restricted access Recognizing “Industry”
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Recognizing “Industry”

Consider the field of Media Industries scholarship. A common origin story tells of a postwar divide between the diagnostic approaches of American social science and the Frankfurt School’s theories on media standardization, but the breadth of historical and anthropological inquiry into the media industries actually exceeds this polarity. Over the past few decades, new approaches have been employed, with roots in older paradigms. While ethnography, audience studies, and narrative approaches remain prominent in industry studies, we have also seen important work on the structural effects of global media domination and cultural histories of production studios informed by archival research. There is also a tradition of scholarship informed by a critique of neoclassical economics, highlighting labor, regulation, and the geographies of media production. For example, work on cultural industries and cultural economy retains the critical edge of social theory to understand contemporary industry transformations. “Creative industries” work focuses on the economic value of creativity in media economies, with an eye toward transforming industry policy and practice. “Production studies” sheds light on the practices of self-characterization through which cultural laborers situate their work within larger formations. Acknowledging the stuctural transformation of work under neoliberal regimes, media scholars have increasingly emphasized the movement between transnational sites of industrial activity. This has focused attention on global and local networks of distribution and circulation.

Despite their diversity, these signature methods and ruling paradigms are often divided according to macro-micro, formal-informal, and structure-agency typologies. The structure-agency dichotomy has been particularly influential. With a general orientation toward the regular rather than the singular, a focus on durability rather than impermanence, many industry research styles foreground the structural. For example, political economy and media sociology tend to focus on the relationships between media infrastructures and state and market institutions. Understanding industry as a social force is productive because it sensitizes us to the links between the inequitable distribution of economic resources and cultural domination. This kind of study tends to focus on more formal enumerative structures, which helps to explain why the national is a key metric in industry policy studies and other forms of structural analysis. “Micro” approaches like media [End Page 172] ethnography, in contrast, tend to focus on the person, bringing sociality and agency to our understanding of industry. Focusing on embodiment, subjectivity, and dramatic interaction, approaches like ethnography restore the older sense of industry as “a form of doing.” Enumeration is critical here, too, but micro approaches offer a more textured sense of aggregation, with attention to cultures of counting and an understanding of numbers as performative, semiological, and empirical.

Textbook pedagogies ossify differences between ways of studying the media industries, which leads to a perceived incommensurability between qualitative and quantitative work, empirical and interpretive methods, and institutional and textual analysis. Such easy antinomies have loosened given the general acknowledgment of the value of interdisciplinary and collaborative work. For example, although they were once caricatured as pitting the affirmative against the critical, cultural studies and political economy are now more likely to be seen as allied approaches, complementary rather than divergent.

Despite their diversity, lurking at the heart of many approaches is an attention to social and economic practices that happen within media industries rather than the activities and competencies that are constitutive of “industry.” One of the entrenched yet underexamined presumptions of Media Industries Studies, it seems to me, is the obviousness of its object. After all, most studies proceed from a general understanding of what an industry comprises, with a tacit sense of its boundaries and capacities. However, instead of taking industries as pre-given and stable formations, Film and Media Studies might take up a more foundational conceptual challenge. What are the provisional forms, sites, and practices that constitute media industries? What are the social, textual, political, and cultural infrastructures and interactions assembled under the sign of “industry”? What are these formal and informal processes of assembly, and how do exchange practices move in and out of industry status? In other words, how are industries “made up”?1 A lesson from the Indian film trade is instructive here.

Prakash “Pappu” Verma is an affable character, happy to chat about his...