John Postill: Ethnography for theorising media and change

Notes from the workshop Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home within the cycle of seminars Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home, organized by the Mediacciones research group, and held in Barcelona, Spain, in November 25, 2013.

John Postill, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.
Ethnography for theorising media and change.

Anthropology is now very much focussed on change, more explicitly on change, and how media is related with this change. Change is normally addressed by default, that is, it is actually analysed, but it is not that very common that change is problematized as it is being these days.

Media and social changing

Researchers are usually busy analysing what is happening right now, what is emergent, what is imminent to happen. The problem is that then research focuses only on the present continuous, the nearer future, and thus forgetting about the immediate past or just the past. We need to thing more about metaphors not to be slaves of them.

The biography of an actual change

How to overcome the swamp of being caught up by the present continuous? Biographies (or people) have a beginning, a middle and an end, have a live course, have a curriculum, have a story, and a past. The same can be said about a process of change: it has a beginning, a middle and an end… even if it is an abrupt change, it normally does not come from nowhere.

Technology adoption cycle, diffusion of innovations, domestication model, etc. are all models that take the idea of a process as a basis, an approach that could also be used in ethnographic analysis.

Changing models, applying them to other scenarios or disciplines, etc. is a good way to advance and improve the models themselves.

Diachronic ethnography

Besides — or in addition to — multi-sited ethnography (George Marcus) we have to introduce multi-time ethnography. In ICT or digital ethnography this is more possible than ever: one can dig in digital archives for the past, but a past picturing the real thing (not chronicles: just archives of what was really said and done online); and, of course, one can go on analysing the “future” by keeping connected to the virtual community, etc. that one is analysing. It is now possible, then, to perform multi-timed ethnography, by taking multiple points in time in our fieldwork.

This practice may help us not only to tell what is happening, but why and, even more important, why in this way and not in another way… or what is changing socially despite the fact that all other factors may apparently remain unchanged.

Media-related changes

What is media? What is change? Do we have simple definitions for these concepts?

Changes: actual transformation from state A to state B.

Media-related changes: actual transformation from state A to state B where media have played a significant role in the way.

The change may not be at the macro level, or measured at the “end” of the process, but at the micro and meso levels, or measured withint the process. For instance, the Spanish Indignados movement may have not led to a change of regime, but there actually was a change in how civil society organized, and in this change media had a very important and significant role.


  1. Treat processes of change as collective biographies where actors use technologies that influence social practices.
  2. Combine synchronic ethnography with diachronic ethnography, to add a time dimension, to conduct multi-time ethnography.
  3. Media-related changes as a way to focus on the role of media without falling into techno-determinism.


Rosa Borge: in a multi-time analysis, where should one begin or when should one stop analysing? Postill: one of the problems is that there will usually be discrepancies between what the researcher thinks are the milestones or the important stages of the process (e.g. beginning, end) and what is the perception of the participants. What the researcher has to provide is a good foundation on how the research decisions are taken.

Lídia Arroyo: is this about putting the accent on different approaches as the micro- and macro-levels? Postill: Ethnography is not necessarily about the micro-level. Indeed, many micro-level changes can lead us to macro-level and/or systemic changes, and the micro-analysis can really help on figuring out what happened at the macro-level.


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “John Postill: Ethnography for theorising media and change” In ICTlogy, #122, November 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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