If community media is to be understood as a multi-dimensional social experience, then focussing on alternative ways to gather evidence, and alternative ways to frame that evidence, must be accompanied with a theoretical framework that enables us to tell different kinds of stories. Stories that encapsulate emergent experience rather than simply lists of categories, however diligently compiled. Theorising is just a fancy way of saying that we are trying to develop a thinking tool that might provide useful assistance in the various circumstances that we are concerned with. A telescope, for example, is a powerful instrument for looking at the stars, but it is in no way suited, in day-to-day experience, to reading a book. We might be able to adapt a telescope to do this, but casual reading is not the primary expectation we have of a telescope’s function. Selecting and operating the most effective theoretical tools, therefore, needs careful planning, because the thinking tools that we use will have a profound impact on the type of stories, the analysis, that we are able to tell. Our gazing at the wonders of the universe on either a macroscopic or a microscopic scale, changes our perspectives, and we might want to be able to switch imaginatively between each view and their intermediary positions. Rule nothing our, rule everything in, as long as it serves a purpose seems a good way to proceed at first.
My contention, then, is that emergent and indeterminant practices of community media will be better attended to and understood if the framework of assessment and evaluation can be changed to suit the different dimensions of what actually takes place in society. It’s okay to discuss these things in a policy-development focus group or an academic seminar, but the real work is undertaken when ordinary people are fumbling their way through the process of creating, producing and sharing their own media. When they are making things up as they go along, or when they are imitating examples of media that they have valued elsewhere, or even when they want to be disruptive and challenge the status quo by producing content for incendiary effect.
Encapsulating this dynamic and multivalent approach requires, therefore, a return to a sociological stance in which the seeker of understanding admits that they are unsure of what is going. They are on the same level as those that are closest to the action. Rather than seeking certainty, we are attempting to pull ideas from the margins, as they emerge, and as they are conjoin from one delineated state to another. We are seeking to understand the process of development, transformation and growth. This is the opposite of most academic studies, which postulate a hypothesis first, then adopt, say, a systems methodology, or a behaviourist methodology, or a historiographic methodology in order to account for the evidence that is attributed to the phenomenon we experience. What don’t often do is learn to allow the flower to unfold first before we ascribe significance. We need, therefore, to figure out how to get into the lifeworlds of the people who are engaging in the emergent practices and relationships. We have to be sensitive enough to figuring out what the individual and social expectations are that are converging together, in lived practice and experience. As Herbert Blumer noted about the process of industrialisation:
“Faced by the new social structure that grows up around the array of positions and occupations introduced by industrialisation, the natural disposition of scholars is to ascribe this social structure to the industrialising process. Yet, when one analyses carefully what takes place, he becomes aware that such an ascription while facile is grossly inadequate” (Blumer, 1990, p. 59).
This is not to denigrate systems theory or transactional analysis approaches. They both produce outstanding and far reaching insight and understanding of social the field. But, and as I indicated earlier, this can get bogged down in the functionality of drawing the map, rather than living in the landscape itself. It would be detrimental if we did not pay attention to these categorising approaches, but only if we keep in mind that we might limit our thinking by using a narrow set of theoretical tools by doing so. We might get absorbed in the task of naming things with a high degree of terminological precision, or classification, but in doing so, we might also miss the different insights that can be gained when we attend to alternative, emergent, developmental and formative practices. Many of these practices will be contradictory and dissonant, they may well be incongruity and dysfunctional, as alternative and emergent approaches often are. Intellectual pluralism, however, is essential if we are to grasp the multidimensionality of our shared lives, thereby avoiding reducing them merely to transactions or information in a system.
In contemporary Western culture we tend to give weight to logos, eros and cosmos. The legacy of Enlightenment thinking, which strongly advocates a rationalistic and positivist mindset, has undoubtedly brough us great advantages. Most of us would not benefit from the gift of extended and globalised lives, if it was not for our reliance on modern science and technological expertise. We have to keep in mind, however, that these forms of thinking themselves were part of a shift of the centre of gravity in human understanding away from an entirely different world view. The pre-Copernican cosmological world view saw the world as it was ordained and set out by god. Thomas Kuhn’s famous account of the paradigm shift of which Copernicus’ theories where emblematic, identified the ways in which men (sic) had previously been situated, prior to the Reformation, as part of, and within a godly order. Men where just below the angels in importance. In a post-Copernican view, however, man’s status and position shifted. Man (i.e. humanity) was now to be situated the centre of the universe, and god was displaced to the side-lines.
