Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Viewing the Boundaries of Oral Culture

Television is a major information source. Until my wife banned it from our household, my television was on all the time. When considering the mass media as an information source, it becomes important to consider a number of different issues: who uses mass media? How is it used? How do we make sense of it?

When I think of mass media I imagine a continuous line stretching through the ages. At the start of this line our Palaeolithic ancestors used the same form of mass media as more contemporary bards and seanachies: oral culture. Over the last few centuries we’ve seen an increase in the number of mass media types as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television have inundated our homes. The line ends today with the form of mass media that I most depend on—the Internet.

To understand the role of mass media it is perhaps useful to start at the end of this line and explore how people use the Internet. Hektor (2002) provides a taxonomy of factors effecting how people use the Internet as an information source: social and physical environment, setting of the information, the information activities of the individual, and the outcomes of the information activities. While Hektor’s model is compelling and his arguments are rhetorically attractive, it remains unclear how he determined his concepts. Unfortunately, his paper may merely be so much yak-yak rather than valid observation. Regardless, his concepts may be applicable to other mass media types along our mass media line.

Television provides an interesting example of an information source largely because many of Hektor’s factors are controlled when viewing television. The information is generally produced for consumption in the living room rather than in other settings and the information activities of the consumer is fairly static (i.e., viewing). It should be noted, however, that we often introduce Hektor’s factors into our television viewing. Watching pay-per-view professional wrestling events, for example, are considerably more entertaining when we construct a social environment by inviting friends over for beers. Similarly, television is sometimes used outside of the living room. Equity trading floors often have several channels tuned to a variety of different news feeds (Knorr Cetina & Bruegger, 2001).

Television—and news programs in particular—do more than merely provide information that may or may not inform us. I recently went to a family luncheon with my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, and my sister-in-law’s parents. The only thing that this collection of people seemed to have in common was Coronation Street. During the luncheon, the characters and themes of this soap opera became a form of oral culture (Fiske, 1987, 1989) that enabled the participants to overcome the communication boundaries that they were experiencing. After overcoming these boundaries, the participants were able to use each other as informal (Weedman, 1992) information sources. Two forms of mass media—television and oral culture—were required to negotiate this transition.

The nature of boundaries between communities is an interesting topic. Although this topic has been briefly addressed in the LIS literature (e.g., Weedman, 1992), sociology literature has addressed this topic at length. Wenger, for example, introduces the concept of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), Weick explores the interactions of loosely and strongly coupled systems (Wieck, 1995), and Bowker and Star explore how individuals and organizations negotiate across these boundaries (Bowker & Star, 1999). An issue that hasn’t been addressed, however, is how these boundaries occur. Are they developed through socialization? Is linguistics the only important factor? What would Marx say?

Perhaps our automatic assumption is that boundaries occur due to power discourses and patriarchal hegemonic socio-economic forces. Chatman (1985), however, provides some relief from this world-view. In her study of the working poor, she expected that most of the women she met would use television as their primary information source. Instead, she discovered that most used print sources. Although Chatman’s arguments cast some doubt on strict hegemonic interpretations of mass media consumption , they also validate some of Hektor’s factors. Chatman admits that her sample may be atypical due to their relatively high education level although the information activities and outcomes of her sample would likely be the same as for a sample with less education. The social and physical environment of the information, however, is considerably different since Chatman’s sample consisted of individuals who had experienced post-secondary socialization and had access to a university.

I can think of a similar example from my own experience. While doing development work in a small and very poor Nicaraguan town, I observed that television and poverty seemed to go hand-in-hand. In retrospect, I realize that there were no books in the town. The English books that I had were met with considerable reverence even though the Nicaraguan’s couldn’t read them. Perhaps the Nicas’ consumption of television had more to do with their physical setting—a town with no access to books—and their social setting—extreme poverty—than with their desires or preferences.

In closing I want to consider a comment made by Fiske: “The art of popular culture is the ‘art of making do’. The people’s subordination means that they cannot produce the resources of popular culture, but they do make their culture from those resources.” I wonder if people are starting to make their own popular culture. What is the role of new technologies like wikis or blogs. I especially wonder about the popularity of text messaging among youth. Surely text messaging isn’t mass media but an entire culture is growing around messaging that includes its own semantics, syntax, and socialized codes of conduct. Are the ‘subordinated people’ finally creating their own culture? Is it available and applicable across boundaries?

I just don’t know.


Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chatman, E. A. (1985). Information, Mass Media Use and the Working Poor. Library & Information Science Research, 7, 97-113.
Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London ; New York: Methuen.
Fiske, J. (1989). Reading the popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Hektor, A. (2002). Information Activities on the Internet in Everday Life. Paper presented at the Information Seeking in Context, Universidade Lusiada, Lisbon, Portugal.
Knorr Cetina, K., & Bruegger, U. (2001). Transparency regimes and management by content in global organizations. The case of institutional currency trading. Journal of Knowledge Management, 5(2), 180-194.
Weedman, J. (1992). Informal and Formal Channels in Boundary-Spanning Communication. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 43(3), 257-267.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Wieck, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. New York: Sage.


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