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Global Encounters: Media and Cultural Transformation

Editor: Gitte Stald, Thomas Tufte
Publisher: UK: University of Luton Press, 2002
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Kevin Douglas Kuswa
 REVIEW 2: Radhika Seth
 REVIEW 3: Charles Ess

Globalization of the media and communication systems has not only changed the way people understand time and space, but has also given a new impetus to various social sciences studying its impact. Gitte Stald and Thomas Tufte’s edited book, Global Encounters: Media and Cultural Transformation, is a timely piece in the growing literature on the recent phenomenon of what the authors term "accelerated globalization" that now includes erstwhile communist blocs and developing economies like India, changing the socio-economic and political landscapes of non-Western countries. The book’s contributors are interested in exploring the cultural landscape of the countries joining in on the communication revolution.

As one of the book's contributors, Norbert Wildermuth, notes, "[s]atellite television has come to occupy a crucial discursive space in the contradictory and disjunctive processes of ‘glocalization’ and ‘modernization’ unfolding in India throughout the 1990s, signifying a set of simultaneously unfolding but divergent and at times highly contradictory ‘trends’ and social forces" (196). For me, the quote, from Wildermuth’s chapter that deals with the emergence of a new Indian woman negotiating between the Western modernity promoted by cable and satellite television and traditions that are the ethos of the country, sums up the thesis of this book. Put another way, a question posed by many of the book’s authors is: How does globalization of media and communication (especially electronic) systems influence the cultural identities of people around the world?

The book, presented in three sections with case studies primarily from Western Europe, proposes to study the processes of cultural globalization. The editors state that their aim is to expand Mike Featherstone’s contention that global processes are looking both inward and outward, while expanding and contracting at the same time. The book explores Featherstone’s concept further, and points out that these global processes have been possible largely because of improved communication systems.

The authors examine the influences of global media and communication systems on cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity. The book asks how do the relations between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization manifest themselves in practice, both social and cultural? In genre formats on television? And among people of different cultural and ethnic origins? The dialectic between globalization and localization as a production of identity, both group and individual, is also studied. This dialectic often is translated into questioning one’s national identity. Diaspora studies to a large extent deal with a similar problematic which is also explored in the book. It aims to understand these processes conceptually through keywords such as globalization, cosmopolitanism, world modernity, cultural identity, diaspora, and diversity.

Section One, titled "Globalization, Differentiation & World Modernity," deals with social inequalities that are becoming a part of most societies touched by the globalization process. Thus, Jonathan Friedman argues that globalization results in "ethnic and religious strife, slummification/yuppification, social disintegration, cultural movements, and hybridized elites producing transnationalist ideologies and not just the diffusion of Coca-Cola, Internet and television software" (13).

On the other hand, however, John Degabol-Martinussen explores the politico-economic influences of globalization and revisits notions of autonomy and pursuing national priorities in developing nations. He argues that external influences like the World Bank, IMF, and GATT are further constraining the autonomy of developing nations. The exertion of these influences is most often through national institutions. For Renato Ortiz, globalization has resulted in the existence of world modernity. He posits that cultural identity forms the core of discourse on poststructural, postmodern, postcolonial, and network societies.

Engaging in the study of a variety of electronic media spanning from earlier technologies like television to the global fad of mobile/cellular phones, the contributors to Section Two, "Cultural Urbanization, World Media and Global Commons," offer a range of findings regarding the impact of the improved communication systems. Stig Hjarvard proposes that the globalized communication systems represent the diminishing trust of the public in its content, especially when the internet is the medium of transmission of the information. Roger Silverstone, on the other hand, sees it as a transparent system that is not restricted to a singular social system, "because it is to be allied neither with a symbolic medium like money or power" (92). Thus, it allows for cultural and political presence of minority, marginal, and diasporic people. In the same section, Terje Rasmussen looks at the internet from the perspective of the theories of modernity and social systems theory. He concludes that the internet as a dissemination medium will not "replace symbolic media like power, truth, money or love, but interplays with and affects all such symbolically mediated codes" (101).

Stig Hjarvard’s essay "Mediates Encounters," in this section, is especially interesting as it engages in what the editors note in their introduction as a move from McLuhan’s "global village" to a "global metropolis." Hjarvard’s essay especially makes the point that global media result in "cultural and mental urbanization," as it provides more possibilities for social encounters and interaction with different communities.

Section Three, "Cosmopolitanism, Diaspora and Cultural Diversity," deals with the experiences of the diaspora from around the world. The diaspora’s consumption of the electronic media brings most of them closer to their homelands, which raise the question of ethnic identities, dividing the diaspora loyalties between the host and homeland. This relates to the work of Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair (2000), who stress active agency of minority communities in constructing a media environment through patterns of consumption and production, which address the need for maintenance and negotiation of identities, in the ‘Floating Lives.’

