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Does Middle Eastern Media Studies Need Its Own Paradigm?

November 27, 2012

Do the different media environments and contexts of the Middle East require a different set of approaches media studies of the region? Photo: Malek Rouchdy. Used by permission.

[Article review by Monica Komer]

Scholarly work on the rapid expansion of Arab media has grown considerably over the last several year, however this area of study remains undeveloped compared to other regions of the world.

Annabelle Sreberny discusses the factors that impede the field’s development in her article, “The Analytic Challenges of Studying the Middle East and its Evolving Media Environment.”

The normative framework surrounding Western media theory has hindered the study of media in non-Western countries, Sreberny explains. She writes:

“Media Studies, like all the social sciences, is embedded in the historical experiences of Western industrial capitalism, liberal democracy, and bounded nation-states. Even the sub-field of International Communications, perhaps the dominant approach of the late twentieth century, essentially looked out with a scoping gaze from the West toward the rest of the world and proferred a set of assumptions about media dynamics in political, economic and cultural contexts that were for the most part totally ‘foreign’ to the authors.”

The nature of media in the Middle East is vastly different than the nature of media in the Western world. Existing theories derived from North American and European experiences are not irrelevant to the media environment of the Middle East, but they are inadequate to fully explain the interconnected ways media in the region is constructed, distributed, and utilized. The complexity and diversity of the region demands new models that can fit the distinctive media and cultural landscape.

Sreberny assessed three prominent approaches in Media Studies:

  1. Political communication, which she sees as overfocused on political institutions and formal processes (such as elections and public opinion) that overlook the enormous significance of such informal political activities as dowreh, coffee houses, graffiti and  blogging.
  2. Political economy, which is all too often overfocused on issues of conglomeratization and privatization, ignoring the possibility that there might be positive roles for the state in media and cultural policy, and that the weakness of the private sector in rentier states might inhibit creativity and independence; and
  3. Cultural studies, which examines the “post-modern bricolage of images and ideas that circulate in the contemporary global media environment as all being of equal value, worth and significance.” Sreberny criticizes the tendency to over focuson ‘Western’ imagery circulating in a hostile Middle East (i.e. the Danish cartoons) rather than exploring the range of representations, political discourses and cultural products that are produced from within as well as without, and which circulate about the region.

She argues that the application of these approaches to Middle Eastern media exposes the fundamental problem of placing media at the center of analysis rather than viewing media as one aspect of the media environment. A primary problem of using a mediacentric model is the loss of in-depth analysis of the political, economical, and social contexts of the region.

She claims the field must “explore the manner in which both broader conceptual frameworks and more nuanced, grounded and subtle forms of media and contemporary cultural analyses can contribute to a better understanding of both the region and of media studies.”

The analytic approach toward media studies in the Middle East requires a critique of the contemporary Western assumptions that look at the media landscape with far too narrow a scope. The institutional roles and social forces that may be active in Middle Eastern experiences of new media cannot be fully analyzed through these classic paradigms.

The impact of technology, formation of a public sphere, potential of state media, and range of informal politics are just a small sample of the many questions left unanswered by current methods of media study. In a time of rapid change and constant influx it has never been more imperative to develop new methods of understanding the discourses and complex media systems of the region.

[Monica Komer is a first year undergraduate double majoring in International Studies and Journalism. She is a participant in the First Year Research Experience program, through which she is helping me with a project on “New Media and Electronic Networks” which will produce a chapter for a forthcoming compilation book about anthropology in the Middle East].

References

Sreberny, Annabelle.  2008. The Analytical Challenges of Studying the Middle East and its Evolving Media Environment. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 1: 8-23.

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