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Video as a cultural practice: Ethnicity, technology and war

Kolar-Panov, Magdolna (Dona) (1994) Video as a cultural practice: Ethnicity, technology and war. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis examines the effects of new media technology - particularly the video cassette recorder (VCR) - on the cultural perceptions and self-definition of migrant communities.

In a period of rapid growth and distribution of all media technologies, the VCR has proved cheap, flexible, recyclable and easy to distribute and sell, both officially and informally, across national, ethnic and class boundaries. It has created new markets, new channels for distribution, and new audiences. It has proved a particularly popular and significant medium through which migrant communities gain and transmit information, share dramatic experiences, consolidate their ties with the homeland and their cultural bonds within the diaspora.

Two main weaknesses in the most recent theoretical research on media technology, culture and audiences became evident from the early stages of this research. One was the focus on video as a source of information and entertainment through developed commercial structures (already termed 'infotainment' among researchers) which ignored more informal patterns of distribution and use. The other was the stress on mainstream cultural groups which downplays the intense and special value of the medium for marginal social groups such as migrant communities. The significance of this latter audience and market became dramatically clear as the hostilities in the former republic of Yugoslavia intensified and Western Australian migrant groups consolidated along ethnic and national lines.

An initial pilot study on video culture among several Yugoslav communities in Western Australia enabled me to assess the scale of this aspect of the video revolution and to experiment with participant observation methods. Social-research type questionnaires might have produced useful generalisations, but the essence of the experience of collective viewing of Macedonian and Croatian video material could only be captured through sharing that experience. As I extended the study to the much larger Croatian population of Perth, my own ethnic origins and close relations with members of the Croatian community enabled me to gain a unique entry into family and ethnic club viewing sessions. Once there, I was able to keep a record not only of the content and the circumstances of distribution of the videos, but the reactions of a variety of viewers with distinct orientations to the viewed material in terms of age, gender, regional origins and ties, nationalist sentiments, and so on.
This partly subjective mode of research raised significant and very topical questions relating to critical ethnography. On the one hand, I was not a neutral anthropologist studying social customs from 'outside the tribe' and on the other, for all my insider's knowledge of and involvement with the culture, I was trapped in the alienated role of the observer and writer of that culture.

This problem was exacerbated by the rapid intensification of hostilities in my homeland (the former Yugoslavia) and my own emotional involvement in the physical, psychological and moral destruction being carried out there. Sympathy with others' losses was inseparable from my own personal anguish as I lost friends and members of my family. And yet only from this thoroughly involved position could I understand the intense need of the migrant groups and individuals to immerse themselves in the worlds presented by the videos, whether these were 'video-letters' from family and friends, recordings of semi-official functions and documentations from TV stations, dissident representations of the current political scene, or compilations of film and discussion from Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) current affairs programmes.

The thesis studies current existing theories of mass media, video production, distribution and audiences, but re-examines them in the light of theories of the semiotics of culture, the politics of ethnicity and critical and autoreflexive ethnography.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): O'Toole, Michael and O'Regan, Tom
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