Through the Media Anthropology Network I’ve been introduced to a wealth of information on social networks, online communities, and the troubles encountered using such terms. I like the word “community” to describe a group of identifiable people with some common relationship – ala “anthropology”. But the term community is used to describe many things, and hence using the word is about as descriptive as the word “culture” (another anthro favourite). Vague, general words that sound nice and are hard to use effectively.
In his essay “Localising the Internet beyond communities and networks” (2008), John Postill discusses some of the problems that a reliance on these words can bring. He brings up the work of one of my teachers Dr. Amit, writing:
“Amit cautions that expressions of community always ‘require sceptical investigation rather than providing a ready-made social unit upon which to hang analysis’ (2002: 14). Relying on emotionally charged, bounded notions such as community (or diaspora, nation, ethnic group, etc) is unwise, she adds, for there are numerous sets of social relations that cannot be brought under these banners.”
I often say I’m looking at the online anthropology community, but in my proposal I tried to steer clear of such a description, opting instead to focus on problems (and questions) rather than people and places. I think by leaving the “field” vague, I can use the term community in an unbounded sense. But Postill suggests some other terminology which I am happy to use but am not quite sold on their advantage:
” One advantage of field is that it is a neutral, technical term lacking the normative idealism of both public sphere and community.” [referring to social field]
Why I like the word community is, it will make sense to tech savvy internet users caught up in “2.0”. The community in this sense is the users, the authors, and the relationships in between. So its pretty vague, and has no sense of being bounded or coherent. I also have concern that using concepts like “social field” might bring unnecessary jargon specialist vocabulary – and probably I don’t quite get the difference yet. Is it mostly a matter of semantics and translation?
“As I have argued earlier, community is a vague notion favoured in public rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object. Amit (2002: 14) puts it well: ‘Invocations of community… do not present analysts with clear-cut groupings so much as signal fields of complex processes through which sociality is sought, rejected, argued over, realised, interpreted, exploited or enforced’ (my emphasis).”
I admit I’m a fan of public rhetoric, but I’m also a fan of Bourdieu so I’m happy to go either way. I’m pretty sure I need to read this article some more to understand what other differences such definitions bring. Can I use social field interchangeably? At that point, isn’t a “social field” just as problematic a concept:
“As I have argued earlier, social field is a vague notion favored in anthropological rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object.”
I wonder if any of these terms can be used without a great deal of contextualizing. [And I haven't had time for this essay to sink in, but I find that when I post ideas on this blog, I can't stop thinking about them, so heres to thinking]
Some key distinctions discussed in Postill’s essay:
- Social network analysis overemphasizes relationships at the expense of social other forms of capital (Thanks to Dr. Postill’s corrections below!)
- Postill argues interactions do need to be taken into account, and can be worked into Bourdieu’s concept of a “social field”. [aka finding a middle ground]
- Kinds of sociality – how do we describe the networks/communities/field I’m engaged in. [do I need a general concepts for this? I wonder if the bigger problem is trying to get around writing context by using generalizing concepts for sociality].
Apologies to Dr. John Postill, as I’m sure I missed a lot of important points, but thanks for a constructive essay discussing issues with the terminology and approaches. He brings up more discussion surrounding the essay on his blog.