DebraSpitulnik, Social Circulation and Mass Media

Spitulnik, D. (1996). The Social Circulation of Media Discourse and the Mediation of Communities. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 6(2), 161-187.

Spitulnik is writing out of Gumperz’s language change model of speech communities. She seeks to answer to questions: is mass media necessary for the construction of community in large-scale societies and does it make sense to speak of a speech communities in a nation-state with no one common language?

161- communication from mass media is ever linked with other utterances, past and present events, and ongoing practices of everyday life.

Her research question is how intertextuality mediates communities. (162) “We will see how radio’s impact on everyday language extends from the introduction of single lexical items and catchphrases to the shifting of semantic fields and the modeling of discourse styles.”

Speech communities questions the transportability of speech forms from one context to another (conditions of decontextualization and recontextualization) and the idea around circulation.

The article’s vantage point is about social circulation of media discourse in Zambian culture; public accessibility (162) is vital to producing shared meaning, yet Spitulnik argues the opposite, that shared meaning gets re-circulated out.

  • Implications of social circulation of media discourse
    • Evidence that particular kinds of social situations and social institutions have more weight than others.
    • Questions the definition of speech community and its applicability to large scale societies. (163)

“And finally, as suggested earlier, questions concerning the production of shared linguistic knowledge, while greatly vexed, can be productively reworked to include analysis of how certain institutions provide common linguistic reference points.” (163)

While textual acts of asserting or indexing collective identity are impor- tant, they do not guarantee that this identity actually corresponds to any- thing at the experiential level. (164)

  • Use of Anderson’s Imagined Communities (164); biggest draw back is the inability to see if the national imaginary corresponds to the experiential/local level; there is a need to look at reception.
  • Spitulnik specifically looks at recycled radio expressions (165); radio is most widely consumed media.

As we investigate the semiotics of how this radio discourse circulates, four basic issues will concern us: (1) the inherent reproducibility and transportability of radio phrases; (2) the “dialogic [or intertextual] over- tones” (Bakhtin 1986:92) that are carried over into the new context of use; (3) the formal, functional, and semantic alterations that occur in the recon- textualization; and (4) the degree to which knowledge of the original radio source is relevant for understanding the recycled phrase.

  • Public words (166)
    • Four reasons on why things circulate: Overtones, indexicality, reproducibility, easily decontextualizable (165)
  • Metapragmatic discourse (167)—realm of radio into contexts of face-to-face communication;
    • 1) transparency of both form and function
    • 2) because it’s speech it can easily be translated to other speech contexts
    • 3) detachability and repeatability of the radio expression can be fueled by the medium itself (leading to prominence)
  • Hello Kitwe example (168)
  • “Over to you”
  • Lingua-Franca: pressure of trying to make a living; speak play/fun
  • Radio creates idioms, and innovative tropes and analogies; metapragmatic discourse (transparency and prominence) prime it for detachability; (180)
  • Bigger implications from both language change and the construction of public cultures and speech communities (182)
  • In future research, Spitulnik hopes to include factors like consumption of media and large scale exposure to media (181); generally radio expressions can be taken up generally or specifically to a demographic.

Addressing the thorny question of the construction of communities is a much more difficult task than discovering the various semiotic and cultural conditions that propel the social circulation of media discourse. I have claimed that mass media provide common reference points for the production of shared linguistic knowledge and that the social circulation of media discourse is just one case of the subtle linguistic connections that exist across populations that stretch over regional and national boundaries. 181

182- The evidence here suggests that recycling media discourse and even the existence of such “detachables” are part of a much more general process of language use, or social life of language, which intersects (but precedes) the postmodern, pop-culture era, and the advent of mass media as widespread, public communication forms. In fact, it seems equally the case that the radio recyclings discussed here are not really exemplars of a postmodern condition per se, but rather they are evidence of the more general heteroglossic nature of language.

The population demonstrates their commonality/shared experience by using the phrase, and it creates the public through the media.

Spitulnik, D. (1993). Anthropology and Mass Media. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:293-315.

Mass Media- defined in the convention sense as the electronic media of radio, television, film, and recorded music and the print media of newspapers, magazines, and popular literature-are at once artifacts, experiences, practices, and processes. They are economically and politically driven, linked to developments in science and technology, and like most domains of human life, their existence is inextricably bound up with the use of language. Given these various modalities and spheres of operation, there are numerous angles for approaching mass media anthropologically: as institutions, as workplaces, as communicative practices, as cultural products, as social activities, as aesthetic forms, and as historical developments. (293)

294- one enduring concern is “the power” of mass media, in particular their roles as vehicles of culture.

297- In Hall’s early encoding-decoding model, audiences are seen as active decoders (instead of passive recipients) of media messages, who accept, reject, or resist what is conveyed based on their own class position within society.

299- the ethnographic turn in media studies, audience reception, media consumption embedded in the culture of media production

300- analysis of media helps critique orientalism and colonialism.

303- indigenous media; mass media is at once cultural product and social process and political arena.

306- new directions: 1) mass media as assistant to imagined, national community/state; 2) constructing social relations, 3) media production and reception

307- what is media’s implication for fundamental and irreversible social and cultural change?

Spitulnik, D. (1998) Mediating Unity and Diversity: The Production of Language Ideologies in Zambian Broadcasting. In Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. Oxford University Press: New York.

Spitulnik’s chapter within the anthology, Language Ideologies, is about the role of powerful institutions in the production and reproduction of language ideologies (Spitulnik, 163). Institutions, specifically Radio Zambia, produce and reproduce language ideologies in their everyday practice of production. Overall, her argument is about how language valuation and evaluation is influenced by the consumption and production of media. It’s all about social power. Social values and referents become tied with language speech (Spitulnik, 164).

In Zambia, there are seven national languages for 73 ethnic groups. These ethnic groups allegedly differ only in culture. As well, Zambia operates under two competing philosophies: “One Zambia, One nation” and ethnic pluralism (Spitulnik, 168). These philosophies stay at odds with each other because one forges a unified national identity while the other appreciates division and difference. However, the amount and type of presence each difference has creates a hierarchy between languages. Spitulnik demonstrates this by examining Radio Zambia in three ways: (1) allocation of radio airtime, (2) evaluations of each channel and each of the 7 zambian radio languages in juxtaposition to the country’s official language (English), and (3) accommodating the interests of 73 ethnic groups through the programming constraints of the seven national languages (167). Broadcast practice helps keep the dichotomy between Zambian language and English, as well as, the internal Zambian language hierarchy fluid and naturalized. Social division and value for language is created by the combining the three aforementioned facets of production. Spitulnik said it best when she wrote, “radio broadcasting must be seen as both a source and a result of language evaluation” (Spitulnik, 175).

In the end, the chapter overall asks, how can 73 ethnic groups be represented in 7 languages? The answer is they can’t, at least not equally. Spitulnik specifically asks her audience further which unit of representation is adequate to measure ethnolinguistic equality. She concludes by saying language ideologies are both produced and reproduced in various media practices, which leads to a dichotomy of language valuation and evaluation. Different social values are linked with different languages. Radio Zambia perpetuates two opposing concepts: a sociolinguistic hierarchy and ethnolinguistic egalitarianism.


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