A course by Dr. Maximilian C. Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal



05 January to 06 April 2011
Room: SGW, H-435
Meeting days and times:
Wednesdays, 10:15am to 1:00pm

Media Ethnographies Syllabus

Please note that any changes to the schedule of classes, or assignment due dates, will only appear on this website. The PDF file itself will not be updated.

When it comes to media, you are the natives. This course will teach you nothing at all about any one specific medium, and it is not a “history of television” (or radio, or print) course. It is a course about understanding, and explaining, and asks you to reflect on your extensive personal experience with the media in dialogue with several influential theories and research approaches. Our focal interest deals with the influence of media, media effects, agenda setting, media and political conflict, and media production, and how we might learn different things by adopting certain methodologies of investigation. Why are some persons very critical media consumers, while others appear to be passive and easily influenced? How are our thought patterns changed by media, that is, not just what we think about, but how we think? Who sets the agenda for media productions, and why? Can we discern the intentions of media producers, from their productions? Can whole societies be changed by transmitting one country’s television programs to others? How do we know what people actually think about what they see and hear? When indigenous peoples engage in media production, using Western technology, have they betrayed their own cultures and made a pact with the devil? Are we content with assertions such as “images are powerful,” and “information is power”?

Under all of these questions, one key question is at the centre of this course is: What can ethnographic approaches to the study of media production and consumption offer to our understandings of how media influence us? Another is: Which previously established theories rise, fall, remain unchallenged, or can be revised as a result of in-depth immersion, in face-to-face contact with media producers and consumers?

The media discussed in this course are radio, television, cinema, and to a lesser extent print media, that is, almost everything that excludes the Web and social media. We are dealing here with modern mass media, with unidirectional communication from the producers of messages to a mass of consumers – this is quite distinct from what happens on the Web, where communication is many-to-many, and where one can almost simultaneously be both a media consumer and producer. Mass media, despite the Web (and now often thanks to the Web), continue to have an overwhelming presence in socialization, enculturation and representation. The challenge is trying to figure out the nature and degree to which that presence becomes influence, and how we understand and explain any influence of the media on persons’ cognition, cultural values, identity, and political orientations.

Ethnography, and qualitative research more broadly, are research approaches common to both sociology and anthropology. For the purposes of this course, “the ethnographic approach” involves direct immersion by the researcher in a given social setting, learning the “cultural norms” directly, and then producing first hand accounts based on personal observation and participation. The basic question of this course is whether ethnographic approaches to studying people’s engagements with modern mass media can help us to understand more about the social and cultural effects of mass media at the ground level, as well as how media consumers and producers shape their own understanding of mass media. We can thus amplify what we learn about media beyond what we might learn from surveys and from deconstructions of media messages. We therefore study the actual media effects in the lives of real persons, as producers, consumers or brokers for modern media.

An ethnographic approach to media sees the media as grounded in broader social contexts and wider fields of practice than media production alone. Studying media productions as texts that can be deconstructed by the solitary expert critic may not suffice (depending on the questions that are being asked, and the theoretical constructs employed by the researcher), nor will ratings and statistical surveys of media consumption provide us with a complete and uncontested picture from which we can derive unambiguous conclusions. What we are interested in is how actual people receive, use, and respond to media productions, and how they may create their own mediated representations. Our interest lies in collective representations, individual understandings, the social relations between people and media, and the cultural meanings inscribed or derived from mediated images and texts.

Students will benefit from an expansion of their knowledge of social and cultural theory as a result of this course, while also gaining an appreciation for different applications of ethnographic fieldwork. We will become familiar with some of the main concepts and methods that ethnographers use in studying mass media. The hope is that in the process students will distil some key questions, issues, and methods that they may then apply in any media ethnography that they may undertake in the future, and, at the very least look at and listen to media in an even more attentive, questioning, and critical manner than may presently be the case.