Since I have no pretense that I can offer the definitive answer to the question “what good is geography to the study of mass communication?” I will offer a personal response to “what good is geography to me (as someone who studies mass communication)?” To that question, I would say that geography has been and will be helpful 1) as a conceptual framework for studying media globalization and 2) as an analytic tool for engaging with field sites when conducting ethnography.
As far as globalization, Castell’s network society is a some-what elusive, yet ultimately useful conceptual tool for understanding the production and distribution of media. This conceptual framework provides opportunities to study “the” global media network as a whole, or to look specifically at nodes or connections between the nodes. For instance, Michael Curtin (in Comm Arts) has been using this network concept to study agglomeration of certain sites of film and television production into what he terms “media capitals.” Similar to Silicon Valley for information technology and Detroit for the automotive industry, these nodes are sites of greater production, have more connections and transmit a larger amount of “data” across the global media network. Besides nodes, it’s also useful to study media distribution in terms of movement across the global network. At the same time, Ferguson (2006) questions the idea of global “flows” in terms of capital. Using Africa as a case study, Ferguson points out that “[c]apital is globe-hopping, not globe-covering” (38), jumping from place to place rather than spreading evenly. I think it would be interesting to use Ferguson to amend Castell’s framework and study if media distribution resembles a “flow” or is similar to Ferguson’s capital.
But currently, geography will be most useful to me as an analytic and descriptive tool for studying the spaces and places that I will consider “fieldsites” in future ethnographic research. In a well-intentioned, but not particularly well-written chapter in a collection on global media ethnography, Clau (2003) points out that all too often, ethnographic work takes its sites of research as a given. But she argues “[m]edia ethnography should not consider space as a fact, but as a challenge: that is, as the object/subject of critically [sic] inquiry” (Clau, 66). She continues “[l]ooking at space differently…means asking new questions and thus opening the scope of media ethnography” (66). It’s easy for mass communication studies to be decontextualized, so thankfully many in the discipline utilize theory from other disciplines (political science, sociology, literature, etc.) to help us better study media in context. But if we are conducting ethnographic research, geography is an incredibly useful tool for understanding the sites where we conduct our research and the locations where our research subjects encounter media. Over winter break, I will spend a few weeks in Kibera (a large slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya) studying a media advocacy organization. In anticipation of this trip, I’ve been trying to get a handle of Kibera as a place of meaning and work for this organization and as a place where I will be conducting research. I don’t know if I’ve been particularly successful yet, but I know that the place of Kibera is central to understanding the work of this organization, so I will continue to rely on human geography to help me get a handle on that.
Clau, A. (2003). Where is audience ethnography’s fieldwork? In P.D. Murphy & M.M. Kraidy (Eds.) Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Curtin, M. (forthcoming) Media capital: The cultural geography of globalization. Blackwell.
Ferguson, J. (2006). Global shadows: African in the neoliberal world order. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.