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Writing About Egypt’s Experimental Moment

May 4, 2011

I’ve been writing a great deal lately about media and social change in Egypt (usually when I should be doing other things, like grading final exams).

One of these projects was an essay of 1,000 words or less about media and social change for the web site of a workshop on Media and Social Change being held May 27  2011 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

My essay was entitled “Egypt’s Experimental Moment: Contingent Thoughts on Media and Social Change.” The gist of it is:

One way to think about media and social change, then, is to focus on these experimental moments, and describe and analyze the roles media play in them. In so doing, it is useful to draw on two other elements that all three anthropological approaches to social change have in common: a recognition that clear continuities exist between differentiated periods, and a confidence that there are regularities that can be abstracted from the chaos of disrupted social life to help us grasp “the big picture” in social life.

Egypt is currently in just such an experimental moment. It is not merely that social innovators have found many new politically powerful uses for digital media; the mainstream media finds itself in a period in which the political order that governed it for so long in gone, and no firm new order has yet emerged. Many social actors seek to organize a new national mediascape as close as possible to the old, while others seek to innovate, to borrow practices from elsewhere in the global mediascape and localize them. New narratives, and counternarratives of revolution are everywhere, and the shape of the new order remains ambiguous, unpredictable and shaped by the very narratives the various media produce out of their own uncertainty.

Interestingly, within hours of being posted, the essay drew a response from Dr. CSHN Murthy of Tezpur University, India. Among other things, Dr. Murthy suggested that my discussion of media and social change was entirely context sensitive–it applied more or less only to Egypt and not to different situations like Libya or Sri Lanka.

For instance I have noticed that the anthropological angle positing innovation, adaptation and transformation as explained in terms of the developments in Egypt may not fit the jacket of interpretation of developments in Libya. The intervention of US and its allies in Libya prohibits such an interpretation. In other words the division among people including women and the youth, besides part of military guard siding Gaddafi suggests that the same phenomenon of anthropological innovation, adaptation and transformation is yet a dream to realize in Libya.

While I completely agree with Dr. Murthy that the Egyptian and Libyan contexts are dramatically different, I do not agree that general concepts like innovation, adaptation, and transformation are inappropriate to either case:

Innovation and adaptation to the political, social and military interventions of external actors is certainly posited in anthropological theories of social change. They will be very different kinds of innovation and adaptation, but the concepts of adaptation and transformation are not by any means irrelevant.

I can’t be at the conference, unfortunately, but it looks to be lively and interesting.

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