JOURNAL ISSUE 18
On the move and out of reach? Challenges of communication in 21st
Mark Lawrence, Ph.D.
confusion centers on what precisely it means to be working with or in a
“community”. In no small measure,
this is because “community” is no longer as tied to place as previously had
been the case. Indeed, the
foundations of place are now jeopardized by environmental crisis. Moreover, the nature of a rapidly
globalizing economy makes any particular place less autonomous than hitherto. This means that the members of any
particular “community” are likely to include migrant populations, suggesting
therefore that “community is now only ever a highly transitory, unstable,
temporary phenomenon. Under the
circumstances, central to what is now urgently required is a better
understanding of the multiple roles played by communication in defining and re-defining “community”. For example, how do we manage
challenges of linguistic assimilation, the economics of media control, and
access by youth and other special populations to means of being seen and heard
as they struggle to define the future?
The purpose of this paper is therefore to identify central issues
regarding (a) geographic dimensions, (b} changing modes, and (c)intergenerational
challenges of communication in 21st-Century communities.
Keywords: community, ego
ideal, media, chronotope, generation, social capital
Humans are social creatures. There is a tendency for many interested in
the sustainable development of the species to concern themselves- whether as
geographers, planners, politicians, or social workers- with the fate of
particular communities. But, it
doesn’t take long to discover that considerable confusion centers on what
precisely it means to be working with or in a “community”. In no small measure, this is because “community”
is no longer as tied to place as previously had been the case (Lawrence, 2007). Indeed, the very foundations of place are now jeopardized by
environmental crisis. Moreover, the
nature of a rapidly globalizing economy makes any particular place less
autonomous than hitherto. This
means that the members of any particular community are likely to include
migrant populations, therefore suggesting, that “community” is now only ever a
highly transitory, unstable, and temporary phenomenon.
Under the circumstances, central to what is now urgently required is a
better understanding of the multiple roles played by communication in defining and re-defining “community”. For example, how do we manage
challenges of linguistic assimilation, the economics of media control, and
access by youth and other special populations to means of being seen and heard
as they struggle to define the future?
The purpose of this paper is therefore to identify central issues
regarding (a) geographic dimensions, (b) changing modes, and (c)
intergenerational challenges of communication in 21st-Century
Unexamined practices of all sorts, bureaucratic as
well as personal, assume at the very least that a “community” can be defined as
a delimited space. Planners,
social workers, aid agencies, police and revenue agents all operate on the
basis of a naïve geographic imaginary accepting that a community of interest is
here, not there. Not
surprisingly, as a social and applied science, Geography has always been at
least implicitly concerned with delimited spaces, with borders, and more
importantly with the human activities of bordering. Such activities as defining the addresses, the routes, the
zones, and the distributions of territories as a discrete “community”
immediately and persistently require attention to focus on issues of
communication as we constantly talk, write, and imagine what places are like
(Barnes & Duncan, 1992).
Importantly, the earliest geographic writing focused
on the familiar, whereas the unusual was reserved for the outermost spaces
(Romm, 1992). But it would be
wrong to assume that this automatically established a spatial distinction
between familiar, near, and acceptable
on the one hand and unfamiliar, distant, and unacceptable on the other.
After all, even the monsters and other superhuman adversaries faced by
Gilgamesh, Hercules, Jason, or Ulysses were part of a known cosmos. Indeed, for the ancient Greeks, the
periphery was a space of perfection, home to the “fortunate” Hyperboreans in
the north and the “blameless” Ethiopians in the south. In each case, people were
notably more rustic on the periphery than the Greeks of such city-states as
Athens, Sparta, or Troy. This
amounted to a first statement of comparative Geography, the worthiness of
peripheral rurality contrasted by the unstable and flawed character of
civilization at the center of the ecumene,
a powerful notion reappearing much later in such notions as Rousseau’s vision
of the “noble savage” which was an idea born out of travellers’ accounts of
encounter with North American Indians.
The point is not to dismiss the very real hardships
faced by many who cross borders, but to emphasize that the border is as much
symbolic as it is physical, and therefore of a changeable character. Indeed, because of its symbolic
potential, the border can be re-established in any number of situations internal to a territorialized space
(Sibley, 1995). This has been one
of the most pernicious trends of human history, of course, perhaps especially
in the West, so frequently characterizing someone as different regarding their
age, gender, mobility, sexuality, race, et cetera in terms of acceptable
visibility in particular locations.
Focusing these considerations on the present era of supposed economic
globalization, it could even be argued that this history of constant spatial
definition and redefinition at the center of society has created a heavy burden
on those trying to find room for manoeuvre, so much so that Stallybrass and
White urge us to recognize that capitalism locates “its most powerful symbolic
repertoires at borders, margins and edges, rather than at the accepted centres
of the social body” (see also Bhabha, 1990 ; Shields, 1992).
In short, the border is at once a site of control but also,
however contradictorily, a place where control is suspended, challenged, and
reworked (Boswell, 2003). In this
sense, intensification of economic activity along and despite borders is joined
by an intensification of political activity of a similar sort. Our communities are not just places and
their histories but ongoing processes. Their real and imagined borders are transformed
as much by those who cross them as they are themselves transformative. Indeed, the massive shifts of
population, resources, information, and wealth occurring today have prompted a
reorientation in political geography such that instead of centralizing all
control in a single location, bordering as a dynamic activity occurs across
multiple “spaces of dispersion” (Foucault & Miskowiec, 1986).
