In most human communities today, mass media and digital media are the primary means by which symbolic forms circulate across time and space, and are central to the constitution of subjectivities, institutions, and collective events. Yet while scholars and popular commentators frequently affirm that new media practices define who people are, actually specifying the relation between media forms and broader social conditions is a difficult task, to which anthropologists are increasingly contributing in innovative ways.
This paper explores how different social orders are created through production and circulation of media forms and visual images. In keeping with anthropology’s wider emphasis on cross-cultural comparison and on ethnographic study of symbolic forms in their full social contexts, this paper’s central questions include: How are specific media technologies defined and used differently in different societies. How are media forms and visual images actually made and experienced in practical life? And how do media forms and institutions relate to large-scale political structures? Drawing on a wider multidisciplinary heritage of work on media and visual culture, the paper is also concerned with developing concepts and techniques for analysis of the “internal” formal and pragmatic complexity of specific visual images and media representations. We additionally investigate the coherence of media ideologies, technologies, and iconographic traditions in their own rights, as forces of wider social innovation or reproduction.
The paper begins with lectures about anthropological theories of representation in general, and about the overall history and range of anthropological research on media. Further lecture sequences look at specific communicative technologies and genres across different societies and historical periods. Cases examined in greatest depth include photography, radio, amateur film, Web 2.0, and the visual and performing arts. Briefer attention is given to museum display, street protest, print, popular music, Reality TV, and religious satellite television channels. We ask what insights and challenges arise in specifically ethnographic and cross-cultural study of these phenomena.
Further information including a list of lecture courses and background reading can be found in the Paper Guide in the Paper Resources section to the right of this page.