Monday, December 08, 2008

Final thoughts on Human Geography and Mass Communication

I came into this class with a decent sense of what human geography was and very little idea of what a mass communications department did. I think it’s a testament to the related nature of these two interdisciplinary departments that, when I went over the syllabus recently, I found it fairly difficult to discern what came from where. Both departments seem to be interdisciplinary convergences of history, sociology, technology studies, and spatial relations. As our class demonstrated, I think there are a few ways in which the actual convergence of the two disciplines is extremely fruitful.

The first is fairly straight-forward and was something talked about in class regularly. Human geography and Mass communications come together well when talking about the industries of mass communication. This was demonstrated well by Zook’s book. The analysis of labor and the economic effects of communication industries seems extremely geographic, and agglomeration regions play a big role in development discourses. I am not entirely sure how much attention mass communications departments pay to the actual economic workings of IT companies, but it seems as though there is a clear relationship between geography and communications when looking into the physicality of technology. Many of the books we read that referenced the city are good examples of this, including Zook most directly but also the two anthologies, on the network society and cities. Castells, too, is an interesting example of this, and I found his work, especially his article on Silicon Valley and Finland, to be a good vision of the intersection between geography and mass communications in an economic development sense. A related line of study would be the interrogation of physical technology infrastructure, notably the work on urban agglomerations but also potentially work that dealt with the creation of places through their interactions with physical infrastructure. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, as both a failed a state and the only place in the world where the material in cell phone chips is mined, seems like a perfect example of the linkages between place and communication technology. Lisa Park's work, which we referenced in class a few times, seems like another great version of a merger of mass communications and geography scholarship. More work that analyzes the physical geography of placeless communication seems like a really interesting direction for scholarship to move in. Zook's attempt to map the internet industry is a great example, but I imagine there are plenty of other research possibilities.

This relates directly to the question of space, and the idea of produced space could have tremendous connections to mass communication. Spaces and places are constructed though a variety of means, with mass communication playing a distinct role. Soundtracks dealt very clearly with these issues, and served as an interesting demonstration of the intersection of media studies and geography. I imagine that very similar books could be written on the construction of places though media, both discursively but also experientially. How is our sense of place altered and constructed through mass communication technologies? And how does the representation of places via the mass media serve to change them in actual, physical terms? I think the potential work on the Congo referenced earlier is one version of this, as well as studies that looked into how spaces change as a result of what media is being broadcast in them. The experiential qualities of space hinge very directly on personal encounters and feelings, so the process of altering spaces through media seems very obvious. An easy example would be the modification of public places through the broadcasting of sports events or political debates - what is the interplay between viewer and broadcaster in the creation of a mediated public place? Additionally, the discursive quality is there as well, and the way in which geographic areas are represented in the media presumably plays a big role in how they are perceived and subsequently experienced. Historians like Robert Beauregard have dealt extensively with the discourses surrounding urban decline, and I am interested in how representations of crime influence tourism and industry creation in urban centers. It seems hard to separate mass communications and geography when thinking about the representations of geographic areas. This then has implications in tourism, economic development, urban renewal, and countless other categories.

I am also interested in the ways in which the logic of communications technology dictates new attempts at theorizing. I think Castells is the most obvious example of this, but Downey's piece on network science is another. Communications networks have a metaphorical power, and the study of Information Technology, by way of geography and mass communications, seems to influence broad theoretical frameworks. I am interested in the network as a distinctly spatial metaphor, and it seems as though both geography and mass communications are needed to properly understand the way in which the metaphor works. I'm not sure where mass communications segues into peer-to-peer communications, but my guess is that the two departments should lay claim to networks as both geographic and communications-based. The humanities can keep post-structuralism.

Ultimately though, I think it is hard to distinguish the two disciplines, which points to both the strengths and weaknesses of both departments. Geography is so unstructured that it is almost impossible to find anything that is not geographic, and there is a severe lack of a canonical focus in the discipline. Key Texts in Human Geography was actually a very helpful book in terms of solidifying my own grasp of the historical progression of the discipline, but ultimately I was left with more questions than answers. The same could be said for mass communications, I would imagine, and I think this speaks to some of the limitations of hugely interdisciplinary work. I would love some thorough engagement with what makes up Geography and where the disciplinary boundaries begin and end, as I imagine that would help geographers to situate their work outside of the discipline. Historically, geographers were able to map icy lakes while advocating against economic polarization using the same methodology, and I think that there is something missing when geography lacks a methodological or substantive foundation. At the same time, there is a strong virtue to interdisciplinary work, as demonstrated by this class, so I'm not entirely comfortable advocating for stronger geographic methodology and focus. We could be in the ideal middle ground at the moment.

In the end, it is somewhat difficult to determine the positive qualities of collaborative work between the two disciplines when it is so hard to determine what the disciplines actually do. I think this class pointed in very useful directions, and I would be interested to see how a strengthened disciplinary focus could either help or harm interdisciplinary work.

1 comment:

Dale said...

This is very interesting to me, as I come from exactly the opposite perspective; that is, I came into this class with a decent sense of what mass communication is and absolutely no idea of what a human geography department did.

I very much agree that it would be fascinating to further explore your question "How is our sense of place altered and constructed through mass communication technologies?" It also seems interesting to ask how our sense and understanding of mass communication is altered and constructed in new spaces created by technology. (I guess this is part of what I'll be looking at as I write my paper on video games - games are not a typical medium of study for mass communication departments but when so many of them are linked into a Castellsian network society they seem to fit the criteria.)

Finally, I'll put in my vote for more collaboration between geography and mass communication. While I agree that it may be hard to clearly state the positives of this approach, I think your insight that both disciplines have a difficult time defining themselves is an excellent reason for more collaboration rather than less. Academia expends a great deal of effort placing disciplines in neat boxes, but with all I've learned in this class (and having an interdisciplinary focus to my degree) I feel there are more similarities than differences within academia and that stark designations rarely further an understanding of our world.