Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 819-825
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The Ethnography Of Media
Lila Abu-Lughod's Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt joins a steadily growing body of ethnographies on the effects of mass media. In this case the focus is mainly on how two communities of women—maids employed by wealthy, mostly foreign, patrons in Cairo, and rural villagers—respond to narrative genres. The book also seeks to draw the perspectives of television producers into the analysis. Dramas of Nationhood is an excellent ethnography, and should find a wide audience in several fields. Though the book is not without flaws, and perhaps some missed opportunities, it is undoubtedly a strong contribution to Middle East studies and anthropology, as well as gender and media studies.
Media ethnographies—of the television medium in this case—must find ways to bring starkly disparate scales of social action into coherent focus. The political, economic, and social agendas that shape the social fields of television are equally difficult to reconcile in an ethnographic focus. To make an ethnography conform to the conventions of the genre it must give a convincing sense of "placing television more seamlessly within the sort of rich social and cultural context that the sustained anthropological fieldwork that has been our ideal since Bronislaw Malinowski is uniquely able to provide" (32). [End Page 819] But how does one aspire to such an ideal when the contexts range from offices of the powerful in the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, to the most intimate spaces of the home? What draws communities of viewers together? How to reconcile between an ideological agenda of an independent writer, the privately owned means of transforming the writer's vision into a television narrative, and the state-owned means of disseminating the narrative? What does one make of a standardized text broadcast to millions, and yet experienced by some viewers not as a discrete narrative event, but as part of what Raymond Williams once called an "irresponsible flow of images and feelings" (1975:92): irresponsible, and yet carefully planned for the purpose of assimilating "content" to marketing agendas? And how does one account for the audiences' apprehension of narratives through the marketed personalities of the actors rather than through the writers' intentions?
The comforting frameworks of conventional ethnography are often inapplicable. Television consumers are difficult to define as a well-bounded community. Groups that are discrete by criteria other than their orientation to television (e.g. Muslims and Christians) might well share interpretive frameworks that transcend their communities. However one defines a group, its boundaries can extend frustratingly beyond a social scale accessible by the sort of personal interaction prized by anthropology. The relationship of audiences to producers further complicates the identification of a discrete community. In their own self-imposed terms many television producers seek to standardize identities or to impose standardized ideals, and yet audiences can simultaneously facilitate such homogenizing agendas and impede them, or indeed reinterpret them according to their own needs and experiences. Television is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and hence maddening as an object of study. Yet Abu-Lughod argues convincingly that television has become, albeit unevenly and in locally specific ways, a crucial element in forming modern subjectivities. In so doing she is in agreement with many (perhaps most) anthropologists. And to a large extent the frustrations of defining the limits of a television community are generic to contemporary approaches to fieldwork and to debates over the usefulness of "culture" as a bounded concept. In terms of television, for most of the discipline the issue is now less the importance of the phenomenon than how to approach it.
Abu-Lughod acknowledges the complexity of television as an ethnographic object, and seeks to negotiate it in a number of ways. One is to center the work on female informants who are marginal in various ways to a discursive modern nationalist ideal type that is...