31 May 2007

Media Studies 2.0

Whilst O'Loughlin offers an interesting position on a presentation by William Merrin I think he unfortunately misses the major argument of Merrin's paper; namely a methodological examination of the key categories that have been used in media studies to date, particularly since its cultural studies turn. In essense, this is the 'natural' division of study based on the medium (TV, Film, Radio) and secondly a privileging of the audience as the key category of research focus. Merrin rightly calls attention to research that unproblematically relies on unreflexive definitions of media (both as a technology and a medium) and researchers who then carry these definitions over into their quasi-ethnographic studies without attention to the way in which they privilege a particular division of the media sensorium (Lakatosh would have called this the hard core of a research programme). Unfortunately these 'old' media studies categories (which Merrin argues are Media Studies 1.0) whilst successful in a pre-digital age may become a fetter on our ability to understand media if we do not pay attention to profound changes in media. Additionally these media studies categories have been liberally borrowed by other disciplines, such as sociology and political science, where they are often used equally unproblematically in their own research programmes. Think, for example, of the way in which democracy and political representation is increasingly re-presented through new digital technologies and the difficulties of political scientists to understand this mediation within their own disciplinary categories - and indeed their own flight into ethnography as a response.

I think that it is widely accepted that the growth in digital technologies is transforming our experience of media by allowing recombinant and hybrid forms of media to populate our mediascape. So much so that it is arguable (and indeed empirically verifiable) that our previous divisions of mediums are collapsing into a single 'supermedium', namely computer code. As such the old media become the content of the new media and in doing so are transformed - think of the way in which Raymond William's concept of 'flow' in television is interrupted and fragmented when placed in a new media setting like Youtube. So I think that Merrin's intervention is both timely (with the growth of digital technologies) and welcome. We do need to continually rethink our disciplinary categories and question the way in which changes in mediation shift our perception of the world (and I would hasten to add, so should other disciplines).

Where I would raise a concern, however, is in a too strongly drawn line between a Media Studies 1.0, and a Media Studies 2.0. Clearly this division can be read as a major shift or discontinuity which is, I think, rather overstated. There is much in old media scholarly work that is excellent and should serve as an exemplar for new media research, and I would not agree that old media research is made obsolete by digital technologies - although read in this new context it can be transformed. Nonetheless all media scholars need to be attentive to the huge changes in media that are taking place, and rather than an eclipse of the 'old', we should begin a discussion over how we can approach research that is sensitive to a new post-broadcast digital world.

I would also disagree with the claim that the *most* valuable work on new media is being done outside of media studies, although clearly there is a large quantity of useful research being produced which media studies should be alert to, some is laughably simplistic. Indeed, I see Merrin as calling for the kind of cross-disciplinary work between Media Studies and other disciplines that allow us to broaden and deepen our knowledge of 'new' media and begin a conversation to move all of our scholarly work forward.

In sum, then, Merrin is arguing for a paradigm shift within Media Studies to take account of these larger changes bought about by new digital technology and to re-focus efforts on understanding media in light of this. I would agree with his call to rethink our categories of study and I would argue that we should link it to Roger Silverstone's 'double articulation' as a foundation for innovative new approaches to understanding media.


  1. David Berry’s response to my post on Merrin’s presentation of Media Studies 2.0 takes some interesting turns that I hope offer the basis for a productive discussion about why and how we study media. Several points could be raised but the critical issue, I would suggest, centres upon Berry’s concern that ‘old’ media studies categories ‘may become a fetter on our ability to understand media if we do not pay attention to profound changes in media’. Now is this simply a disciplinary dispute? Researchers outside media studies do not make understanding media their principle concern; an understanding of media – and profound changes in media - is a necessary step towards understanding political, economic or social processes. This leads to ontological difficulties about how and whether media are a condition of, or constitute, these political, economic and social processes. It is tricky to untangle what is explaining what. But the point I highlighted from Merrin’s presentation was his worry that by integrating the study of media into their own disciplinary agendas, researchers outside of media studies are doing a ‘better’ job of contributing to our understanding of media that media studies researchers themselves (and we can discuss what ‘better’ might mean here).

    The dismissal of audience research by both Merrin and Berry becomes instructive here. Nobody is denying that the category of ‘audience’ is problematic. Additionally, political hopes that situated studies of media consumption might yield insights into (radical) audience agency have yet to be realised. But does that imply we should ignore media usage? How can we understanding ‘profound changes in media’ without attention to the role of media in society, i.e. how people experience media in their everyday lives and at critical moments? Are we supposed to limit our analysis literally to the technology ‘in’ media – to the nuts and bolts and coding? The explanation of technology itself, and perhaps the social shaping of technology, is a useful but hardly ambitious research agenda. Are we left with a phenomenology of the mousemat? The spectre of technological determinism looms above us once more.

    Students come to class with greater knowledge of today’s media than most media studies professors, Merrin argued in his presentation. Their own experiences of connectivity and the collapsing of mediums provides a far richer basis for understanding media than traditional textbooks, he suggests. This seems reasonable. But if it is ok to garner the experiences of 18-25 year old university students, why is it irrelevant to study the experience of other social demographics, as media ethnographies tend to do? A ‘flight into ethnography’, a pejorative term in Berry’s lexicon, surely allows researchers not only to analyse changes in media (if we allow a definition of ‘media’ to include its usage), but also implicate media in our analysis of critical political and social issues of the day. How can you understand moral panics, terrorism, social and political disconnection, and so on without analysing people’s production and consumption of media? How can you understand media and media technologies if you don’t identify their roles in the generation of moral panics, terrorism, social and political disconnection, and on and on?

