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Mass communication is a constitutive part of social life and experience across the world today, affecting how people work, practice religion, engage in politics, understand others, and so on. Indeed, in many world contexts, social actors interact with mass media on a daily basis. In doing so, they not only consume or produce media artifacts but also participate in publics. A public is a particular kind of social form that coalesces as discourse circulates among, and thereby creates, audiences of mutual attention. Through participants’ ongoing orientation to and engagement with circulation of texts and images, publics produce social arenas that link disparate persons into collectivities of shared interests, issues, and convictions. Some publics are large, general, and sustained, such as those centered on national news. Other publics focus on particular topics, such as those related to religious communities, political ideologies, marked social identities, professional worlds, or even hobby and fan cultures. Others still are relatively small scale, such as those formed among the diffuse groupings of friends and acquaintances connected on social media platforms. As venues constituted by the circulation of discourse, publics have wide-ranging social and political consequences. The interests and identities that they privilege and presuppose shape broader processes of social belonging, exclusion, and contestation. Publics ground claims to political authority through assertions of the public interest. Publics also mediate contemporary consumer capitalism, as when advertising targets particular networks of public circulation. In short, publics lie at the center of contemporary social formations and political economies. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere examines how practices and structures of mass communication mediate and generate wider forms of social and political organization. How do publics normalize some identities while marginalizing others? Under what conditions can publics emerge as political actors? How do dominant public spheres shape political cultures? In taking on these questions, anthropologists attend to the regimes of publicity; that is, constellations of participation norms, social imaginaries, media infrastructures, language ideologies, and metadiscourses that organize publics. This analytic perspective illuminates both how normative publicity is reproduced and challenged and to what effect. In addition, in focusing on discursive circulation, scholarship on publics has pushed anthropologists to develop research methodologies that go beyond face-to-face, participant observation as a tool of data collection. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere has thus emerged as a theoretically generative and methodologically innovative field that endeavors to illuminate mass communication and its implications for social life. In doing so, it has generated novel theoretical understandings of mass media, power and affect, consumption and capitalism, identity, belonging and exclusion, and the bases and limits of democratic representation.

Article

All living kinds, human and nonhuman, require rights to water. A UN Declaration upholds rights to clean drinking water and basic sanitation for humans, and some environmental legislation seeks to assure minimal flows of water in ecosystems. However, such rights are situated within complex social and political relations that are often far from equal. The distribution and management of water is entangled in issues such as ethnicity, class, gender, and levels of enfranchisement, and is heavily dependent upon how beliefs and values about water are represented in dominant narratives. Although water has been regarded a “common good” for millennia, many forms of collective ownership of freshwater have been overridden by colonial appropriations and by attempts to enclose and privatize water resources and to reframe them as commercial assets. An accelerating global water crisis caused by climate change, intensifying farming, and the over-allocation of water resources reveals unsustainable pressures on freshwater ecosystems. There have been concomitant losses of access to water for less powerful human communities, and most particularly for nonhuman beings. As a result, approximately two hundred species become extinct every day. Widespread environmental degradation has caused indigenous communities to critique the exploitative practices of colonial societies and to promote alternate and more egalitarian visions of human-nonhuman relationships. Inspired by these alternate cultural beliefs and values, and sometimes in alliance with indigenous people, conservation organizations and environmental activists have sought ecological justice to protect nonhuman beings and their habitats. Many are demanding that the UN should declare “rights for nature” and that the International Court of Criminal Justice should define “ecocide” as an international crime. Anthropologists have challenged dominant dualisms about culture and nature, providing accounts of diverse cultural worldviews in which all living kinds inhabit a nonbifurcated world. They have underlined the fluid interelationalities between human and nonhuman beings and the material environment. Building on a strong disciplinary history of advocating for human rights, they are exploring ways to articulate nonhuman needs and interests, for example, in new forms of river catchment management. There is growing consensus about the need to encourage forms of “pan-species democracy” that will ensure that all living kinds have sufficient rights to water and to the conditions that enable them to flourish.