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Paper: The failures & promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town

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Budka, P. (2022). The failures and promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town. Paper at 17th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), Belfast, UK: Queen’s University Belfast, 26-29 July.

Abstract

This paper explores changes in the transport infrastructure of the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada. The town of about 900 residents is located on the 58th parallel north at the Hudson Bay and has become known as the “polar bear capital of the world”. Churchill is unique in terms of transportation. Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean is located there. And this port is the only port in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. The town, which is inaccessible via roads, only exists because of these transport infrastructures.

In 2017, when a flood washed out railway tracks, this infrastructural entanglement once again became apparent. Suddenly, Churchill was without overland access and life changed drastically. Food and other items had to be flown in at high costs and residents utilized snowmobile trails to reduce transportation costs. The port had to close, people lost their jobs and families left. The town negotiated with the province, the state and the company which owned the railway to get the tracks fixed. After 18 months, they were finally repaired. In 2021, however, the port again was closed for grain shipping due to renovations.

By discussing results of a first ethnographic field trip to Churchill, this paper focuses on the failures and promises of transport infrastructures. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.

Interview: Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen

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In May 2022, I did an interview with the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) about my fieldwork on transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada, within the ERC project InfraNorth.

Interview for Austrian Polar Research Institute. (2022). “Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen“.
Interview in English (translated by APRI)

Austrian Polar Research Institute (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Blog Post: A train ride to Hudson Bay

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Budka, P. (2022). A train ride to Hudson Bay. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 25 April.

I wake up because a bright light is shining directly in my face. For a second, I am not sure where I am. Then I remember: I am in Canada, in the province of Manitoba, on the train from the capital Winnipeg to the small northern town of Churchill at the Hudson Bay. I am in my cabin, in the sleeping car with the window blinds open so I can see the subarctic night sky. The train must have stopped at one of the small places along its way. I look at the clock, it’s 2:30 a.m. I am 40 hours on the train and there are only about eight hours to go.

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Churchill train station, MB, Canada (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Article: The materiality of mediated conflict & resistance

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Budka, P., & Bräuchler, B. (2022). The materiality of mediated conflict and resistance. In Media Res: A Media Commons Project – Theme Week “Critical Media Forensics”, 11 Feb.

Introduction

In our digital age the notion of media forensics evokes two ideas.

  1. One is the material nature of media, the physicality of technologies and infrastructure that enable the mediation of communication across vast distances and at enormous speeds.
  2. And one is how digital technologies are becoming increasingly important in the witnessing, investigation and countering of human rights violations. The intricate relationship between the two is crucial, but often overlooked.

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In Media Res: A Media Commons Project – Theme Week “Critical Media Forensics”

Article: Social media – power & politics

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Udupa, S., & Budka, P. (2021). Social media: Power and politics. In H. Callan & S. Coleman (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Hoboken: Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2482

Abstract

By centering and unpacking the “social” in social media, anthropological scholarship has drawn on its disciplinary strengths in excavating the social, cultural, and everyday dimensions of mediated milieus, offering, in turn, some unique contributions toward understanding the political cultures and sociocultural ramifications of internet-enabled social media.

While social media have been the subject of intense scrutiny in other disciplines, anthropological scholarship distinguishes itself with its focus on embodied contexts of use and situated meanings surrounding social media.

Anthropological studies have examined progressive activism and everyday experience, as well as violent movements enabled by social media in the context of longer histories of racialization and colonialism. However, ethnographic research on difficult topics such as populism, extreme speech, and surveillance confronts several challenges in terms of data access, safety, and data confidentiality.

Article: Anthropological perspectives on digital-visual practices

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Budka, P. (2021). Kultur- und sozialanthropologische Perspektiven auf digital-visuelle Praktiken. Das Fallbeispiel einer indigenen Online-Umgebung im nordwestlichen Ontario, Kanada (Anthropological perspectives on digital-visual practices). In R. Breckner, K. Liebhart & M. Pohn-Lauggas (Eds.), Sozialwissenschaftliche Analysen von Bild- und Medienwelten (pp. 109-132). Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110613681-005

Abstract

In times of increasing digitalization, it is of particular interest for anthropology to understand how people in different societies integrate digital media and technologies, internet-based devices and services or software, and digital platforms, into their lives. The digital practices observed here are closely related to emergent forms of visual communication and representation, which need to be described and interpreted through ethnographic analysis, careful contextualization, and systematic comparison.

