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Centre for Media Studies

Emerging digital cultures in Asia and Africa - Theory and Practice

Course Code:
15PMSH018
Unit value:
0.5
Taught in:
Term 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate…

  • A solid understanding of the historical background and theoretical debates dealing with new digital technologies and forms;
  • The conceptual tool set and critical vocabulary necessary to understand the key debates around digital economy and some of the vocabulary (‘buzzwords’) that are commonly used to describe it;
  • An appreciation of the problems that get raised when we want to understand the cultural specificity of the use of digital technology in the different contexts in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world where digital technologies are applied to development;
  • A basic capability in the practical use of these new digital technologies for conducting, sharing and disseminating research and the methods and tools best suited for this purpose;
  • The ability to identify key research areas and problems needed to pursue their own particular research interests.

Scope and syllabus

This course introduces the students to the existing debates around 'new media', 'digital cultures' 'web 2.0', 'media 2.0' from a distinctly non-Western perspective.  Most of the research done on these emerging digital technologies – social software, weblogs, virtual realities, MMPORG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) etc. – have so far focused predominantly on the US and Northern Europe.  Yet some of the most interesting developments are taking place elsewhere.  In Korea, for instance, online games have surpassed television in popularity with the best players becoming national celebrities.  In Africa, mobile phones are rapidly shifting social relationships even in rural areas previously untouched by the telecommunications. In Iran, weblogs have emerged as the new turbulent political space where the future of the country is being debated.  Much of this, however, is still ignored by mainstream media research. What therefore unites these divergent developments is the challenge they pose, both theoretical and practical, for global media studies in the 21st century.  

The course therefore asks two broad questions. The first is whether the theoretical legacies of older media such as print, radio and television still applicable for researching these emerging digital media systems in diverse places such as Asia and Africa?  The second is to which degree are the categories of investigation that we use to understand these developments still embedded in the historical experience of US and Europe and, as a result, what new critical frameworks perhaps would be needed to understand the cultural specificity of different regions?

With these two concerns in mind, the course aims to address some of the methodological and theoretical problems that are raised when we want to understand emerging digital cultures in Asia and Africa. It incorporates a historical perspective to the debates around digital media from a variety of disciplines including anthropology, media studies and cultural studies to computing, cybernetics and information studies and applies these critically to a range of case studies globally.  However, unlike other introductory courses to 'new media' or 'digital culture', the course does not aim to be a comprehensive account of a rapidly shifting and emerging field of research.  Instead, it aims in providing students the tools – both theoretical and methodological – to begin independently investigating the issues that get raised. It thus aims at providing the students with a balanced understanding of the theoretical debates surrounding digital media today; but, as importantly, some of the practical tools needed to explore emerging phenomena such as Second Life or online gaming.  The course actively encourages students to get involved in the debates globally as well as use such new digital media forms for conducting, promoting and publishing research in multiple environments.

It is clear that with the expansion of media and screen studies at SOAS and the expansion of the Centre for Media and Film studies, a new strong digital media component needs to be developed.  The course will therefore serve a double purpose: it will look at the most recent developments in digital media in Asia and Africa and thus provide an addition to the courses looking at media from a distinctly non-Western perspective.  

As importantly, it will provide an important exploration of the practice/theory continuum in digital media and build on the participatory nature of new digital forms by offering a computer lab where students learn a range of digital skills and gain experience from actual participation in on-line games and simulations. A diary kept through the course will help students articulate the theory-practice issues as they experience them. The course therefore complements the current media practice offerings in the School while offering a theoretically-grounded introduction to a field that is paramount for understanding media and development practices today.  

With an increasing number of students interested in MA and PhD research on digital media, the course will offer them the basic tools to understand the key issues that get raised. The course may also be of interest to students across SOAS, especially in development studies, politics and anthropology.

Method of assessment

Coursework: one 5,000 words essay worth 100% of mark