that particular people behave in the world. The goal is to gain insight into some of the characteristic ways people use media (e.g., news in case of newspapers) and the information that they give to relate to the wider structures and the people around them. Therefore, interviews should always be matched with what people do. Only by combining observation and interviews can one achieve what Daniel Miller (1992) said is the first concern of the anthropologists; it is not to resolve the everyday contradictions of individuals and groups in theory but to observe how people sometimes resolve or commonly live out these contradictions in various contexts.


In this short review of anthropology of mass media, we see that the study of mass media by the anthropologists has contributed as much to the understanding of media as it has enriched anthropology. Engagement with mass media has subtly shifted anthropology’s focus from understanding human beings to how human beings understand themselves. The key point that all anthropological studies of mass media with their focus on production, reception, use, and appropriation of representations emphasize, is that the human interactions and identities have a mediated quality. Thus, the dichotomies between oral and literate cultures and societies with or without mass media or between immediate, or face-to-face, and mediated encounters are false dichotomies. Power, identities, and collectivities always emerge by routing or mediating the self through the other and the near through the far. Anthropology’s primary task, therefore, is to look at how various technologies of mediation, such as television, radio, cinema, newspapers, and also rituals, languages, and symbolic practices, interact and to study the tensions and collaborations between these technologies and contradictions in self-understanding arising out of such interactions. Ethnographies must engage with how such tensions and contradictions are reconciled and lived with in different contexts and circumstances.


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