That is, whereas Power was formerly repressive, it now is productive of
that which it seeks to control.
Submission is replaced by Order as the primary objective of Power.
In many respects, this dovetails neatly with Lacanian
psychoanalysis, which holds that given our unfamiliarity with ourselves and our
own physical body as infants, what we ordinarily think our individual identity
is actually formed by reference to images of Others. A sense of internal disorder and incompetence is given an “ego
ideal” of wholeness during an initial “mirror phase” that becomes not just a
moment in early childhood but an organizing principle of lifelong development
(Lacan, 1949). As with the child,
so with States- and at a different scale, communities that wrestle with the
unfamiliarity of today’s globalization processes. Despite policy rhetoric to
the contrary, it is not merely separation from but also the identification with
a universe of images external to the
territory that defines us. In
other words, it is no longer enough to have a superpower arsenal or
international treaties and standards that define “us” as different from “them”
or “here” from “there” (see e.g. Väyrynen, 1997). Instead, it becomes
necessary to deploy the logic of preemptive strike to secure “regime change”, finding
“here” over “there” (as when the terrain of national security is fought over
thousands of miles beyond the terrain of the nation itself).
Importantly, the moment in history when this
change occurred predates such symbols as “9/11”, marked by the elaboration of
new technologies of surveillance, inventory, and regulation in the 16th,
17th, and 18th Centuries- in particular, the census, the
map, and museum which are all closely connected to the genesis of Geography as
a social science. The medieval
king had his subjects and the early
modern republics had their peoples,
but the modern State has its populations,
defined not by their blood ties or national loyalties but by demographic
variables, economic statistics, etc.
In Foucault’s analysis, therefore, social structure does not exist to
control us as much as to define us in ways that oblige us to control
ourselves. Everyday spatial
regulations (for example, a tollgate, a stop sign, the checkout counter, etc.)
don’t require an authority to master us, as we readily and reliably master
ourselves. From this beginning, it
is a depressingly easy step to acceptance of racial profiling, email monitoring,
and similar social transformations in the name of “national” or public security
that, paradoxically and in a reversal of our original association with others,
leave individuals less and less secure by defining us as individuals. More
than forty years ago, Jane Jacobs understood that, “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and
this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order
that is struggling to exist and to be served ” (1961, emphasis added).
This panic, acknowledging our dependence on others for
recognition of our own identity while simultaneously struggling to establish
and enforce a stable symbolic order against the seemingly chaotic reality of too
many Others to mirror, comes about because, especially today, borders are busy
places and are not just lines on a map (Geddes, 2000). By 1990, as many as 85 million people
were moving across international borders annually for more than tourist
visits. By 2005, there were about
191 million migrants. Importantly,
there have also been dramatic shifts of population within borders (World Bank,
2003) mostly to cities, with the majority of the human population now urbanized. Whatever has become of “community”, one
thing is clear: there is now a greater diversity of peoples living together,
comfortably or otherwise, than ever before. This is, therefore, substantially
challenging the inauthentic agency of the ego
ideal with increasing evidence of our actual lack of unity.
This situation is not likely to change any time soon,
despite intensification of bordering activities from the Rio Grande to the West
Bank and beyond. The Indian
Diaspora remitted an estimated $15 billion in 2003, while the 55 million
so-called Overseas Chinese produce more income than the 1.3 billion non-emigrant
Chinese. Again, despite the rise
of anti-immigrant feeling, from 1970–1990 the number of countries
employing foreign labour more than doubled (from 42 to 90). In such leading economies as Japan and
Germany, precipitous population decline
would have resulted without recruitment of new populations now targeted for
hate crime, restrictive legislation, and other forms of internally
reconfiguring borders now notable even close to my own home in the middle of
the North American continental landmass (Hoffman, 2008). For that matter, issues of immigration
and bordering activities are not confined to economic migration or to large
economies. Including a significant
proportion of Somali refugees, the number of immigrants to Finland quadrupled
between 1990 and 2002, exactly at the time that Finns were simultaneously vying
for leadership in a new set of Arctic initiatives and debating whether their
unique identity positioned between Russia and (the rest of) Scandinavia could
accommodate being part of the ‘“European” Union (Keskitalo, 2004; Miettinen
& Puurunen, 2006).
Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” (1982) is valuable here insofar as it
destabilizes any relationship of time and space, privileging neither, which enables
the reconsideration of the migrant not as a fixed object but as a variable
condition in time and space. Among
other important consequences, an emphasis on the chronotopicity of the
immigrant experience reduces the importance of the geographic border and the
act of crossing it as the central defining characteristic of the
immigrant. In turn, this enervates
the immigrant as being more than an isolated identity torn from his roots
elsewhere and now subject to capture, interrogation, deportation, and other
forms of command-and-control by the receiving State. Instead, the immigrant
brings with him his own significance, which immediately and persistently alters
the relationship the State has with him.
