Tag Archive for 'Media Engagement'

Media Engagement – Looking at What People Do with Media

These are my notes for a presentation I’m giving at the University of Westminster, Media Engagement symposium.

The Problem with Media Studies

David Gauntlett & William Merrin – Media Studies 2.0. Focus on Media Production activity and DIY Media:

“The discipline… faces a choice. It has the potential to be one of the most important subject areas going into the 21st century, at the forefront of debates around digital technologies and their remaking of the world. But equally it has the possibility of being left behind, its focus on reception and content and broadcast forms and concepts condemning it to an increasing irrelevance for everyone but itself” (Merrin, 2014, p. 188).

“So media studies now is not so much about media content and is more about platforms – media as things you can do something with, and the platforms and supports that can be arranged to stimulate that. It’s about building creativity in society – and the thiungs that can get in the way of that. This means we are still engaged with institutions and organisations, and more generally with issues of social change and culture, learning, and power in society – but in a different way, with a more active role for creative individuals to make a difference” (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 188).

Henry Jenkins focuses on Participatory Culture, arguing that changes in expectations about participation in networks of media engagement require a rethinking of the concepts of consumption and assimilation that presently dominate the study of media (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

This paper argues that the study of participation-based media must prioritise the pragmatic concept of community-through-conversation, thereby rejecting critical stances and models of media determination (Oakeshott, 1975; Rorty, 1982, 1989).

Pragmatic Approach
This pragmatic approach suggests that people who are active media participants and activists are faced with a series of translation issues that occur when agents are operating from different frames of symbolic reference. Of practical importance is the idea that it is difficult to achieve operational sustainability if these translation differences are ongoing.

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

The point of the study of media, therefore, is to seek ways to resolve the incongruities faced by participants and agents in the different symbolic reference frameworks, as they are articulated and negotiated in practice by the different communities, organisations and agents.

According to Rorty by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times.

And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

As McCarthy and Wright affirm, “pragmatists theorising is a practical, consequential activity geared toward change, not representation” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.20).

Hence, the task at hand is to link and validate the commonsensical practical imperatives of people who are working in communities and networks, with the standard ideas and concepts that are associated with the analysis of media, and then come up with some practical suggestions that might help in pursuing change on the ground – both in practice, and in the formulation of the prevailing ideas and concepts associated with the study of media (Forster, 2010).

As Etienne Wenger notes, the core of media practice is now based on the ideals of participation and direct experience, enabling those who take part, and who form their communities, to gain “radically new insights” as they “often arise at the boundaries between communities” (Etienne Wenger in Lesser, Fontaine, & Slusher, 2000, p. 12).

Leonidas Donskis suggests that by “radically changing everyone’s field of reference and system of concepts would make it easier to take away the dimensions of the past” (Donkis in Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 134).

Therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Contingencies & Transience
Richard Rorty suggests that instead of looking for fixed and immovable accounts of social experience, we should instead be seeking out those things that are historically contingent, that can be described in their transience, and which can be theoretically revised.

With its heightened emphasis on collaboration and shared techniques of production, that are not expected of more conventional forms of media, participatory media, or forms of community and collaborative media, occupy a territory that is distinctive and challenging.

This distinction is characterised as a set of working and conceptual practices that are grounded in a real-world environment, in which individual and collaborative knowledge is blurred and indeterminate.

Our understanding of the importance of the every-day practices and experiences of the participants who volunteer in participatory media situations can therefore be usefully explained, on the one hand, as a form of social knowledge that is exchanged within a ‘societas,’ that is a group of people who share their corresponding life experiences together; or alternatively, as a set of social arrangements that takes the form of a ‘universitas’, in which there is a mutual self-interest between a group of people who want to achieve a particular goal or outcome (Oakeshott, 1975).

As Richard Rorty explains:

E”pistemology views the participants [of a community] as united in what Oakeshott calls an universitas – a group united by mutual interests in achieving a common end. Hermeneutics views them as united in what he calls a societas – persons whose path through life have fallen together, united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by common ground” (Rorty, 2009 p.318).

Communities of Interest
It is possible to establish the basis on which participants in these communities of interest, identity and practice are able to understand their role, their identity and their accomplishments.

Furthermore, identifying the extent to which these communities of interest and correspondence are able to reflexively understand themselves in a way that can be described usefully as either a universitas or as a societas, or a blending of both.

The aim of our studies, therefore, should be to develop a pragmatic picture of the casual correspondence and contingent relationships that ‘fall together’ within fieldsites of community and collaborative media, with the assumption that this picture would open-up space for further discussion about the basis on which collaborative purpose is arrived at in accommodating communities.

