Mediating the Real I

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?

Garrison is a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine. He studies religious and national identity formation through media practices among American Muslims.

2 thoughts on “Mediating the Real I

  1. First, congratulations. This project is very interesting, indeed.
    You ask, what are some other fruitful directions to pursue. I wonder if it might be a useful exercise to review a bit of history.Suppose we start with the Shannon information theory model in which a channel connects source and receiver.

    Frankfort School critics feared monopoly control of the source by nation states or monopoly capital. Benedict Anderson focused on control of the channel, newspapers and radio, and their contribution to creating the imaginary community that is a modern nation state. Later, cultural studies shifted focus to the receiver, resistance to one way communication, and the reframing of the message as it is received. The last point is one to which evil genius Republican strategist Frank Luntz draws attention with his remark that, “It’s what they hear that counts, not what you intended to say.” That reminds me of another evil genius, Joseph Goebbels, and the importance of “the big lie.” That points me, in turn to “the big idea,” the Holy Grail of those who, like myself, who work in advertising or PR. Which brings me back to the channel. The greatest single concerns of professional propagandists these days are channel multiplication and audience fragmentation. In the age of print and radio, the audience was largely local, and national media reached an elite with a relatively homogeneous education and worldview. TV enabled political candidates and their handlers as well as advertisers for other sorts of products not only to speak directly to consumers in their living rooms but to make the message more compelling with moving images and music. Still, however, bandwidth was limited. With the number of major networks limited, getting your message to as many constituent/consumers as you were willing and able to pay for was a doable proposition. Cable TV and the Internet have changed all that. The importance of the geographically local has diminished with audiences now scattered all over the world. Conversely, however, audiences are now more fragmented than ever, with the endless choices available enabling individuals to see and hear only what they want to, a process that Eli Paliser now sees being driven to an extreme by “helpful” algorithms that threaten to have us all in “filter bubbles” of our own.

    What ethnography can contribute to our understanding of this situation is an interesting question.

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