Moreover, that intimate significance remains mobile even after the
immigrant has arrived, becoming a conduit for the exchange of all manner of
energies back and forth between the sending and the receiving States, cultures,
and economies. These exchanges,
finally, are not merely transfers back and forth between places of things as
banal as remittance income, but rather work to mutate each of the polities,
cultures, and economies involved.
The immigrant can become the point of grafting of the influences of
either type, so that what began as a seeming binary opposition becomes a
hybridization of opportunities and limitations, of weaknesses and of strengths
(Adoni, Cohen, & Caspi, 2006).
Needless to say, attending to the geographic
dimensions of how we define “community” as the 21st Century unfolds
will be crucially important. But
equally important will be self-conscious examination of the ways in which we communicate about community; that is,
the discourses we develop about borders that define who is “in” and who is “out”. These discourses vary across the
political spectrum, across cultural biases, and certainly across the range of
professions ostensibly concerned with the future of what is meant by “community”. For instance, Friedmann (2005) notes
that planning education in North America emphasizes no less than 9 major
specializations, in part because of a cultural history of resisting national
planning efforts. Even if it can
be said that the profession as practiced in the United States typically
conflates urban and regional planning, Spanish urbanismo emphasizes planning as part of architectural design of
spaces (i.e., focusing on physical planning), while French aménagement du territoire emphasizes centralized regional
planning (i.e., focusing on
political planning), and German Raumordnung
emphasizes abstract decentralized spatial ordering at the regional level (i.e., focusing on economic planning).
Therefore arguably, we very quickly will be forced to
admit that powerful changes in the economic and technological modalities of
migration and of communication itself (about migration and a great may other
things besides) render most discourses about “community” far too
simplistic. This isn’t to say that
significant costs and consequences are not felt by those struggling to cope
with the political burdens of such discourses, but rather that 21st
Century communities are likely to be those in which borders fail to adequately
define the inside and outside as much as they temporarily bring into focus
millions of people whose identity in reality is in between “here” or “there". Thus, an especially compelling example
of the sort of self-conscious appraisal of the discourses we deploy to define
borders and being with respect to community is Viego’s Dead Subjects
(2007) inasmuch as it utilizes Lacanian theory to challenge political
insistence on viewing Latino migrants as easily identifiable statistical
entities, rather than as multifaceted human beings facing both the crises and
opportunities of being divided by language, ethnicity, and even race in (U.S.)
This emphasis on the roles played by communication in
defining and refining our sense of community implies an insistence on seeing
culture as active, not only as artefact.
After all, Page (2005) notes that prior to the September 11th
attacks, officials in the United States framed the issue of immigration in
terms of U.S/Mexico political and economic relations, only reframing the issue
in terms of national security afterwards.
The border (with Canada as much as with Mexico) has never been an
unremarkable line on the map.
Of course, anthropologists in
particular have made considerable headway in studying culture as active
practice, but classic ethnographic accounts were characterized by a certain
holism about their objects of study inasmuch as those objects were assumed to
have existed for some time. From
what has already been said, this sort of stable field of study rarely exists
any longer, therefore necessitating a more flexible ethnography. To be sure, there is a burgeoning
literature on “media anthropology” which tries to respond to the need for more
careful attention to the liminal character of today’s hybrid cultural
identities (Rothenbuhler & Coman, 2005; see also Dayan, 1998).
There are at least two problems
with anthropological approaches.
First, inasmuch as ethnography contextualizes practice, its use as a
research method generates essentially conservative accounts of what is going
on. Second, even when ethnography
is deployed on behalf of enabling a more activist agenda- say by researching
indigenous use of media to effect change (Himpele, 2007). Most accounts
emphasize constraints faced by users (Fairlie et al. 2006, Rodino-Colocino, 2006, etc.) which is a significant,
but limited result.
In short, open questions remain
about the locus of sense-making and how media practices lead to the
reproduction of social structure (Chan, 2005). For instance, the population of the island of Rotuma (about
300 miles north of Fiji in the southwest Pacific) was nearly wiped out by a
measles epidemic in 1911; by 2000 the total had recovered to 12,000 but only
22% still lived on the island.
ROTUMANET was started in 1995 to sustain traditional culture by
uploading historical archives, an interactive dictionary, a proverb of the
week, a weather update, a register of diasporic Rotumans, and a discussion
forum. While the website is busy,
those still resident on the island don’t usually participate because of
technical and cost factors. For
that matter, ROTUMANET has a core membership of only 60 people (Ogden, 1999;
see also, Spoonley, 2000).
Mitra (1997a and b) makes a
similar point about the tension existing between the opportunity for members of
online communities to find “voice” without ordinary constraints versus the
tendency of those most active in such virtual communities to emphasize an “ingroup”
identity whenever possible via strategies centered on the formatting of
language, hypertext linkages, multimedia presence, et cetera. Other observers have considered the
influence exerted by those who have belonged to a virtual community longer than
others (Giese, 2003) as well as the level of technical expertise of any given
member of a virtual community (Reid, 1999). All of this raises important questions: Who defines “tradition’”? How large
does a community have to be to be considered ‘”traditional”? And does a
community have to be physically located in one place?