This paper discusses aspects of digital-visual culture through a case study of the online environment MyKnet.org, operated exclusively for First Nations between 1998 and 2019 in the remote communities of Northwestern Ontario, Canada, by the Indigenous internet organization Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuhkenah Network (KO-KNET).

The analytical framework is a practice theory approach linked to ethnographic fieldwork, historical contextualization, and cultural and diachronic comparison. The creation, distribution and sharing of digital images, collages and layouts for websites in MyKnet.org can thus be described, analyzed and interpreted in relation to the phenomenon of hip hop and the associated fan art, as well as the digital biographies of users.

These digital-visual practices are closely connected to individual and collective forms of representation, as well as the maintenance of social relationships across larger distances, and thus also to the construction, negotiation and change of digital identity. They point not only to the global significance of visual communication, representation and culture, but also to the locally specific relationships that people maintain with online environments and digital platforms.

Blog Post: Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics & Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”

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Budka, P., & Povoroznyuk, O. (2021). Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 30 Nov.

On September 23 and 24, 2021, the InfraNorth project organized the workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures” at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna.

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Paper: Anthropological notes on digital & transport infrastructures in remote communities

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Budka, P. (2021). Anthropological notes on digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities. Paper at Anthropology of Technology Conference, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University, 4-5 November.

Abstract

This paper explores the role of digital and transport infrastructures, as operational systems of technological objects (Larkin, 2013), in remote communities in Canada. In doing so, it considers anthropological insights into the relationship between “the technical”, “the infrastructural” and “the sociocultural”.

The development and maintenance of technological infrastructures, for instance, also include the creation of social relations and organisational partnerships. And a deeper understanding of related processes of socio-technical change and continuity requires anthropologically informed contextualisation and ethnographic engagement.

This paper discusses aspects of the similarities and differences of digital and transport infrastructures by building on fieldwork on the development and use of digital infrastructures and related services in remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario and by including preparatory work for a project on the affordances of transport infrastructures in the Canadian North.

Paper: Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in Austria

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Budka, P. (2021). Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in Austria. Paper at EASA Media Anthropology Network Workshop: “Media Anthropologies in Europe”, Online (hosted by European Association of Social Anthropologists), 14-15 October.
Co-organization of EASA Media Anthropology Network Workshop “Media Anthropologies in Europe”, 14-15 October.

Abstract

This paper discusses aspects of the development and the current situation of “media anthropology”, as an anthropology of digital media technologies, in Austria. Since the 1990s, Austrian sociocultural anthropologists have been exploring new forms of media communication, digitally mediated practices of sociality as well as emerging sociotechnical systems and environments (Budka & Kremser, 2004).

While such engagements were then referred to as “cyber anthropology” or the “anthropology of cyberculture” to indicate connections to new sociocultural spaces related to the Internet, the World Wide Web and digital media technologies, they can also be conceptualised as anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation. It is through constantly changing technologies that communication, culture and sociality are mediated. As already early media anthropologists emphasised, this technical and material dimension of media cannot be neglected (e.g. Ginsburg et al., 2002).

Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in German-speaking countries like Austria are, however, not necessarily tied to sociocultural anthropology as empirical social science. Due to well established traditions of philosophical anthropology, media related phenomena have also been investigated from a humanities perspective that does not build its theories upon empirical data generated through ethnographic fieldwork like in sociocultural anthropology.

As this paper argues, this has resulted, on the one hand, in a dynamic field of media anthropologies and several projects that are open, diverse and interdisciplinary by nature. On the other hand, this has also contributed to a weakening of the sociocultural anthropological position, e.g., in terms of academic visibility and research funding. Similar tendencies can also be observed in anthropological explorations of “the digital” in Austria; research that frequently runs under the new rubric of “digital anthropology”.

