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Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President

2004-2005 Provost Lecture Series

Anthropology of the Global Mediascape: A Research & Teaching Perspective
Monday, April 25, 2005
3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Hemisphere Room
5th floor, Hale Library

Dr. Harald Prins
Professor of Anthropology
Coffman Chair of University Distinguished Teaching Scholars 2004-2005

Biographical Sketch:
Born and raised in the Netherlands, Harald Prins is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. In addition to a Doctoraal (U Nijmegen 1976) and a PhD (New School for Social Research 1988), he has a Certificate in Advanced 16mm-Filmmaking (Parsons School of Design 1980). As tribal anthropologist for a successful American Indian rights case throughout the 1980s, he testified in the US Senate, and subsequently served as expert witness on indigenous affairs in several Canadian courts. He taught comparative history at U Nijmegen and anthropology at Bowdoin and Colby colleges in Maine before coming to Kansas in 1990. Prior to his appointment as the Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars ('04-'05), he received several teaching honors, including the Conoco Award (1993) and Presidential Award (1999). Based on extensive fieldwork and advocacy research among indigenous peoples in South and North America, Prins has published several dozen academic articles and book chapters in various languages. He authored the well-reviewed book (The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival , 1996), co-authored four major international anthropology textbooks (Wadsworth), co-edited a book and special journal issues. His major documentary film credits include the international award-winning Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! (2003) and Our Lives in Our Hands (1986) concerning American Indians - both widely-screened, including a broadcast on public television. In addition to being a member of several professional juries, editorial and advisory boards, Prins served a two-year term as President of the Society for Visual Anthropology and four years as Visual Anthropology Review Editor of the American Anthropologist . He also functioned as an International Observer in Paraguay's contested presidential elections (1993). Beyond working on several long-term book projects, he is currently completing an anthropological research project for the National Parks Service, guest curating an exhibition on fieldwork and human rights at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and preparing an invited presentation for a UNESCO history symposium in Paris.

Anthropologists have become interested in the complex dynamics of globalization, a process that not only concerns worldwide flows of natural resources, commodities, human labor, finance capital, and information, but also flows of visual imagery traveling in an instant via fiber optic cables and satellites. Today, a newly-created, electronic digital space is becoming a boundless cultural environment within which individuals and groups sort through and try to make sense of the rapidly changing world in which we all operate. Commuting on this virtual world's highways and sideways, people everywhere are discovering the Internet's strategic potential for global networking, information sharing, marketing, and political action, as well as other functions. Even the most geographically-remote ethnic groups and tribal communities have become part of this ever-expanding "global mediascape."

Because cross-cultural research is the very stuff of anthropology, this new digital-electronic technology is also revolutionizing our discipline, opening up a wide range of new research and teaching opportunities and challenges. Trained in traditional 16mm-filmmaking and long involved in the production of ethnographic documentaries, I have become intrigued by the ramifications of the developing global mediascape.

During the past few years, a new interdisciplinary specialization has emerged. Known as media ecology, it builds on the "new media" research pioneered by Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter in the 1950s. Their original thesis was basic: "All media - in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate - exert a compelling influence on man and society [and] constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes.... If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves."

Both of these pioneering media scholars launched the innovative pedagogical concept of the "Classroom without Walls." Today, almost fifty years later, teaching scholars everywhere are exploring ways to more effectively capitalize on the digital revolution and open the windows of cyberspace in the classroom.

Testing some new ideas for research and teaching cultural anthropology in the age of globalization, our anthropology program is developing an experimental ethnographic methods course. This semester, aided technologically by my colleague Michael Wesch and teaching assistant Garrett Pennington, I began working with a select group of anthropology majors on this course, titled "The Challenge of Globalization as Anthropological Research Problem." We are engaged in a digital ethnographic case study of "Wal-Mart Culture," focusing on the new superstore here in Manhattan as part of a global mega-corporation. The course has given participating students an opportunity to receive basic training in the digital technology of observation, documentation and presentation. Although we encountered some fundamental obstacles in carrying out our research, a digital report in the form of a DVD is about to be completed. We view this pilot study as the 1st phase of a multi-year Digital Ethnography Project to be continued by our anthropology program.

In this presentation, I will share some of the results of our experimental ethnography project, placing them within a discussion of the wider theoretical and methodological ramifications of anthropology in the age of globalization.