Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Media in the Middle East: Or "What I'll be doing all through summer"

So, I haven't been posting much recently (the long ago written bit on Logicomix notwithstanding), and this has basically been because, for us Postgrads, its dissertation time, or at least, dissertation proposal time. So, while I'm going to write something about the Danish drama 'The Killing' soon, I thought I'd justify myself by writing up a quick summary of my proposal. It'll help me get my thoughts in line, and maybe someone will find it interesting!

So, I want to look at the media, particularly the internet, in the Arab World. Yeah, I know, its very original, but bear with me. Firstly, there are two ways people are looking at these 'Facebook revolutions' in Egypt and Tunisia. One group of people reckon its a cause of the revolution, the majority of the rest of people think its just a tool. The tool interpretation is basically uninteresting, except to say “could this have happened without the tool?” (answer: probably yes). Its also difficult to analyse this close to the event. The more interesting interpretation is that since the emergence of 'new media' 20 years or so ago, cultural attitudes have been changed and altered by this media. These changes and shifts in society have contributed to the changed perceptions necessary for the current social revolutions to occur. Sounds a bit more interesting doesn't it.

To explain further, lets think about how the media in the Middle East has been analysed in the past. Generally it was viewed as a 'public sphere', a sphere for free discourse where the relation between state and society could be rationally discussed and transformed. This idea was taken from a theory Habermas came up with to describe a phenomenon he perceived in the emergence of democracy in Europe. Unfortunately it doesn't quite translate well to the Middle East. Not only is the media debate punctured by state censorship, and cultural intolerances, as well as the media's commercial bias, but the authoritarian states themselves have no interest, or reason, to take any notice of these debates. Arguments on Al Jazeera don't translate into state policy. So, the media in the Middle East is viewed as a LARGE public sphere, but a WEAK one.

However, that isn't to say that the media isn't causing changes in people's social attitudes, even if it isn't affecting state policy. So, Marc Lynch, in a great book, set out to describe and define the public sphere of satellite television (particularly Al Jazeera) to understand what the message and underlying norms were that were being absorbed by the eagerly watching Arab population. He saw argumentative debate, self reflection, and diverse opinions being aired and theorised that these norms were being inculcated in the watching Arab population, creating profound shifts in social thinking. Unfortunately, this hasn't gone beyond theory. No-one yet has come up with a conclusive study to link television programming in the Middle East to a shift in public attitudes and norms. Mostly this is to do with the difficulty of gathering public opinion data in the Arab World, and the lack of existing data. So, this remains a theory.

I would love to be the one to prove Lynch's arguments, but the difficulties noted above apply even more to me, as a postgraduate student with limited funds and time. So, I want to look sideways slightly. Lynch's study was essential, you need to define what the influences of the media ARE (I.e. what are the messages behind what people are watching) before you can assess their impact on the viewers (the bit that's missing from the academic literature). But Lynch was only looking at satellite television, for good reason. However, I want to try and emulate his study with the internet. I want to try and define and document the content and boundaries of the Arab Public Sphere on the internet. Again, if I can document the underlying message and influence of the relevant internet content, I can both theorise as to its effects and also set the stage for future studies to empirically assess its impact, just as Lynch did with Al Jazeera.

So, this is my dissertation, to analyse internet viewing habits in the Middle East, and to assess the content that is being viewed and read, with the aim of perhaps gaining some understanding of how it might be affecting social attitudes in the region. Right, well, here goes!

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