    If we at least agree on a need for conceptual reconsideration, I would be very interested to know what methodologies Berry has in mind that might allow us to gain traction on the research agenda offered by Merrin, i.e. the emergence of collective intelligences, questions of materiality, sensory experience and embodied media, and new types of human engagement and participation. Can we really mobilise Silverstone’s ‘double articulation’ - i.e. investigating media technologies as both objects and as conduits for mediation – without empirical study of people’s uses of media?

  2. Thanks Ben. A rather long comment and I feel I may not do justice to your post in another comment but this, I suppose, is part of the limitations of the blog form.

    Firstly, I do interpret the Media Studies 2.0 discussion as disciplinary dispute. Many within media studies reject wholesale that anything has happened, will happen or even needs to be rethought in light of the changes wrought by digital technology. Indeed there are many m/s scholars who believe that this is not even worthy of debate and that it'll all blow over in a years time - so better to wait it out and avoid debate. Myself, I think that every discipline needs to refresh itself occassionally and pay critical attention to its concepts, methods and displinary paradigms if it is not to become stale and inattentive to wider issues. That said, I think you are right when you say that it is tricky to untangle the media and work out 'what is explaining what' - moreso, I would argue when the 'hard code' of the discipline is impossible to shift from categories that are now questionable. Rethinking the discipline is critical, ongoing and should be engaged with by all m/s scholars.

    I think you misread my position on audience studies, I do not dismiss such studies. Rather, like all research paradigms within m/s they have their place - however they have become the chief, if not the hegemonic method of undertaking m/s research. Additionally as I tried to outline in my blog post, audience researchers tend to cling to the 'old' categories of the division of media based on media forms that are essentially the very technological determinism that everyone claims to be trying to avoid. Why is radio different from TV, well it is the technical apparatus that supports and shapes the form of the broadcast flow - but in the digital age there is no reason for the difference in the form of the flow as they are both digital broadcast. In fact there is no reason why digital radio cannot carry pictures and TV cannot carry radio, and unsurprisingly with digital TV we see radio enveloped by the TV set-controller, and in DAB we see the beginning of pitures on the radio - media forms become hybrid. We live in strange times. Even in print, the digital is radically reshaping what it means to be typographic - witness the rise of e-paper that can display not just text but also images and crucially video and moving images. In other words, in undertaking their study Audience Reseachers carry a set of values about what it is to be a media form with them into their ethnographies. In doing so, they can fall pray to unreflexively perpetuating the old media division of media and consequently continue to find what they are looking for. Television remains television regardless of being analogue broadcast, digital broadcast, IPTV, videoblog or any other combination. But to be clear, I am not suggesting technological determinism, I am trying to avoid either of what Latour called technologism or sociologism.

    So the question is how do we deal with this methodological slippage that prevent 'old' media studies dealing adequately with developments presented by a new media world. For me, this is a classic paradigm shift, too many old media scholars refuse to engage or even recognise that there has been any change at all. Rather it is a fad, a fashion or even a bunch of misfits who must be placed outside the boundary of what constitutes 'real' m/s research programmes. This point is well observed by Thomas Kuhn who explained:

    At the start a new candidate for paradigm may have few supporters, and on occasions the supporters' motives may be suspect. Nevertheless, if they are competent, they will improve it, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to a community guided by it. And as that goes on, if the paradigm is one destined to win its fight, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favor will increase. More scientists will then be converted, and the exploration of the new paradigm will go on. Gradually, the number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based upon the paradigm will multiply. Still more men [sic], convinced of the new view's fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practicing normal science, until at last only a few elderly holdouts remain. Though the historian can always find men [sic] - Priestly for instance - who were unreasonable to resist for as long as they did, he will not find a point at which resistence becomes illogical or unscientific. At most he may wish to say that the man [sic] who continues to resist after his whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.

    To turn to your second point. You ask how can we understand "moral panics", "terrorism", "social and political disconnection" without an ethnographic moment? My reply would be to draw attention to the fact that these are words - not things in the world. We must be very careful of reification when undertaking research. The danger with audience research studies is thinking that they will be able to locate and measure a "moral panic" or "terrorism". The fundamental subjectivity of these terms becomes invisible and an objective definition becomes reified. Secondly, the audiences' "opinion" on almost any question will be a function of the question that the researcher asks.

    The major question raised by Media Studies 2.0 though is one of the locus of the research focus, and my attempt to suggest Silverstone's work is that by concentrating the material and the symbolic but most be addressed in a m/s paradigm that claims to provide a fuller understanding of media. As for the particular methodological approaches that may be applied under such a framework, this is perhaps the beginning of a wider conversation in the discipline and between m/s and other disciplines. Cruciully, though, I interpret M/S 2.0 to be about reorienting the discipline to make sense of many of the profound changes from new technologies, new forms of participatory media and new ways of producing/consuming media.

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