Regardless, it is now
unmistakably the case that, even as multinational corporate media grows larger
(Sparks, 2007), their era is waning
as audiences become less passive.
Shifting from the regime of broadcasting to the more personally-tailored
world of podcasting and blogging, consumers are now actively productive about
what precisely they want by way of mediated experience. Scheduling of content is not as fixed
in what some literature refers to as “computer-mediated communication”. Also, miniaturization of wireless
communications technology allows for more transient reception since consumers
are not as constrained as previously by the need to be within reach of a
broadcast over transmission lines.
Although television is catching up with wireless technologies in terms
of multiple modalities of content delivery (regular programming, Internet
access, video conferencing, etc.), “personal” devices still allow for a higher
degree of end-user manipulation of content. For that matter, it is less likely that we can continue to
equate consuming publics with particular nationalities as “citizenship” is also
now subject to more frequent dispersal across borders and along multiple
trajectories of migration (Couldry, 2004).
Of course, this might sound like
an argument corrosive of any concept of “community” inasmuch as it emphasizes
themes of individual autonomy and, especially in terms of “virtual” presence
technologies, deliberately chosen anonymity or even carefully crafted
reconstruction of identity.
Certainly, there is a belief that whatever else is meant by “community”,
depends on a certain degree of commonality of experience and value assessments
about that experience. Davis and
Anderson (1983), for example, suggest that bordering activities that define
Others as different from “us” relate to the density
of social interaction in a given place.
“High-density” situations are those characterized not only by proximity
to your neighbors, but also by labor and other economic interactions that are
especially visible locally. Under
such circumstances, newcomers are easy to notice as different. The consequence of this idea is that in
“low-density” situations, difference is less visible, which implies that
community also is less likely insofar as borders are less obvious (Spitulnik,
On the face of it, proliferation
of new media, increased movement of populations of varying backgrounds, as well
as geographic fragmentation of production and marketing processes all seem to
suggest a dramatic decline in the density of social interaction and thus of “community”. In terms of number of calls placed
between one party and another, international telephony grew an astonishing 25
times larger between 1975 and 2000.
Even more impressively, the International Telecommunication Union
estimates that the total amount of time spent talking to other parts of the
planet rose from 4 billion minutes in 1975 to 145 billion minutes in 2004 (ITU
2001 and 2006). Worldwide sales of
mobile phones reached 294.3 million units in the first quarter of 2008, a 13.6%
increase over the first quarter of 2007.
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the number of
web-capable mobile devices globally was expected to exceed notebook/desktop
personal computers sixfold between 2004 and 2007.
Clearly, a lot of conversation is
going on, but this interaction is supposedly not particularly “dense” insofar
as so much of it is outward bound, not focused on making or reinforcing local
community connections. For
instance, a 2002 survey found that personal computer ownership in Britain was
higher among South Asian and Chinese immigrants than it was among whites, and
although nonwhite groups used the Internet less often, they reported a greater
interest or sense of need for Internet access in general and a significantly
higher use of the Internet to access information of relevance to ethnic and/or
religious background in particular (Owen et
al. 2003). Likewise, New
California Media reports that “Forty-five percent of all African American,
Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and Arab American adults prefer
ethnic television, radio or newspapers to their mainstream counterparts”
(2005). Together with others
(Bauman 2001, Beck 2001, Parekh 1997, etc.) convinced that globalization is
destroying any chance for a sustainable social order. Sreberny (2005, p. 444)
wonders if the greater personal autonomy and increased range of choices offered
by the new media “actually work to reify difference rather than support
complexity?” For example,
D’Haenens, et al. (2007) report that
while both native and immigrant youth in Flanders and the Netherlands consider
it important to know how to use a computer, a much higher percentage of Turkish
and Moroccan than of native youths assume that a computer will be an integral
part of employment future.
But it is important to emphasize
that migration is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the rise of
ethnic/minority media. Instead,
proliferation of new information technologies is located within the rise of a
global participatory culture at once alternative to and collaborative with the
dominant cultures in which it is found (Deuze, 2006). Also extremely important is the need to register the use of
multiple forms of media by any given user, the use of the same technology for a
variety of purposes, and the use of different technologies for the same purpose
(Brandtzæg et al., 2004).
In other words, the presumption
that ethnic media disconnect immigrant and other minorities from discursive
involvement with the ‘mainstream’ societies in which they operate belies the
efforts of such media to work symbiotically with those societies (Iskandar
Farag, 2003). This was the case,
for example, when a Manifesto of Minority Community Media was presented to the
European Parliament in 2004 by no less than 740 media and cultural
organizations seeking to have ethnic media recognized as public-service
providers (OL/MCM, 2004). While
active, hybrid subjectivities using new media are “shaping a vigorous public
sphere” (Husband, 2005, p. 461), it is mainstream societies that deploy a
rhetoric of disintegration and loss of control in order to curtail minority
civil and human rights on behalf of established elites. Arnold and Schneider (2007) sound a
similar note of concern when they examine how ethnic media in Germany are often
institutions of integration rather than of segregation.