The shift to a humanist paradigm delegitimised the status of the symbolic holy order as the central force shaping human endeavour in Western society. Science, technology and reason became the new primary frameworks of understanding and evaluation. This is not a dry or charmless way of looking at the world, for we still explore the world around us in relation to the feelings that we have for it, as eros, and we still take great pleasure in the romantic contemplation of the world. Likewise, we still seek to understand the wonderous nature of the cosmological magnitude. We are awed by the understanding that chance, time and scale are what enable the dice-of-life to be thrown enough times to have resulted in our own individual sense of consciousness. We are hidden away in an unremarkable corner of the universe, no more than a chance speck of dust among an infinity of dust scattered throughout the universe. And while many no longer hold fast to the view that there was a single creator of the entire universe, we still can’t help wondering, though, about our role in this cosmology, and to what extent our life matters? It is incredible that we are able to count the number of stars in the visible universe, while also holding to a sense of wonder, as we consider the meaningful relationships we have with one another.
What has largely been diminished in our lives, however, is the role and the importance of mythos. The seeking of meaning in archetypal recurring stories. We depend on myth as the primary source of comprehension that enabled us to make sense of the infinite universe. We look for those things that resonate and inform who we are within a shared set of symbolic meaning practices. Carl Jung noted that in modern society we have lost our appreciation of the numinous (Jung, 2016). That which is sacred, and which we can only wonder about. In many ways we still do maintain and seek that which is sacred, but we now tend to associate this desire with appreciation for footballers or celebrities.
Fandom and personality worship are an attempt to be close to something that is special, which transcends the ordinary human experience. Football retains its symbolic importance, while religion is been relegated to a niche of social identification. Football unites all tribes, all colours, all worldviews. While religion is viewed as the source of conflict. Many put aside their social differences in order to follow and support a team that they identify with, despite the fact that to the uninitiated observer they appear to be largely interchangeable and indistinguishable. People see what they want to see in their football heroes. With football and other sports, we can express otherwise held-back emotions, hopes, desires, and a sense of common and shared identity. This affective level of communication isn’t simply transactional; it isn’t the result of mass brainwashing; it isn’t the result of the promise of wealth and riches. It is the result of an identification with the mythological. The athletic prowess of the heroes of ancient times, who live a life of glory and reward that is celebrated in song, and which forms a deep strata in our communal understanding and collective unconscious.
We still live with myth running through our lives, though we don’t often get the opportunity to discuss our experiences in relation to the mythological frameworks and symbols we have inherited from the past. Our lives are no longer controlled by the gods. Our mistakes are the result of our own ineptitude, or our bad character and morals. Fate no longer has a grip on our lives because we can ascertain what the future holds for us through data analysis and information processing. The gods and heroes are entertainment on the screen, not the controllers of fate and destiny. We have replaced symbols with technical proficiency. We now spend billions, and the largest global companies are driven to the heights of the market on the back of analytical systems that are capable of recording and mapping out our patterns of behaviour. The data processing that is possible on a global scale can and predict our likely wants and desires in measurable and compelling ways.
Why else would Dominic Cummings, the Prime Ministers chief advisor, be seeking to reform the UK government by employing more data analysis experts. Numerically driven scientists (wizards to many), are said to be able to shape the narrative flow of our existence based on statistical flows of real time information and probabilities. Artificial intelligence is the ubiquitous sages of our age. The people who come up with the most accurate predictive models make themselves indispensable to the running of the state and society. They can distort public policy with diagrams and charts that confirm or deny what is happening according to flows of information. The battle for dominance in the globalised economy of the twenty-first century is over who has the most effective data modelling systems, and who can use those systems to predict what might happen.
We are in danger, however, of becoming one-sided and unbalanced. If we only view the world based on this technocratic and functional worldview, we risk dislocating the harmony of our psyche. Looking at, being caught in the information slipstream has great utility, but it lacks soul, and it lacks meaningful engagement. This is the meaning crisis in action. The division of the word into functional and instrumental behavioural logics, sequenced in algorithms, integrated and captured in applications and programmes that we carry with us, but largely lifeless and meaningless. As Joel M. Charon notes:
“Human beings are now to be understood as social, interactional, and symbolic by their very nature. Those who see only the physical, who measure only that which is directly observable, miss the whole essence of the human being” (Charon, 1995, p. 29).
We must therefore renew our devotion and critical energies to understanding the essential values and symbolic frameworks within which patterns of social behaviour emerge because they are part of a relationship forming process, an identity forming process, the process that leads to a sense of belonging. We need to keep appraising and revaluating how the patterns of engagement that are enacted between one another emerge. How does the affective, i.e. emotional/feeling driven, meaning making processes operate and resonant in different lifeworlds (Prus, 1996, 1997, 1999). In taking a social-symbolic (i.e. a symbolic interactionist) view of our use of media, we may be able to better understand what the processes are that are driving what’s going on, and the field of interaction that is at play. Take note from Carl Jung when he suggests that:
“We should understand that dream symbols are for the most part manifestations of a psyche that is beyond the control of the conscious mind. Meaning and purposefulness are not the prerogatives of the mind; they operate in the whole of living nature. There is no difference in principle between organic and psychic growth. As a plant produces its flower, so the psyche creates its symbols. Every dream is evidence of this process” (Jung, 1978, p. 53).