Section Three follows the pattern of case studies set in Cunningham and Sinclair's book and looks at the media and its influences on the diaspora through six very interesting case studies. There only exists a regional difference in the two books; while Cunningham and Sinclair study the experiences of diaspora in Australia, Stald and Tufte have confined themselves mostly to Western Europe.

The section's first case study is by co-editor Stald, who focuses on young Danes’ concepts of globality and locality and its influence on their individual and collective national and global identities. She proposes three main analytical angles: "1) Recognizable formats in globally and locally produced media texts, 2) Meaning of Internet as a channel of communication and cultural exchange and 3) Meaning of traveling virtually and physically" (126). She concludes that most young Danes are not able to negotiate between the dual identities of being Danes and world citizens: "They are not able to define themselves as travelers between cultural environments that change and develop in a dialectical process that combines the traditions and attitudes exposed in local cultures with both global cultures and other local cultures imported in Denmark" (144).

Larry Strelitz explores the phenomenon of South African youth’s rejection of foreign television and a voluntary return to the symbolic "homeland." The students at the university where Strelitz conducted focus groups viewed indigenously produced programming in a designated location that they have termed the "homeland." He proposes to look at the phenomenon through the theoretical lens of the relationship between media consumption and identity formation and its relation to media imperialism. He concludes from his focus groups that while the "nightly ritual in the ‘homeland’ does contribute to the psychic security, on the other hand it also results in them holding onto some of the more static and regressive aspects of pre-modern culture" (165). The cultural space of Rhodes University (from where he draws his sample), according to Strelitz, brings the "traditional" African identity to the fore for the students using the "homeland" space.

Marie Gillespie’s (1995) germinal ethnographic work on the "talking spaces" that media create for the diaspora is well known. In this chapter, she looks at the flows of Indian produced media to Britain. She extends her earlier work and explores the market of the Indian commercial cinema along with the influence of Indian television channels like Zee TV. The accessibility to Indian media is taken as a springboard by Gillespie to understand how cultural identities are formed. The unconventional conclusion of the chapter is interesting and worth mulling over for people interested in diaspora, identity, ethnicity, and cultural studies, or even for those who experience confusion in their identities as global citizens.

Norbert Wildermuth observes that the electronic media has resulted in "the constitution of ‘middle-classness’ through consumerism, creating desires for different forms of modernity" (197). Wildermuth studies the concept of the new Indian woman as the product of cable and satellite industry, who are learning to negotiate a world of dialectics (modern/traditional, family/careers, ambition/sacrifice). According to the author, this modernity is not always desirable by most Indian viewers. Wildermuth looks at three popular serials on an Indian channel where women are the chief protagonists and concludes that Indian womanhood is still dictated by the conservative paternalistic gender roles being articulated by the ruling nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ideology.

Annabelle Sreberny’s chapter focuses on the theoretical challenges the "global" poses to national or local based study of societies, cultures, and identities. Sreberny looks at the "analytic self-description" which tends to bind people to a general "place and cultural environment" called ‘Iran’ and allows them to recognize the internal differences that exist among them. She finds that most Iranians are drawn together by shared culture, nostalgia and anger against the present government from whom most of them fled and the various ethnic media available to them acts as a bridge for communities to thrive. This supports the work of Hamid Naficy (1993) who makes similar conclusions in his study of Iranians living in exile in Los Angeles.

Co-editor Tufte correlates the use of communication technologies like mobile/cellular phones and the internet to identity construction amongst ethnic minority Danes. Tufte’s ethnography finds answers riddled with complexities that require further study. For example, most of his subjects like living in Denmark, but they tend to form their own spaces separate from the ethnic majority. Their experiences are mixed, often related to in terms of the media, especially when they position themselves vis-à-vis their school, friends, and family. In terms of the diaspora, family loyalty is one of the main reasons cited for the reproduction of diasporic identities.

Though this book does not propose any radical theories, it contains valuable scholarship. It can be a good asset as an additional text for global/international communication and media studies. It provides some excellent examples of the basic concepts of globalization and diaspora studies along with insights into how these concepts are applied to the cultural changes taking place at various sites. From the start, the authors state that the book is a "global encounter of multiple, often contrasting ideas and takes on how to understand the media and cultural transformations of our contemporary society" (8). Clearly, they have been able to achieve this end in the book. Global Encounters provides inspiration for further research in international media studies and offers a strategic perspective for those outside academia to better position their technologies for the global markets.

Cunningham, Stuart & John Sinclair (Eds.). (2000). Floating Lives: The Media and the Asian Diasporas. St.Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

Gillespie, Marie. (1995). Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change. London: Routledge.

Naficy, Hamid. (1993). The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Radhika Seth:
Radhika Seth is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication (Moving Image Studies) at the Georgia State University. Her research interests include global electronic media cultures (especially in South Asia), Postcolonial Theory, International Cinema (with a focus on Indian cinema), and its cultural influences and influences of media on Diaspora and Gender studies.  <jourrsx@langate.gsu.edu>

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