Just as it is vital that we pay closer attention
to the geographic dimensions of how we define today’s more highly mobile forms
of “community”, the changing technological bases of communicating our
meaningful appraisal of what that means as a consequence equally demand careful
examination. But whatever else it
may mean, “community” has a temporal no less than a spatial dimension to it,
and any discussion has to include at least a third axis of attention; namely,
relations of the present to both the future and the past.
decided that “the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity
of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of
forgetting” (1966, p. 39). As previously
suggested, an unexamined sense of place associates community with durability
over time, yet time itself is invested with social meaning, and therefore is
subject to generational changes in orientation. Attempting to understand the variable temporalities of
historical formations, Gurvitch (1964) came up with the eightfold scheme
illustrated in Table 1 below (reproduced in Harvey 1989, pp. 224-225).
Table 1: The temporalities of different historical formations
continuous time in which past is projected in the present and future;
kinships and locality groupings (particularly rural peasant societies
and patriarchal structures)
long and slowed
down duration masking sudden and unexpected crises and ruptures between past
and political ‘publics’; charismatic and theocratic societies
collective attitudes (fashion) and technical mixes
time of uncertainty
and accentuated contingency in which present prevails over past and future
‘publics’ (social movements and fashion-followers); classes in process of
and future projected into each other accentuating continuity within change;
diminuation of contingency
archaic societies in which mythological, mystical, and magical beliefs
present so late as to be outmoded as soon as it is crystallized
its social symbols; guilds, professions etc.- feudalism
signals, signs and collective conduct
future compete in the present; discontinuity without contingency
groups; transition epochs (inception of capitalism)
advance of itself (rushing forward)
transformative action and innovation
contingency; qualitative change triumphant; the future becomes present
ferment and collective creation
past dissolved into a transcendent future
and radical transformations of global structures
regards interaction with variable forms of mediated consciousness, it is necessary
to acknowledge how social formations do not exist with respect to just one
temporality or another, but only in terms of multiple competing, coordinating,
and yet relatively contained generationally, those of focused
temporalities. Moreover, intergenerational
interaction establishes spatializations and temporalities which are wholly
novel to the individual generations involved. Although there is much to make of the dangers of a culture
of temporary experience, to simply equate speed with amnesia is too simple
since what happens, in fact, is that accelerated movements of messages and
populations across borders oblige and even offer opportunities for creation of
novel forms of culture. Indeed, as
was previously suggested with reference to Bakhtin’s concept of the
“chronotope”, such novelty is potentially far more than spurious, creating
conditions for the formation of hybrid identities across space and time. For instance, members of the Hmong Diaspora use modern media
technology to “dream across the oceans”.
A deep nostalgia gets transformed this way, the lamented lost community
of small-scale and “traditional” life now revived by being changed by
participation in a global forum of capitalist exchange. That is, a culture which was not based
on mass production of music, the instantaneous worldwide distribution of images
on the Internet, or other forms of modern economic production and consumption
now relies on them to make itself heard and visible again (Lee, 2005; see also
Indeed, against the tendency to view the prevailing culture of speed
only fearfully, careful use of the concept of chronotopicity can assist
examination of emerging 21st-Century forms of community as dynamic
interactions of past, present, and future. In this sense, communities are neither the existing
population nor the places which they temporarily occupy, but are additionally a
matter of intergenerational dialogue (Keane, 1995). For Bakhtin, chronotopes are “points in the geography of a
community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human
contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements
of time and history and the enduring character of a people. Chronotopes thus
stand as monuments to the community itself, as symbols of it, as forces
operating to shape its members’ images of themselves” (Basso, 1984, pp. 44-45).
The sense of movement in Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope is
important to connect to the real movements of large numbers of people across
and within borders today, especially insofar as multiplicity of perspective and
active dialogue between parties is valued over enforced unity of perspective
and passive reception of the inauthentic ego ideal of increasingly redundant
nation-states. Thus, writing about
online communities of overseas Chinese, Chan (2006; see also Mitra, 1997b)
emphasizes that virtual communities “with very diverse user profiles may offer
more distinct identity options for their members as a strategy in attracting
and retaining members, compared to virtual communities with a more homogeneous
membership”. Chan’s argument
focuses on populations migrating from different regions of the Chinese
mainland, but the same argument could be used to register the opportunities for
building sustainable virtual community out of a membership with intergenerational diversity. Newly emergent forms of community (and
for that matter, the older forms being resurfaced) are not sufficiently
identifiable by reference to monolithic concepts such as ethnicity or
household, but are multifaceted, including by reference to interactions among-
and changes of identity over the course of the lifecycle within- locally
identifiable age cohorts.
In this regard, Maass and
González (2005) have examined the “media memories” of three different
generations in Mexico (born circa 1920, 1950, and 1980), relating their
experiences to the advent of different communications technologies. Importantly, radio was the most frequently
accessed medium due to costs of access, prompting Maass and González to argue
that we need to pay close attention to the infrequency with which “cognitive
dispositions” are connected to “material support-systems”. This results in “communities displaced
by the technological vector – entire communities who have no share in the
information, images, languages, visions, meanings and cultural practices
related, narrowly or broadly, to radio, television and the internet” (2005, p.175). Yet while all generations utilize all
media examined, perhaps not surprisingly preference for and primary use of
radio, television, and Internet correspond almost perfectly with elder, adult,
and youth generations, respectively.