References

  • Budka, P., & Kremser, M. (2004). CyberAnthropology – anthropology of cyberculture. In S. Khittel, B. Plankensteiner & M. Six-Hohenbalken (Eds.), Contemporary issues in socio-cultural anthropology: Perspectives and research activities from Austria (pp. 213-226). Vienna: Loecker Verlag.
  • Ginsburg, F., Abu-Lughod, L., & Larkin, B. (2002). Introduction. In F. Ginsburg, L. Abu-Lughod, & B. Larkin (Eds.), Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain (pp. 1-36). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paper: Indigenizing digital futures

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Budka, P. (2021). Indigenizing digital futures: The case of a web-based environment for remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Paper at German Anthropological Association Conference, Online (hosted by University of Bremen, Germany), 27 September – 1 October.

Abstract

Exploring digital phenomena, processes and practices in an indigenous context point to the fact that the mediation of culture and the formation of identity include the mixing and recombination of cultural elements (e.g. Budka 2019). Such an “indigenization” perspective (Sahlins 1999) promotes an open and dynamic understanding of digital culture and offers a critical view of Euro-American centred concepts of digital modernity, such as “the digital age” and “the network society”, that imply a unilinear evolutionary world view that tends to ignore culturally different ascriptions of meaning to digital realities (Ginsburg 2008).

Between 1998 and 2019, the free and community-controlled web-based environment MyKnet.org, which was operated by the First Nations internet organization KO-KNET, enabled residents of remote communities in Northwestern Ontario, Canada, to establish their own web presence, to communicate and interact, and to create and share content. Through an anthropologically informed approach that advocates the significance of indigenous realities in understanding the diversity of digital life and by building on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper discusses how digital futures were imagined and shaped in and in relation to MyKnet.org.

Paper: The rise & fall of an indigenous web-based platform

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Budka, P. (2021). The rise and fall of an indigenous web-based platform in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Paper at Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials (RESAW21) Conference: “Mainstream vs Marginal Content in Web History and Web Archives”, Online (hosted by University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg), 17-18 June.

Abstract

In 1998, the Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET), an internet organization established by the tribal council Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) to connect remote First Nation communities in Canada’s Northwestern Ontario to the internet, developed the web-based platform MyKnet.org. This platform was set up exclusively for First Nations people to create personal homepages within a cost- and commercial-free space on the web.

By the early 2000s, a wide set of actors across Northwestern Ontario, a region with an overall indigenous population of about 45,000, had found a new home on this digital platform. During its heyday between 2004 and 2008, MyKnet.org had more than 30,000 registered user accounts and about 25,000 active homepages. With the advent and rise of commercial social media platforms user numbers began to drop. To reduce administrative and technical costs, KO-KNET decided to switch to WordPress as hosting platform in 2014. Since this required users to set up new websites, numbers continued to fall. In early 2019, there were only 2,900 homepages left and MyKnet.org was shut down a couple of months later.

MyKnet.org used to be extremely popular among First Nations people. As I found out during my ethnographic fieldwork in Northwestern Ontario (six months between 2006 and 2008, including participant observation and 96 interviews) and in MyKnet.org (between 2006 and 2014) this was mainly because of two reasons.

  1. People utilized MyKnet.org to establish and maintain social relations across spatial distance in an infrastructurally disadvantaged region. They regularly visited the homepages of friends and family members to see what they were up to, they communicated via message boxes, and they interlinked their homepages.
  2. MyKnet.org contributed to different forms of cultural representation and identity construction. Homepage producers used the platform to represent themselves, their families, and their communities by displaying and sharing pictures, music, texts, website layouts, and artwork. Such practices not only required people to learn digital skills, they also contributed to the creation of a web-based indigenous territory on the web (Budka, 2019).

