Patricia G. Lange discusses The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology

Media is fundamentally about connection. Around the world, life is being lived through mediated artifacts and technologies. Its pervasiveness invites numerous questions for understanding human experience today. For example, how might we disentangle perceptions of our lives’ events from the media through which we experience them? Is it even possible or desirable to hope for such disentanglement? How are the politics of the current moment reified or challenged by currently available media? What should we expect from the emerging technologies of tomorrow, and what should we demand from their design and implementation? As media anthropologists we recognize that understanding contemporary interaction involves analyzing what media is and does for our encounters and societies, and how it impacts what some argue should be a shared reality in an environment under threat.

The new edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology (Routledge, September 29, 2022), collectively tackles provocative questions that revolve around the relationship between media as exchange and issues of inequality, social change, identity, migration, mobility, relationships, and politics. We define media as that which connects people to each other, and to systems and technologies. Early in the volume’s initial conceptualization, we as editors agreed to invoke an intentionally broad definition to invite inclusive reflection on connections between individual interactions and larger socio-cultural systems. Our cover playfully depicts a robot and a television hardly able to process each other, an image which reflects the ongoing confrontation between different forms of media and their changing relationships to each other. We are delighted that the image connotes the wide range of media we set out to explore, including TV, radio, newspapers, gaming, social media, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

When initiating the project, we were confronted with a daunting task. How do we organize a staggering amount of research and scholars in a single volume? Part of our inspiration to create the volume was that over the last two decades, numerous significant and dramatic changes deeply impacted the landscape of the field. Although it is possible to organize such a volume in many ways, we elected to divide the terrain into three major parts, “Histories,” “Approaches,” and “Thematic Considerations.” In the “Histories” section, we invited long-term scholars in the field to reflect on the origins of media anthropology as a discipline and how their own work helped establish its terrain. Through these chapters, our volume provides a rich grounding in major themes that helped launch and subsequently coalesce the field. These chapters trace how media anthropology developed as technologies and communication systems changed, and how anthropological studies of indigenous media greatly helped to consolidate the field in the 1990s.

In the “Approaches” section, we invoke the literal definition of the word “approach,” to mean “to come nearer to something.” We intended the material in this section to come nearer to understanding what media actually means and does in specific cultural contexts. We elected to focus on how media may be seen as a type of “Infrastructure,” or may be analyzed in terms of its “Materialities,” its commensurate “Practices,” or in terms of “Interpretations.” Although particular media cannot be contained within single categories, this framework nevertheless proved useful for understanding media’s complex dimensions, as well as the opportunities and complications that ensue from its use in supporting social life. The third part, “Thematic Considerations,” focuses on themes that are pertinent in our current moment in the 21st century, including, “Relationships,” “Social Inequality and Marginalization,” “Identities and Social Change,” “Political Conservatism,” “Surveillance,” and “Emerging Technologies.” Together, these chapters collectively draw attention to how anthropological theories and methods identify inequities and their sources, including old and new forms of marginalization, their causes, and potential inspirations for their resolution.

As we worked through the volume, we realized that a work such as this may be organized in numerous ways. We therefore chose to supplement the volume with an Appendix that identifies crucial themes that cut across sections. Such themes include: “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” “Failures,” “Games and Gaming,” “Global South,” “Labor and Entrepreneurship,” “LGBTQ+,” “Methods,” “Media Types,” and the specific “Countries” that are represented in the volume. We wanted the volume to serve as a useful teaching tool, and the Appendix is intended to support courses that engage with particular subjects. The volume ambitiously draws from over 40 contributors researching media in 25 countries, namely: Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Namibia, Nepal, The Netherlands, Peru, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Trinidad, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Given the breadth of media scholarship, a key goal for our volume was to consider diversity from a number of perspectives. Evocative of media’s connective connotations, the volume itself mediates between different research projects across time and space, and between disciplinary fields, ethnicities of contributors, and research generations. We are deeply grateful to our forebears who carved out a space for dialogue and research in this field, and we wished to continue the conversation. Since the earliest volumes of media anthropology emerged at the turn of the millennium, much has changed in the types of communication technologies available, and the research questions they inspire. Whereas earlier volumes focused on mass media and issues of representation and interpretation, today’s widespread availability of media invites exploration about the materiality, technologies, and emergent practices that are not only widely accessible in terms of media production, but also influence myriad interactions and perceptions about the world.