Needless to say, there potentially is much to be made of the sort of
“displacement” identified by Maass and González, particularly if the argument
can be sustained that an Internet-focused youth generation more likely relates
to a “global” rather than “local” sense of community. Maass and González are also surely correct to notice that,
probably quite often, “Media products have always been loaded with an important
symbolic content that is closely adapted to the wealthy group’s lifestyles and
to their ways of thinking and decision-making” (2005, p.177). By extension, they argue that those
with more access to mediated forms of communication are more likely to have
“more and better” memories than those with less access.
But all this
need not mean either a loss of sense of place in an accelerated culture, or
that only the wealthy are able to access more modern, globalized, and
autonomous forms of media (Roberts, 1999). That is, “displacement” may be less accurate an assessment
of what is happening than is a kind of “replacement”. For example, a study of native and immigrant youth in
Switzerland (Bonfadelli et al. 2005)
found that while incidence of media ownership was higher among Swiss households
and that the proportion of youth not using the Internet was greater in
immigrant households, immigrant youth spent more time online and computers
found in immigrant households were more often located in children’s rooms. D’Haenens, et al. (2007) found the same phenomenon in Flanders and the
Netherlands. The point here is
that different media affect the management of perception differently,
constraining some chances to assert a different sense of place, but also
opening up others. Lynch (1976)
suggested that in order to manage the sense of a place, we should realize that,
“Any inhabited landscape is a medium of communication. Its messages may be
explicit or implicit, simple or subtle.”
This suggestion takes on added significance when it is realized that
there are many types of media involved in communicating the sense of a place,
and that different generations value various forms of mediated communication in
different ways (Morley, 1989).
Certainly, it is
important to admit that immigrant youth today are especially likely to face
challenges negotiating not just host-country and country-of-origin identities,
but also issues related to their global presence via online communities that
serve as important bridges between their personal ‘“here” and ‘“there” (Elias &
Lemish, 2006). Self-concept,
social competence, and other psychosocial factors have all been shown to be
significantly related to children’s usage of media technologies in general
(Heim, et al. 2007), as is
acquisition of intercultural competences by migrant youth in particular (Wang,
2007). This becomes particularly
significant in many parts of the world. For example in Europe, where unlike the
situation twenty years ago, there is now an expected second-generation economic
decline among immigrant households (Crul & Vermeulen, 2003). There is reason to be concerned in the
United States as well, where the National Collaboration for Youth (a coalition
of youth-serving agencies that collectively serves more than 40 million youth)
claims that first and second-generation immigrant youth currently constitute
20% of the non-adult population, and that they are the fastest-growing segment
of the U.S. population under age 15 (see also Suarez-Orozco & Todorova,
2003). Under such circumstances,
chronotopic analysis has begun to be used to examine collaborative learning
activities by students as both targets of institutionalized education but also
as authors of their own responsive modifications of what they learn (Brown &
Clearly, what is needed here is a
flexible concept of generational identity. As a matter of fact, attention has long been focused on the
importance of generation as a guiding concept. For example Thomas Jefferson, in
the newly-forged United States, declared in 1789 that, “Each generation…is an
independent nation” (Boyd, 1958).
Jefferson’s view was representative of an early modern interest in
generations, believing that each cohort developed unique talents of political
leadership in isolation from one another and regardless of other factors (see
also Feuer, 1972; Samuels, 1977; Soulavie, 1803 & 1809). Nineteenth-century writing (Comte, 1968
& 1975; Aquarone, 1958; Mill, 1906) added greater complexity to the
concept, defining it more broadly and relating any given generation to all the
others alive at the same time.
While some (Cournot, 1872; Lorenz, 1886) pushed a fairly rigid concept specifying
the duration of each generation, others such as Dilthey understood the
importance of intergenerational overlap (Makkreel & Rodi, 1996) and the
potential for a certain amount of recycling of themes from one set of
generations to another (Ferrari, 1860).
In the twentieth-century, emphasis shifted focus away from the
determining experiences of generational character and toward the responses to
events demonstrated by each generation instead. Between the World Wars, Pinder (1926 & 1928) and
Peterson (1930) emphasized the possibilities of recognizing “cultural”
generations. Ortega (1961) hoped
to articulate the “vital sensitivity” which a generation had for the historical
circumstances in which it found itself at any given moment, the better to exploit
the possibilities for social action.
Mentré (1920; see also Mannheim, 1928 &1968) likewise released the
concept from rigid association with birth-years to focus instead on a
collective state of mind.
Out of this
shifting approach to the concept, what can be said of the term “generation” is
that it now applies simultaneously to one’s lineage and one’s peer group. Indeed, the “first-wave” population of
any given generation is usually parented by one generation, while the
“last-wave” of the same children is parented by the next generation (Strauss
and Howe, 1991p. 62; see also Graubard, 1979). Thus, generational identity is defined in terms of phase of
life and the cadres of people (some older, some younger) with whom one shares a
generally accepted ‘“common” sense of experience. At least four phases of life position any generation with
respect to surrounding historical circumstances: youth, rising adulthood,
midlife, and then, elderhood.
