Tuesday 10 December 2013

Anthropology and Mass Media

The gist of Spitulnik’s introductory section in Anthropology and Mass Media is that the mass media have been studied in many ways, from many different frameworks, while focusing on various different aspects, within many different disciplines, and so on, but that the amount of work put into integrating a model of the mass communications into anthropology has been underwhelming, until around the late 1980s.

By now, we know the usual sorts of questions researchers ask about the media:

“How, for example, do mass media represent and shape cultural values within a given society? What is their place in the formation of social relations and social identities? How might they structure people’s senses of space and time? What are their roles in the construction of communities ranging from subcultures to nation-states, and in global processes of socioeconomic and cultural change?”

But anthropologists neglected the importance of these sorts of questions for a long time. Spitulnik wants to find out how, and how that’s changing, and how cross-disciplinary work can be useful for anthropology and mass media theorists.

One prominent cross-disciplinary use of anthropology and media has been the study of “indigenous media.” The term doesn’t necessarily refer to media content about or featuring indigenous peoples or themes. It refers to Fourth World community owned and operated media outlets that allow native peoples to speak for themselves, rather than to merely be represented by others. Self-representations are more useful to anthropologists than are representations or the absence of representations of others. It’s easy to see how the indigenous peoples’ preference to control their own media outlets would be shared by other marginalized peoples, and also why anthropologists would find this useful.

More recently, participant-observation has been used to study audience segmentation. In these studies, a researcher will try to unobtrusively assimilate him or herself into an audience to observe how other members of the audience engage with the product.

In January 2007, Joanne Mackellar attended the Elvis Revival Festival in Parkes, Australia. She interviewed several fans, attended the festival, observed the behaviour of the Elvis fans, and took notes, pictures, and videos. In her analysis, she was able to concern four distinct segments of attendees: fanatics, fans, dabbles, and social. Each group was distinguished by buying habits, likeliness to participate in events, self-reports of knowledge of and interest in Elvis, etc. Although Mackellar cautions that insights gained by participant observation have a very narrow application, other similar studies tend to also yield 3 or 4 groups of audiences that don’t differ too much from Mackellar’s segments. This might suggest that the results of such studies are more generalizable than Mackellar assumes. Also note the similarities between these audience segments and Michelle’s four modes of receptions. The knowledge gleaned from Mackellar’s study informs whomever it may concern what audiences exist at the Elvis Revival Festival and how to target them.

These cross-disciplinary mixtures of anthropology and mass media help understand why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. Although they have practical applications to marketing and sales, I’m not sure how they could be used by effective altruists to better identify good media content from bad media content. There’s a possibility these could inform meta-effective altruist marketing pitches but there are probably other fields of knowledge that are better suited for that.

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