In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • History of Media in Anthropology
  • Journals
  • Edited Volumes
  • Anthropology 2.0
  • Media Studies
  • Reception
  • Production
  • Film/Photography and Anthropology
  • Ethnographic Film
  • Indigenous Filmmaking
  • Visual Anthropology
  • Sounded Anthropology and Ethnomusicology
  • Nationalism and Globalization
  • Religion
  • Digital Media and Virtual Ethnography
  • Linguistics and Semiotics

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Anthropology Media Anthropology
Rebecca Pardo, Elizabeth ErkenBrack, John L. Jackson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0015


Although anthropologists have long addressed topics related to media and communications technologies, some have argued that a truly institutionalized commitment to the anthropology of media has only developed within the past twenty years. This might be due, at least in part, to a traditional disciplinary emphasis on “primitive” communities lacking the ostensible features of modernity, including electronic forms of mass mediation. Thick description, a central aim of ethnography as touted by Clifford Geertz, was historically geared toward small-scale societies and precluded the study of contemporary forms of mass media in modern life. However, anthropologists have begun to develop productive ways of including mass mediation into their ethnographic accounts. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about cultural practices at all without some nod to the ubiquity of global media. From an anthropological perspective, it is important to consider varying cultural contexts of mass-media production, consumption, and interpretation. And this begs a question that several anthropologists have begun to answer. What is the most appropriate way to study “the media” as a cultural phenomenon? Content analyses of media texts? The measuring and identifying of media’s social effects and influence? Ethnographic studies of “reception” and “production”? Or something else entirely? Anthropologists engage in all of these and more. Additionally, new questions are emerging about how anthropology might best address digital media and online communities. There are multiple ways in which anthropologists have engaged with “the media” both as a tool of representation and an object of study. To outline some of those ways, it makes sense to provide a history of developments in the field, summarizing several thematic topics that have recently been of central focus to anthropologists of media, including religion, globalization, and nationalism. It also makes sense to think about approaches to studying mass media that other disciplines deploy—disciplines that are in conversation with anthropologists on this subject, including and especially media studies, communications studies, and cultural studies. The categorical divisions here attempt to reflect anthropology’s historical commitments to various analytical, thematic, and medium-based modes of inquiry.

History of Media in Anthropology

Though it has been noted in Spitulnik 1993 that anthropology was slow to address the subject of mass media, some early anthropologists engaged the media in various ways, including the early work Sapir 1985 (originally published in 1949) on “language and communication,” Wolfenstein 2000 on content analysis of specific films, and various media-inflected “community studies” such as Lynd and Lynd 1957. One avenue through which early anthropologists approached the mass media was “anthropology at a distance,” the studying of other cultures from afar by mining documents (including media productions) to make sense of their cultural distinctiveness. This was used in World War II to gain a better understanding of America’s allies and rivals, since firsthand ethnographic research was made difficult as a function of wartime political restrictions. For example, Benedict 1946 included mass media in a study of popular culture in Japan. Several anthropologists became involved with the US Office of Naval Research; see Mead 2004, a study of media and cross-cultural communication originally published in 1964, and Bateson 1942, an analysis of film, national “character,” and morale. But although these scholars studied mass-media offerings, for the most part media texts and engagements were taken as one of several ways at getting at some other sociocultural question. There was little concentrated focus on the mass media itself as an object of study, one often cited exception being the ethnography of Hollywood in Powdermaker 1950.

  • Bateson, Gregory. 1942. Morale and national character. In Civilian morale. Edited by G. Watson, 84–85. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.

    Bateson argues that variations in national “character” are dependent on historical circumstance rather than essential difference; he uses mass-media texts to demonstrate cultural values.

  • Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The chrysanthemum and the sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    This World War II–era study of Japanese culture drew heavily on literature and popular media to analyze and make sense of apparent contradictions in fundamental Japanese character in order to help the Allies. This book has been influential in anthropological understandings of Japanese culture and was also widely read in Japan.

  • Lynd, Robert Staughton, and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1957. Middletown: A study in contemporary American culture. New York: Harcourt Brace.

    A classic study of life in the city of Muncie, Indiana, named “Middletown” by the authors to reflect its choice as representative of small-town America. The study focused on social and economic change over a period of thirty-five years and included the study of film as a leisure activity. Originally published in 1923.

  • Mead, Margaret. 2004. Some cultural approaches to communication problems. In Studying contemporary Western society: Theory and method. By Margaret Mead, 129–143. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

    Mead addresses what she sees as the “problem” of mass communications, namely, what happens when a group of people tries to influence another group via the use of mass-mediated messages and images. She explores how mass communications are dependent on particular cultural values, which may present a problem in the case of cultural “boundaries,” as well as the ethics of mass communications. Originally published in 1964.

  • Powdermaker, Hortense. 1950. Hollywood, the dream factory: An anthropologist looks at the movie makers. Boston: Little, Brown.

    This ethnography of Hollywood is notable as a project that took “the media” as an object of analysis, analogizing the professional community of Hollywood to traditional communities studied by anthropologists, anticipating future work on ethnography of production and culture industries. Powdermaker focused on the hierarchical structure of film production and the relationship between the final product of a film and economic concerns during production.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1985. Communication. In Selected writings of Edward Sapir. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum, 104–109. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Sapir argues that all social behavior is communicative. He outlines four different forms of communication—referential symbolism, gesture, imitation of overt behavior, and social suggestion—noting that these practices underpin the maintenance of social groups. He notes that particular technologies enable different kinds of communicative practices. Originally published in 1949.

  • Spitulnik, Debra. 1993. Anthropology and mass media. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:293–315.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This article addresses the anthropological challenge of incorporating the mass media into study of social life, noting the absence of mass media as a focus in anthropology for most of the 20th century. The author describes prominent paradigms in media and cultural studies and suggests the contributions to be made by anthropology and, in particular, semiotic linguistic anthropology.

  • Wolfenstein, Martha. 2000. Movie analysis in the study of culture. In The study of culture at a distance. Edited by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux. New York: Berghahn.

    This paper links the study of culture with content analysis of films, positing that an anthropological approach combines analysis of cultural context and thematic patterns with psychological factors, for example, examining how various cultures address particular psychological phenomena in film through culturally specific traditions. Originally published in 1953.

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