Fall 2008



On the move and out of reach? Challenges of communication in 21st Century communities

Mark Lawrence, Ph.D.


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.  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 communities.



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.) American culture.



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, 2002).

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.


Milan Kundera 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




Social formations

Enduring time


continuous time in which past is projected in the present and future; easily quantifiable

kinships and locality groupings (particularly rural peasant societies and patriarchal structures)

Deceptive time

organized society

long and slowed down duration masking sudden and unexpected crises and ruptures between past and present

large cities and political ‘publics’; charismatic and theocratic societies

Erratic time

social roles, collective attitudes (fashion) and technical mixes

time of uncertainty and accentuated contingency in which present prevails over past and future

non-political ‘publics’ (social movements and fashion-followers); classes in process of formation






Cyclical time

mystical unions

past, present and future projected into each other accentuating continuity within change; diminuation of contingency

astrology-followers; archaic societies in which mythological, mystical, and magical beliefs prevail

Retarded time

social symbols

future becomes present so late as to be outmoded as soon as it is crystallized

community and its social symbols; guilds, professions etc.- feudalism

Alternating time

rules, signals, signs and collective conduct

past and future compete in the present; discontinuity without contingency

dynamic economic groups; transition epochs (inception of capitalism)

Time in advance of itself (rushing forward)

collective transformative action and innovation

discontinuity, contingency; qualitative change triumphant; the future becomes present

competitive capitalism; speculation



Explosive time

revolutionary ferment and collective creation

present and past dissolved into a transcendent future

revolutions and radical transformations of global structures


Especially as 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 Schein, 2002).


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 & Renshaw, 2006).

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. 


Moreover, your 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 generational cycles


Strauss and Howe



Marías  and Huntington


Littré and Ferrari




The Iliad








Revolutionary, moral


Aaron, Moses-



Nestor- wise


Anti-custom, cynical

Reactionary, industrial


Goldern Calf- sinful

Agamemnon- cunning


Outer-driven, complacent (institutionalizing)


Harmonizing, scientific

Joshua- heroic

Odysseus- hubristic


Stereotyped, hypocritical


Preparatory, aesthetic

Judges- fragmented

Telemachus- deferential


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


Social moment:







Secular Crisis






Spiritual Awakening

Life phase:


Adaptive- empathic

Idealist- wise

Reactive- tough

Civic- civic


Idealist- moralistic

Reactive- pragmatic

Civic- powerful

Adaptive- indecisive

Rising Adulthood

Reactive- alienated

Civic- heroic

Adaptive- sensitive

Idealist- visionary


Civic (hero)- protected

Adaptive (artist)- suffocated

Idealist (prophet)- indulged

Reactive (nomad)- abandoned


Arguably, the 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 [1930]) 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.


Under contemporary 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). 


Probably most 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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