Civic Proportions: Jill and Jagruti in Community and Society

“(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” – An HPA staff member

“… there is something both exhilarating and disheartening about the graph of civil society responses this year. At one level, the public outcry against the miscarriage of justice in the Jessica (Lall) and Priyadarshini (Mattoo) cases has truly been a spontaneous act of citizenship from people normally not given to acts of citizenship. At the India Gate rally for Jessica, for instance, there was no mistaking the anger, the yearning for something purer… But a curious theatricality underran the entire evening. People were acting in unconscious facsimile. Several people who took the mike that day referred to Rang De Basanti: at times it seemed more than the injustice itself, the film was their inspiration. It had not just intuited a latent public mood; in a curious twist, it had become the mood itself.” – Shoma Chaudhury, writing in Tehelka on 01.07.07

I. [Introduction]

Community : Society

A. Community

When I came to the communication program at USC Annenberg a little over a year ago, I was puzzled by what people meant when they used the word “community”.

Examples (made-up or otherwise) of such usage are:

1a. “The PhD community at Annenberg is tightly-knit, kept apart only by people’s busy schedules.”

1b. “Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods are unified by a distinctive feeling of community.”

1c. “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4)

1d. “(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” (Member of the HPA interviewed by Ritesh on 8.14.10)

I asked myself: what do people mean when they use “community” in these instances? Is it similar to or different from the notion of “society”? In the India (Bombay) where I grew up, people hardly ever used the word “community”, let alone in the above manners. I am still in the process of grasping how “community” is used in America. In fact, the last usage example (1d), paraphrased from an interview conducted during our summer research with a member of the HPA, brought out most clearly one understanding of ‘community’. I tentatively put it forth as:

“a network of localized, neighbor-like involvements, geographical or virtual, through which one develops a sense of group identity, feels belonging with members of the group who are united by a sense of important purpose, and via whose goals and causes one contributes to the world-at-large.”

This understanding of ‘community’ is from the point of view of an individual member, and includes the aspect ‘contribution to a cause greater than oneself’ that is not lent to more generic understandings alluded in 1a-c above. For example, the understanding of “PhD community” in 1a does not suggest this aspect.

B. Society

What then do I mean by “society”? Let’s look at some examples of usage (made-up or not): [Read more…]

Methodologies for the Civically Engaged (shared reading)

What innovative methods can fans and/or the civic-minded employ in order to engage in civics, politics, activism, charity, or active community?

Here, I want to share the following papers that directly address or allude to methodology: Photo Voice, Alternative Media (Small-format videos), and Global Microstructures. Thanks to my colleagues Nan Zhao and Lana Swartz for bringing my attention to Photo Voice and Global Microstructures respectively.

Photo Voice and Small-format videos can potentially enable civic-minded groups to innovatively document their observations, express their feelings and voice their concerns with regard to the communities or peoples they want to bring attention to. E.g., with Invisible Children, wouldn’t it be interesting if the organization facilitated bottom-up production of videos and photo collages, in addition to attracting membership via its own cool, top-down ‘branding’ videos? Members of IC would become documentary photographers and filmmakers, and as IC looks beyond Uganda for its raison d’etre, its members would be armed with new methods to showcase the plight of newer afflicted peoples, or more wondrous still, let those peoples document themselves.

Global microstructures are difficult to implement as a methodology, since as the authors observe, these microstructures are emergent and “temporally complex”. However, it is not inconceivable that civic participation could / does occur in this format. If so, it is important for researchers to be on the look out for, and for orchestrators to understand in order to execute . After all, terrorist cells a la Al Qaeda, this article discusses, allegedly operate as global microstructures.

Links to articles:

Wang, C. & Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology and use for participatory needs assessment. Health, Education & Behavior, Vol 24 (3): 369-387.

Caldwell, J. T. (2003). Alternative media in suburban plantation culture. Media, Culture & Society, Vol 25: 647-667.

Cetina, K. (2005). Complex global microstructures: the new terrorist societies. Theory, Culture and Society, 5, 213-234.

“Mobile Publics” & “Flash Activism”: Comparing explanations for the socio-civic movements in the wake of Indian Idol 3 and Rang De Basanti

In this blog post, I take preliminary steps towards outlining the similarities and differences between the concept of “mobile publics” proffered by Aswin Punathambekar (forthcoming) to characterize the fan activism generated in the Indian state of Meghalaya in support of its resident Amit Paul during his participation in the third season of Indian Idol in 2007; and the twin concepts of “flash activism” and “flash fandom” that I informally put forth ( while describing the case of the 2006 Bollywood film Rang De Basanti’s role in inspiring civic participation to demand justice in the high profile trial following the murder of model Jessica Lall. I will briefly discuss the two concepts in context of the cases they illuminate, before delineating the similarities and differences between them.

[Read more…]