Youth is defined primarily by dependence and the acquisition or assimilation
of values. Rising adulthood is
defined primarily by activity and the testing of acquired values. Midlife is defined primarily by
leadership and direction of how values are to be used. Finally, elderhood is defined primarily
by stewardship and the passing on of values. How you respond to a given “social moment”- a juncture of
historical circumstances of special notoriety- depends on your relationship to
your peers, those in cohorts both younger and older than you, and to your
familiarity, expertise, and authority with regard to social mores. In other words, response to a social
moment depends on what phase of life you are passing through at the time.
response to a given social moment conditions your responses to future social
moments. Experiences are related to phase of life but our impressions of them
outlast the age in which they occurred.
The same can be said of how other generations view our responses to
social moments, as “polemic” or “cumulative” (Marías, 1970; see also Esler,
1974 & 1982). Strauss and Howe
(1991, p. 447) are convinced that, “During a new social moment, each generation
will redefine the central role of the phase of life it is entering in a
direction that reverses the perceived excesses of that role since the last
social moment.” Importantly, the
generational concept developed by Strauss and Howe is intimately tied to their
reading of U.S. history and consequently probably suffers limited application
to today’s more globalized, transnational, hybrid generational identities. Nonetheless, at the same time their
analysis is well connected to previous efforts to think about the significance
of generational identity.
A cornerstone of
such efforts is distinction of two types of social moments, “secular crises”
and “spiritual awakenings”, with two periods of recovery and reorientation in
between. Depending on which phase
of life one is in at the time, the cycle of social moments can influence the
development of an “inner-driven” or “outer-driven” personality. Huntington (1981) suggests an
alternating current running between these poles for each successive generation
in which “moralism eventually elicits cynicism, cynicism produces complacency,
complacency leads to hypocrisy, and hypocrisy in due course reinvigorates
moralism.” Tied up with these four
modes of public life are four generational profiles; comparing these types to
those perceived by other authors, as well as to patterns they believe can be
perceived in Exodus and The Iliad, Strauss and Howe produce the
correspondences appearing in Table 2 below.
Table 2: Public life and
Marías and Huntington
But a generation
experiences more than its public life associated with rising adulthood and
midlife, and at the heart of the Strauss and Howe concept is the notion of a
generational “diagonal” running through all four life phases. Thus, as indicated in Table 3 below,
“Civic” generations supposedly enter rising adulthood during secular crises and
elderhood during spiritual awakenings.
“Idealist” generations supposedly enter rising adulthood during
spiritual awakenings and enter elderhood during secular crises. Between the Civic and Idealist
generations are the “Adaptive” who are children during secular crises and reach
midlife during spiritual awakenings.
Behind the Idealists, is a Reactive generation that enters its adulthood
during a chaotic period of values reorientation between spiritual awakening and
the next secular crisis and reaches its elderhood during a period of recovery
after the crisis. As previously
indicated, first-wave members of a given generation (i.e., Idealists) are
children of one type (i.e., Civic) while last-wave members of the same
generation are children of the next type (i.e., Adaptive). Single-word characterizations of each
generation in each life phase by Strauss and Howe are certainly overly
simplistic and contentious but illustrative nonetheless.
Table 3: Social moments,
life phases, and generational types
Civic (hero)- protected
Adaptive (artist)- suffocated
Idealist (prophet)- indulged
Reactive (nomad)- abandoned
struggle for political and economic leadership in some communities today is
being carried on by contending members of an Idealist generation entering
elderhood and a Reactive generation in midlife. In the U.S. and Europe especially, this means that despite
Strauss and Howe’s characterization of it as “wise” and “prophetic”, the
leading generation is one which has rarely been known foremost for its
pragmatism and hence often supports media representation of the abundant
post-WWII middle class life cycle as the life cycle. Lasch (1994, p.40) reaches the same
conclusion, turning Ortega’s (1985 ) earlier fears upside down to insist
that these days it is the mostly Idealist technocratic elite rather than the
masses which takes for granted “the benefits conferred by civilization,
[demanding] them ‘peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.’” Featherstone and Hepworth (1991, p.374)
correctly emphasize that stages in the life cycle are not predetermined but
socially and culturally constructed processes.
circumstances, the rising generation is one for which a predominant dimension
of experience is absurdity. Relph (1976) wanted to follow an
existential line of thought that held that the absurd experience promotes
indifference and a feeling of powerlessness, and that under such circumstances
“preferences, choices, and values cease to be important.” But this overstates the case with
regard to the experience of today’s Reactive generation moving from young
adulthood into midlife, which is marked not only by an embrace of the absurd
but also of a highly empowering tactic of ambivalence. It’s not the case that the next
leadership generation finds value in nothing, but that its experiences to date
have cautioned it to reserve judgment and express preferences only ever
carefully and partially.