In attempting to locate this presumed sense of common purpose, either as a society based on shared goals that are sometimes articulated in radical dreams of critical emancipation and utilitarian efficiency; or alternatively, as a society of correspondence, in which people just rub-along together. It is necessary to focus on the practical tasks that were useful as a wider example to people undertaking similar tasks or study.

These include: “predicting the behaviour of inhabitants” of the unfamiliar cultures of community media groups, learning to talk with different agents within overlapping community media groups,  despite the “incommensurability of [their] language” (Rorty, 2009 p.350); and the development of practical models that participants, students and supporters of community media can reflect on to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their ethical and practical operations.

As Rorty argues,

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

According to Rorty, moreover, by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times. And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

By extension, therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Put simply, it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

Symbolic Interaction
Therefore, it is in reintroducing Symbolic Interaction to the study of media that we will be able to make sense of how human beings act and achieve things on the basis of the meanings that they negotiate, and the potential lines of action that these meanings open up (Blumer, 1969; Prus, 1996).

Symbolic interaction proposes that the meanings that humans hold are themselves borne from social interaction, and that these interactions are modified and negotiated in an interpretative process as reflective agents interact with one another.

The social world is a world of social experiences that have been created in the process of interaction, and the meanings that individual agents hold are themselves shaped by their interactions and self-reflections.

“Any human event can be understood as the result of the people involved (keeping in mind that that might be a very large number) continually adjusting what they do in the light of what others do, so that each individual’s line of action ‘fits’ into what others do. That can only happen if human beings typically act in a non-automatic fashion, and instead construct a line of action by taking account of the meaning of what others do in response to their earlier actions. Human beings can only act in this way if they can incorporate the responses into their own act and thus anticipate what will probably happen, in the process creating a ‘self’ in the Meadian sense. (This emphasis on the way people construct the meaning of others’ acts is where the ‘symbolic’ in the ‘symbolic interaction’ comes from). If anyone can and does do that, complex joint action can occur” (Becker & McCall, 1990, p. 3).

This study has been able to demonstrate that the value of the ethnographic model lies in its ability to reflexively identify information from within complex, dynamic and transient social activities (Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999).

While quantitative research methodologies are able to distinguish and characterise large-scale social issues, through a process of calculation and statistical analysis, what is not readily identified when using these techniques is the process by which social actors find meaning in their activities (Sim, 1999).

As a qualitative form of research, ethnography aims to narrate how social groups negotiate and allocate legitimacy for the meanings that they build-up in practical usage.

Moreover, ethnography is primarily concerned with the process of accumulated meaning as derived through social practice and experience. Ethnographic study puts a particular emphasis on how these meanings accord to contingent relationships, between different actors in temporary social groups, and how this changes and shifts as social norms change and shift.

This means that ethnographic study is able to ask questions about social relationships, such as how perceptions of on-going social and symbolic status are founded and regulated through, for example, power-related discourses of domination or subordination.

Or, what happens when new technologies are introduced to a social environment that changes the productive and cognitive capabilities of different participants of emergent communities?

In short, “ethnography tries to understand practices, relationships, and cultures from the inside” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.34), with the provision that qualitative research, as Uwe Flick notes, does not seek to study “artificial situations in the laboratory, but the practices and interactions of everyday life” (Flick, 2009 p.15).

Symbolic Interactionism & Media Studies
Symbolic interaction, however, is not commonly taught as an orthodox research method in British media and cultural studies, although it is in many ways related and shares many common ideas and preconceptions.

The approach of media studies in the United Kingdom rests largely on political, industrial, economic, cultural, content, textual, discursive or archival analysis (Cobley, 1996; During, 1999; Hartley, 2011; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002; Livingstone, 2006; Long & Wall, 2009; Thornham, Bassett, & Marris, 2009). David Gauntlett suggests that “for a couple of decades, from the 1980s, media studies had settled into a reasonably stable cluster of subject areas, such as ‘institutions’, ‘production,’ ‘audiences’ and ‘texts’ (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 1).

Gauntlett argues, there are few opportunities to develop practice-based forms of media analysis grounded in the day-to-day experience of people, especially in the way that they use, create and experience media. Consequently, there is a clear lack of commitment to the training and schooling that is required when undertaking forms of investigation that can encompass the newer forms of participation and experimental media.

However, there is a useful affinity with the cultural studies tradition. Norman Denzin describes how Stuart Hall’s view of the cultural subject is “in part symbolic interactionist,” because people are defined as being able to work out the conditions in which they operate for themselves. According to Denzin, Hall explores how

“The meanings [a] subject brings to his or her situation are shaped by the larger ideological forces in the culture, for consciousness is ‘always infused with ideological elements, and any analysis of social frameworks of understanding must take account of the elements of ‘misrecognition’ which are involved’” (Hall quoted in Denzin, 1992, p. 118).

