Behind the Screens: Jenna Burrell

Welcome to the first post of the Visual and New Media Review’s video blog, Behind the Screens. This blog shines light on how anthropologists are exploring the production, circulation, and reception of media (and, often, two or all of these at once). It seeks to highlight the ways in which anthropologists are challenging media studies paradigms from which people often seem to be absent and to clarify the key arguments and interventions that anthropologists offer the study of media, especially as they push against received wisdom and popular assumptions. In a world seemingly saturated by screens and by truisms about a “mediated world” or the “age of the Internet,” this blog profiles social scientists who are advancing our understandings of how media technologies come to inflect, and are also given meaning by, situated cultural norms and practices.

This blog is intended for a broad audience—anthropologists of media, graduate students, undergraduates, the broader anthropological community, and the interested public. We are all confronted by the many dimensions of mediation, both in our own lives and in those of the people with whom we work. This blog will feature key texts from the forefront of ethnography and its theories of media in order to allow all of us to better apprehend the dynamic intersections of technology and social life, as well as the politics of representation, access, accessibility, and ownership that inhere in processes and infrastructures of mediation.

Behind the Screens intends to be as accessible and clearly organized as possible to facilitate—in the spirit, perhaps, of the digital revolution—users’ ability to find the content most relevant to their own interests. Each video blog entry will feature the following four chapters, in the form of video clips:

  • An introduction of the scholar and her or his latest project.

  • The scholar’s response to the question, “What does your ethnography help us to understand about social realities behind the screens?”

  • The scholar’s discussion of three or four key interventions advanced in her or his work.

  • A discussion of “(field)work to be done,” in which the scholar talks about what she or he sees on the horizons of media research.

Each video clip will be preceded by a brief summary of its content. You can expect a new Behind the Screens post every two to three months. Questions and suggestions can be directed to the blog’s editor, Damien Stankiewicz. Stay tuned.

Jenna Burrell 

Text: Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (MIT Press, 2012)

Chapter 1: Introduction

  • An introduction to the blog.

  • Jenna Burrell majored in computer science and worked at Intel before pursuing her PhD.

  • Jenna’s thoughts on the difference between sociology (in which she has her PhD) and anthropology, especially in regards to media studies.

Chapter 2: What is Behind the Screens?

  • Assumptions about who’s behind scam emails: Ghanaian youth and the search for opportunity and access.

  • The assumption that misspellings or grammatical errors signal a lack of education or naïveté when it comes to Internet use. Ghanaian youth are, in fact, very savvy and this orthography actually highlights Ghanaian users’ privileging of content over style.

  • Internet use among Ghanaian youth is quite varied: not only located in Internet cafés but in many kinds of spaces, which required Jenna to move beyond her original fieldsite of the café itself.

Chapter 3: Key Interventions

  • “Weak” versus “strong” materiality.

  • The contradictions of access to the Internet as mobility. Ghanaian youth can access popular culture and media from places far from Ghana—India, the United States, etc.—but only on the screen: in other words, a kind of (im)mobility.

  • Beyond the digital divide: toward nuancing material and infrastructural inequalities.

  • Fieldwork as a network: multisitedness for digital ethnography.

Clip 4: (Field)Work Still to be Done

  • Where do the computers come from? Tracking the movement of digital infrastructure, especially between the global North and global South.

  • More work needed on cell phones, which are more central than computers to social life in Ghana (and the relationship of cell phones to computers?).