We as editors did not want to see the volume become a mere repository for prior scholarly work. In addition, given that many fields involve analyzing media, we specifically wished to emphasize the contribution of anthropological theories and ethnographic methods. Therefore, in order to participate in our project, each contributor was asked to explicitly engage with new findings on their media research, thus bringing a new intervention into the field in our volume. Contributors were also asked to directly trace how anthropological theories and methods contributed to their insights. The volume thus contains intriguing ideas and reflections on new anthropological methods and approaches. Given the fine methods handbooks already available, we elected not to focus on methods for our volume. Nevertheless, the invitation to incorporate anthropological approaches produced new insights in method, in areas such as updates on longitudinal research, the idea of money as media, photomedia as anthropology, and content as practice, to cite a few examples.  

To offer a plurality of voices and perspectives, the volume connects past scholarship to future research. We invited chapters from up-and-coming scholars with exciting new projects and research questions. We also incorporated chapters covering new technologies on the horizon. A section on “Emerging Technologies” deals with media that have not yet been integrated into daily life, but are quickly gaining traction. These chapters take a critical eye on how technologies such as augmented reality, virtual realities, and algorithms might be reimagined to serve varied populations. The volume engages in new debates in thorny areas such as surveillance, algorithmic justice, and the ongoing battle for mediated truth.

Today’s research questions in media anthropology frequently revolve around the disruptions of media within larger media ecologies. Rather than produce definitive findings that can be generalized across fieldwork projects, scholarly areas, and genres, the volume instead makes connections between perspectives—some of them opposing—thus enlivening debates in the field. Not all contributors—or we suspect, readers—will necessarily agree on interpretations, meanings, or impacts of specific mediated acts. For example, media anthropologists are often reluctant to engage in “effects” claims, given the many factors that inevitably contribute to social change and worldviews. Our volume tackles this debate head-on with chapters that provide not only discussions of effects within particular field sites, but also invite collective reflection on making claims about media’s impact in the current era of widespread media production and availability. While media is one factor in a constellation of cultural and social factors that shape our experiences and perspectives, at the same time, close readings of many studies—past and present—reveal that exploring the effects of media continues to form a central and defining element of many of our research projects.  

We as editors envisioned a volume that was balanced and circumspect with regard to media’s efficacy. Thus, the subject of media failure is also discussed in several chapters that sensitively explore the instances in which attempts at inclusiveness and connection through media do not serve the very populations that are meant to benefit. Criticality is central to our volume, including analyzing how media is deployed, and who benefits from it. The volume opens a space for sharing differing perspectives on complex and nuanced phenomena. For example, a topic as provocative as surveillance is tackled from several perspectives, including an analysis of the harm of algorithmic, top-down surveillance and its roots in bureaucracy, a motivator that is not always taken into consideration in analyses of algorithms, especially outside of anthropology. The volume also offers forthright exploration of culturally accepted forms of lateral surveillance in religious communities interacting on social media, as well as research on how certain forms of surveillance may serve as plausible pathways to being seen and counted in marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ groups.

The volume provides informative and timely analysis of the mediated politics of the current moment, including studies of political conservatism. While the field in the 1990s focused on how media served revolutionary agendas, our volume brings together several scholars who study groups that aim to promote so-called traditional values and ideas. Several contributors in the volume discuss dynamics such as strategic ignorance, or our current crisis of facts, specifically analyzing how ignorance is no accident or result of educational lack, but is rather strategically produced for political ends. Processes of supposed spreadibility and symbolic bricolage assist certain political agendas that ultimately yield racist and exclusionary discourses that demand to be addressed.

We are grateful to all the contributors for providing depth through detailed ethnographic case studies, as well as breath across numerous media, topics, geographical areas, and disciplines. Media is messy and complicated, and the process of analyzing it benefits from the sharing of multiple perspectives, including the many related disciplines—such as media studies, cultural studies, communication, and science and technology studies—that have both informed media anthropology and been influenced by its perspectives and findings.

Our volume mediates connections between the past and the future, between long-term scholarship and new research in this area, between disciplines, and between readers. We recognize that some readers have been researching and teaching media anthropology for quite some time, while others may be just coming to the field. We welcome readers who may be approaching this subject for the first time, as media not only becomes widely available but is increasingly central and frankly unavoidable to address if we as anthropologists wish to understand interaction in contemporary contexts worldwide. We see this volume as an active and ongoing nexus of connection, and we invite commentary and further dialogue on this most fascinating field.