The pragmatist challenge to this notion of ideology as an extrinsic or determining force should be clear by now, but it is worth noting the significant differences that remain between the approach taken by Hall (hegemony) and that suggested by Rorty (interpretivism).

Communities of Practice
More recently, however, audience studies have gained currency in media studies approaches, combined with the expansion of the study of virtual communities and with the shift toward participative forms of ICT and social media.

Configurations of communities of practice and fan communities have shifted the focus of media studies away from the singularly textual approach, to the participative and experiential.

Therefore, is a contribution to the developing field of participative enactment that argues that it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

This places the use and development of symbolic interaction in a contested but central position. If symbolic interaction and participant observation are approaches that can be usefully applied to the study of people using media, then they need to be embedded in the mainstream media studies curricula. Symbolic interaction is a well-established methodology and field of study in its own right.

One that is time-honoured and proven to give meaningful insights into the operation of cultural and social activities.

Symbolic interaction, moreover, has the advantage that it recognises agency and diminishes ideology in its founding principles, and that these principles are expected to be enacted on the basis of pragmatic practicality. Norman Denzin summarises the predicament faced by the symbolic interactionist, however, when he explains that

“Of course, there are no real biographical subjects, independent of the stories told about them, and even these texts, in the telling, displace the teller. We can never get back to raw biographical experience. The closest we can ever get is when a subject, in an epiphanal moment, moves from one social world to another. In these instances the subject is between interpretative frameworks. When this happens, experience is described in words that are yet to be contaminated by the cultural understandings of a new group” (Denzin, 1992, p. 19).

The challenge then, is to define a set of tools and approach that can look at practices of media participation, engagement and the contingent, localised meanings that are articulated and accomplished within the lifeworlds and communities of people as they engage with media on a day-to-day basis.

Media & Ethnographic Study
At its most basic level, then, ethnography emerges from a series of anthropological and sociological investigative traditions, and can be thought of as a disciplined form of social enquiry that seeks-out accountable and practical approaches to the study of culture.

As Boellstorff et al suggest,

“Cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1)

It is therefore incumbent on ethnographic investigators to continue to “attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005, p. 17), and to describe and explain the many factors and historical movements that shape our cultural and social interactions. Put simply, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8).

An understanding that is founded in a shared affinity with the people being studied, and a sense of responsibility toward the use that those studies might be applied.

As Boellstorff et al specify, in ethnographic investigation

The goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

If the mediatisation process has shifted to incorporate the practices and accomplishments of people, then the study of media must mark this with a shift to its focus of inquiry and exploration. This is about looking at what people ‘do’ with media all over again.

References
Bauman, Z., & Donskis, L. (2013). Moral Blindness – The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity. London: Polity Press.
Becker, H. S., & McCall, M. M. (Eds.). (1990). Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies. Chicargo: University of Chicargo Press.
Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cobley, P. (Ed.) (1996). The Communication Theory Reader. London: Routledge.
Denzin, N. K. (1992). Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies. Malden, MA: Blckwell.
During, S. (Ed.) (1999). The Cultural Studies Reader (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
Flick, U. (2009). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. London: Sage.
Forster, M. N. (2010). Hermeneutics. Retrieved from http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/faculty/forster.html
Gauntlett, D. (2015). Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing.
Hartley, J. (2011). Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.
Hine, C. (Ed.) (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture – Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Lesser, E. L., Fontaine, M. A., & Slusher, J. A. (Eds.). (2000). Knowledge and Communities. Boston: Butterworth Heinemann.
Lievrouw, L. A., & Livingstone, S. (Eds.). (2002). The Handebook of New Media. London: Sage.
Livingstone, S. (2006). Introduction to the updated student edition. In S. Livingstone & L. A. Lievrouw (Eds.), Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. London: Sage. Retrieved from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/21502/.
Long, P., & Wall, T. (2009). Media Studies: Texts, Production and Context. Harlow: Pearson Education.
McCarthy, J., & Wright, P. (2004). Technology as Experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Merrin, W. (2014). Media Studies 2.0. London: Routledge.
Oakeshott, M. (1975). On Human Conduct. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.
Rorty, R. (1982). The Consequences of Pragmatism. Brighton: Harverster Press.
Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rorty, R. (2009). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (30th Aniversary Edition ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schensul, S. L., Schensul, J. J., & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). Essential Ethnographic Methods: Observations, Interviews, and Questionnaires. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
Sim, S. E. (1999). Evaluating the Evidence: Lessons from Ethnography. Paper presented at the Workshop on Empirical Studies of Software Maintenence, Oxford, England.
Thornham, S., Bassett, C., & Marris, P. (2009). Media Studies: A Reader (3rd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.