Whenever I mention that one of my primary areas of anthropological research is media, the question I come across on a recurring basis is the following: How will you be able to pursue that through ethnographic fieldwork of everyday activities? My sense is that such a response comes from the view that media are disembodied and deterritorialized objects or processes, or that they operate at a pace that is difficult to engage through participant-observation. In response to such concerns much work in anthropology has sought to “ground” media by focusing on production or reception practices, or occasionally both. However, I consider this kind of question crucial to think through during my exploratory fieldwork and research design phase.
A similar issue has arisen in anthropological research on Muslims in North America. In the conclusion to Katherine Pratt Ewing’s edited volume, Being and Belonging (2008), Andrew Shryock called for greater attention to “the immediate and mediated worlds…articulated in everyday life” (206). So, how should one strike a balance between studying media and the everyday? One could study the everyday dimensions of production practices, or how the reception of media is incorporated into people’s everyday lives, or how and why media producers construct the everyday in certain ways.
This issue is especially relevant to many members of the Muslim community in North America and those who conduct research on/with them. Last year I attended two large conferences: The American Academy of Religion (San Francisco, November 2011) and the Islamic Society of North America (Chicago, July 2011). Religious adherents, spokespersons and academics all converged on the notion that engaging with media (news, entertainment, and social media) was the most vital means to influence public opinion about Muslims. I heard numerous panels where professors, journalists, filmmakers, writers, students, etc. discussed the benefits and pitfalls of media activism. Such a large degree of interest solidified my focus on the anthropology of media and Islam by generating more questions than answers. But what about the everyday?
I share Shryock’s view that ethnographies of the everyday lives of Muslims in North America could add texture to our understanding of post-9/11 Muslim identity formations, while also humanizing the Muslim ‘Other’. Yet, television shows about everyday Muslim lives have reached more Muslim and non-Muslim American homes than any ethnography could dream of. Even though an ethnography of actual lives could provide a much needed point of comparison with televisual representations, it seems just as pressing to ethnographically research the construction and reception of the everyday in tv programs.
An ideal approach would analyze the relationship between the everyday in televisual media and lived realities. But, there is no guarantee that such moments would arise during fieldwork and would probably have to be one dimension of a larger study. For this reason, internet sites could prove useful for analyzing how Muslims discuss such shows and apply them to life situations (more on this in the next post), as well as understanding how non-Muslims make sense of them. Another possibility would be to approach the relationship between the everyday and media in a sideways manner (see my last post). This would entail interpreting one in light of the other without positing an underlying unity.
How do you perceive the relationship between media and the everyday? What are some other fruitful directions to pursue?