At the end of the day, triangulation on what the geographic,
technological, and generational challenges of communication in 21st-Century
communities are helps us better understand how to imagine, propose, execute,
and evaluate interventions on behalf of real people in real but rapidly
changing places. But collaboratively
connecting themes of migration, media mobility, and variable forms of memory in
such places still requires making careful investments in “social capital” (Adam
& Roncevic, 2003; Portes, 1998; Schuller, Baron, & Field 2000; etc.)
connecting members of any particular “community” together for sufficiently
common purpose. Like Lacan’s ego
ideal, Bakhtin’s chronotope, and Strauss and Howe’s generational diagonal, the
social capital concept is also highly elastic, some perspectives focusing on
participation in voluntary organizations (Putnam, 1993) while others value
social capital as embedded in less organizationally specifiable network ties
(Burt, 1997 & 2001; Granovetter, 1985; Portes and Sensenbrenner, 1993).
helpful here are perspectives that consider social capital as the even less
static intersection of social structure and social action over time (Coleman,
1988 & 1990). This keeps
intact the commitment of the general argument here to consider “community” as
something more than mere location.
A further distinction can be drawn between “bonding” and “bridging”
forms of social capital (Fernandez & Nichols, 2002; Norris, 2004; Putnam,
2000), especially helpful in examining how immigrants negotiate ways to stay
intimately connected to their original culture while contacting and modifying
their host cultures in satisfactorily sustainable ways. Under such circumstances, identifying what social capital looks like,
how it is formed, and how it is deployed is not always easy. Certainly, social capital is not merely
quantifiable (Cassidy, 2001; Paxton, 1999), even if we analytically allow for
multiple sources, forms, and reasons for its deployment (Hyden, 2001). For example, it might be visible in
intergenerational negotiations of identity vis-à-vis immigrant experience of
and with host communities, but concerning the politics of such exchanges of
social capital in rural Malawi, Weinreb (2000) wonders “how wide is the
familial support network?” But
this conceptual focus problem need not require abandonment of the concept as a
useful way of linking arguments made here earlier about the roles played by
diffusion of populations, modes of communication, and collective identities
over time. Indeed, the strength of
social capital is precisely that, unlike more concrete, definable, even
regulated forms of capital (currency exchange rates, voting tally systems,
etc.), social capital is a type of creative energy simultaneously flowing
within networks of communal interaction and re-inscribing the circuitry of
those networks on changing landscapes of communal life.
In other words, investments of social capital need not translate into
achievement of particular objectives since it is always a resource of
“contingent” value in pursuit of social change (Burt, 1997). There can be periods of intense
activity among the social networks defined by social capital flows, followed by
period of dormancy, for example regarding household welfare over time
(Maluccio, Haddad, & May, 2000; Rothberg, 2001). As suggested elsewhere (Lawrence & Mwanzia, 2004), community
consciousness describes a circle, requiring a new round of investment in social capital to reassert
those networks of familiarity existing before changed circumstances created by
collective action. This is what
Granovetter (1973) describes as the “strength of weak ties” an idea that
underscores and further enables approaches to involvement in newly emerging
forms of “”that will need to be considered inter-generationally, freeing the
idea of community from any spatially fixed context, existing as it does not
only across multiple scales but also across multiple interacting temporalities.
Clearly, mass movements of people across internal and external borders in
addition to similar tectonic
shifts of identity between generations mediated by different primary forms of
communication, require us to surrender our nostalgic obsession with defining “”in
terms of past activeness and persistent symbolization of local solidarity
(Zekeri, Wilkinson, & Humphrey, 1994, p. 229; Wilkinson, 1984 and
1991). Instead, we should try to
work out the patterns of intergenerational dialogue in any particular community
(whether as simplistic a pattern as Strauss and Howe’s “generational diagonal”
or something different), as well as to discern the “media memories” shaped by
place-particular conditions of access to and use of varied forms of
communications technology. In
short, we should learn to accept (and even valorize) a more dynamic form of “community”
than is usually defined by typical (especially bureaucratic) bordering
activities. The everyday trade in social
capital does not produce only stable conditions in a community (Coleman, 1990,p.
320; Putnam, 1993, p.177), but “thickens” or “thins” (Fox, 1995). For example, Linders and Goossens
(2004) report on the use by Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese youth in the
Netherlands to use Internet and email resources in efforts to develop both
bonding and bridging forms of social capital.
This is why the issue of how we should make sense of new forms of “community”
is fundamentally one of concern for professional Geography (among other
disciplines) since it means that we will have to be attentive to the areal
differentiation in types of 21st-Century communities. Flexible membership in terms of geographic
mobility, mediated consciousness, or current life cycle position means that we
cannot simply read off the degree and type of social capital in a community
from lists of interpersonal connections or individual possession of titles, awards,
and the like (Bourdieu, 1986; see also Kavanaugh & Patterson, 2001). Instead, we need to
think of such networks in terms of how any one of them may at one point in time
or another have a vertical, hierarchical and competitive orientation or then again
a more horizontal, mutual, and reciprocal orientation (Hébert, Lee, & Sun,
2003). It is certainly instructive
that at least one study (D’Haenens et al.,
2004) found that ethnic minority youths active online- that is, utilizing new
media to effect their generational identities both by bonding with their
originary culture and establishing bridges to better connect with their host
culture- can be more committed to social and political issues than are native
youths. If we ignore such telling
signs about the changing character of the places where the bulk of the human
population lives today, we will have missed important opportunities to
celebrate and strengthen a truly communal sense of new forms of community.
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