This paper explores the rise and fall of MyKnet.org, aiming thus to contribute to the analysis of missing and marginalized internet and web histories (Driscoll & Paloque-Berges, 2017). By considering the historical and cultural contexts of First Nations’ everyday life and by drawing from ethnographic fieldwork, it critically reviews theoretical accounts and conceptualizations of change and continuity that have been developed in an anthropology of media and technology (e.g., Pfaffenberger, 1992; Postill, 2017) and in postcolonial technoscience (e.g., Anderson, 2002). In doing so, it examines how sociotechnical change and cultural continuity can be conceptualized in relation to each other and in the context of (historical) processes of digital decoloniality.

During fieldwork many people told me stories about their first MyKnet.org websites in the early 2000s, how they evolved and what they meant to them. People vividly described how their homepages were designed, structured, and to which other websites they were linked. To deepen my interpretation and understanding of these narratives, I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to recover archived versions of these websites whenever possible. Thus, the Wayback Machine became an additional methodological tool for my ethnographic research into the history and social life of MyKnet.org.

References

  • Anderson, W. (2002). Introduction: Postcolonial technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 32(5–6), 643–658.
  • Budka, P. (2019). Indigenous media technologies in “the digital age”: Cultural articulation, digital practices, and sociopolitical concepts. In S. S. Yu & M. D. Matsaganis (Eds.), Ethnic media in the digital age (pp. 162-172). New York: Routledge.
  • Driscoll, K., & Paloque-Berges, C. (2017). Searching for missing “net histories”. Internet Histories, 1(1–2), 47–59.
  • Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Social anthropology of technology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 491–516.
  • Postill, J. (2017). The diachronic ethnography of media: From social changing to actual social changes. Moment. Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(1), 19–43.

Interview: Quo vadis, Feldforschung?

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In April 2021, I was interviewed by German news outlet Forschung & Lehre (Research & Teaching) about anthropological fieldwork in times of a global health crisis.

Interview for Forschung & Lehre. (2021). “Quo vadis, Feldforschung?“.

Forschung & Lehre

Reviews: Theorising Media & Conflict

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This post compiles extracts of published reviews of the edited volume Theorising Media & Conflict (eds. P. Budka & B. Bräuchler, Berghahn Books, 2020).

Younes Saramifar (Free University Amsterdam) notes in the journal Media, War & Conflict

The editors upend the conventional and normative approaches limited to discourse, visual, content, reportage or policy analysis through anthropological analysis and ethnographically rooted methodologies. By way of telling ethnographic narratives and edited via a thorough theoretical inventory of current debates, the authors argue that a non-media-centric approach traces how the complexities of media technologies, sensory perceptions and social life are interrelated (p. 9). In other words, this volume encourages scholars and media researchers to think about how media becomes social and how it produces the social fabric of conflict.

They [the editors] have broadened the notion of conflict beyond the limits of contentious clashes and push readers to see conflict through lived experiences and everyday encounters. They aptly show how articulations and representations of conflicts in the news or other media platforms differ from witnessing and experiencing conflict.

There are wonderful ideas and reminders across the book hidden like Easter eggs, making reading a theory-driven academic volume a jubilant experience.

Overall, Theorising Media and Conflict is a promising and path-opening contribution to media and conflict debates which have ignored conflict ethnographies and interdisciplinary conversations for too long. This volume is a welcome addition to security and war studies, communication, journalism and social sciences at large. All students who wonder how to study conflict without coming under fire could highly benefit from this book.

Saramifar, Y. (2021). [Review of the book Theorising media and conflict, by P. Budka & B. Bräuchler]. Media, War & Conflict. https://doi.org/10.1177/17506352211004012


Christine Crone (University of Copenhagen) comments in the Global Media Journal

The book urges us to acknowledge the importance of ethnographic methods if we are to understand the integration and mutual constitutive power of media and conflict in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at media and conflict as two separate spheres, the overall aim is to investigate media-related everyday practices in contexts of conflict as social processes.

Half of the contributions are made up of anthropologically informed media research and the other half consists of qualitative media and communication research and thus attempts through its structure to establish a dialogue between the two traditions on how to study media and conflict. This approach allows for new and inspiring ethnographic material that offers an insight into everyday media practices of people who live and navigate in this decade-long conflict while new media technologies change the ways of communication.

The volume brings new perspectives to the table and helps us move our attention from quantitative evaluations of the role of media in conflicts to the everyday media practices in conflict areas. This sets us free to investigate the fascinating interlinking and interplay between the two – or rather to dissolve what seems to have become an artificial division of one coherent phenomenon. The book is an ethnographic contribution to the study of media and conflict, adding qualitative research to a field where quantitative studies traditionally have dominated.

Crone, C. (2021). [Review of the book Theorising media and conflict, by P. Budka & B. Bräuchler]. Global Media Journal. http://globalmediajournal.de/en/2021/02/16/rezension-theorising-media-and-conflict/

Interview: Theorising Media & Conflict

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In an interview for the University of Vienna’s Uni:view Magazin, I am talking about the edited volume Theorising Media and Conflict (Berghahn Books, 2020), its purpose, conclusions and significance for understanding recent crises (in German).

Theorising Media and Conflict brings together anthropologists as well as media and communication scholars to collectively address the elusive and complex relationship between media and conflict. Through epistemological and methodological reflections and the analyses of various case studies from around the globe, this volume provides evidence for the co-constitutiveness of media and conflict and contributes to their consolidation as a distinct area of scholarship.

The book’s introduction is accessible for free:
Bräuchler, B., & Budka, P. (2020). Anthropological perspectives on theorising media and conflict. In P. Budka & B. Bräuchler (Eds.), Theorising media and conflict (pp. 3-31). Anthropology of Media. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Seminar: The Materiality and Visuality of Social Media

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This online course for the summer semester 2021 at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna gives a critical overview about the material and visual dimension of social media and their interconnection. Social media platforms and services, such as Facebook or Instagram, have become important (visual) communication and (re)presentation tools. For social and cultural anthropology it is of particular interest how these platforms are integrated and embedded into everyday life, by considering changing sociocultural, political and economic contexts. Students therefore explore and discuss the relevance of a material culture approach for (the understanding of) technology appropriation as well as (culturally) different digital-visual practices. By working on case studies in small empirical projects and by sharing and comparing their findings, students gain insights into material and visual culture in a digital context.

Selected Literature

  • Dourish, P. (2016). Rematerializing the platform: Emulation and the digital–material. In S. Pink, E. Ardevol, & D. Lanzeni (Eds.), Digital materialities: Design and anthropology (pp. 29–44). Oxford: Bloomsbury.
  • Favero, P. (2018). The present image: Visible stories in a digital habitat. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Góralska, M. (2020). Anthropology from home: Advice on digital ethnography for the pandemic times. Anthropology in Action, 27(1), 46–52. https://doi.org/10.3167/aia.2020.270105
  • Horst, H., & Miller, D. (2012). Normativity and materiality: A view from digital anthropology. Media International Australia, 145(1), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X1214500112
  • Miller, D., & Sinanan, J. (2017). Visualising Facebook: A comparative perspective. London: UCL Press. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/collections/series-why-we-post/products/83994
  • Miller, D., et al. (2016). How the world changed social media. London: UCL Press. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/collections/series-why-we-post/products/83040
  • Pink, S. (2017). Technologies, possibilities, emergence and an ethics of responsibility: Refiguring techniques. In E. Gómez Cruz, S. Sumartojo & S. Pink (Eds.), Refiguring techniques in digital visual research (pp. 1–12). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sumiala, J, et al. (2020). Just a ‘stupid reflex’? Digital witnessing of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the mediation of conflict. In P. Budka & B. Bräuchler (Eds.), Theorising Media and Conflict. Anthropology of Media Vol. 10 (pp. 57–75). New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  • Walton, S. (2018). Remote ethnography, virtual presence: Exploring digital-visual methods for anthropological research on the web. In. C. Costa & J. Condie (Eds.), Doing research in and on the digital: Research methods across fields of enquiry (pp. 116–33). New York: Routledge.

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