Reconstruction 9.1 (2009)




Practice in mediated space: Engaging "Hobbiton" and its visitors through a constructivist media anthropology / Robert Moses Peaslee

 

Abstract: This paper calls for a (re)emphasis in site-specific, open-ended investigation of individual experience as a viable and valuable strategy across disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities, especially in the face of ongoing trends toward globality, hybridization, convergence, and destabilization of symbolic and material culture. The paper is particularly interested in reporting on the application of such methodologies toward investigating the media-tourism complex, a constellation of government, industrial, and personal activity which relies on globally mediated conceptions of place and practice and which represents a dynamic and ever-present field of symbolic and actual capital within which consumers operate and from which "places" emerge. Emerging from field work undertaken in New Zealand during the first quarter of 2007 concerning the lived experience of visitors to and inhabitants of the town of Matamata (the location of the "Hobbiton" movie set and tourist destination left from the filming of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy), and following Minca & Oakes (2006), who reveal the greatly ambiguous nature of tourist, place, and practice in geographic areas worthy of visitation in the mediated global economy, this paper puts forward the possibility that the in-depth engagement with consumers and purveyors of place may yield important data not only about personal practice, but also about the nature of places and the force of media power. Thus, "the situatedness of the local is not a site, place or space merely to pin down and capture, but rather a point of reference through which to engage the emergent dimensions of globalization" (Murphy & Kraidy, 2003: 14). In this way, a constructivist approach (Clark, 2004) - which allows the text of the response to intermingle with the context of the respondent, and affords numerous opportunities to reevaluate both the applicability of the research questions as constructed and, more holistically, the place and behavior of the researcher - affords an opportunity to bridge a widely perceived epistemological gap between audience and institutional studies. Qualitative work with individuals whose practices create and maintain myriad processes and meanings becomes essential in the consideration of the media "field" created by the worldwide traffic in images and movement.

 

Introduction

 

<1> This paper elucidates an epistemological approach to an ethnography of media consumers, a project construction which has at times been deemed controversial. The importation of anthropological field work techniques into the study of media audiences has been critiqued for importing a method which does not fit the object of analysis (Evans, 1990; Lave, et al., 1992; Turner, 1990). These criticisms, in turn, have been answered vigorously by scholars working under the banners of media anthropology paradigms (e.g. Boellstorff, 2003; Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin, 2002; Spitulnik, 1993) as well as others investigating the incorporation of visual culture into both anthropological and sociological methodologies (Pink, 2001; Banks and Morphy, 1997). Many such studies work against the assumption, rife in classical anthropology, that the only "object" worth studying was that which was foreign, primitive, unfamiliar - in a word, "other." Outside the Orientalist or colonial implications of this belief is a fundamental reification of the Cartesian subject/object dualism and an implicit founding in positivist methodology (cf. Pink, 2001, pp. 1-14). In an era, then, when science has become more reflexive in method, and when the media environment has, in many ways, dissolved meaningful boundaries between "them" and "us," it is no surprise that anthropology has become more interested in that which is more, or most, familiar. As I will discuss below, it is within the consideration of context that media anthropologists can begin to understand their own place in the research field, problematize their own voice, and take note of the ways in which practice occurs in a mediated space.

<2> Any experience in the field is an experience with the cross-sections of respondent, location, self, culture, discourse, and power that is, in sum, ethnography. When we begin to consider a particularly media-centric form of anthropology, especially against the background of the slippery, local/global 21st-century mediascape, each of these individual parts becomes less certainly defined even as they concatenate. What is a location, for example, when film "location shooting" is undertaken in order to represent a fantastical world? How do we begin to understand respondents who are hailed by any number of cultural memes and subject to myriad forms of power and influence? A recent fieldwork experience, during which I investigated the sources, implications and articulations of media power in the social context/filmscape of Matamata/Hobbiton in Aotearoa New Zealand, was instructive in bringing to the fore the concurrent centrality and complexity of qualitative, constructivist inquiry when considering questions of mediated global culture and capital. That study (Peaslee, 2007) interrogated the nature and deployment of media power in the lives of actors with reference to particular products of popular entertainment by examining the "Hobbiton" film location (left behind after the 1999-2000 filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), the materials which support it as a tourist attraction, the experience of guides and visitors on-site, and the social impact of the location on its host community. Engaging with the theoretical positions of Nick Couldry, Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu, and working under a symbolic interactionist epistemology, the study produced findings with rich implications for the understanding of the embodied discourses of power at play in places which become "special" and in the rituals through which actors attend to them. It interrogated the embodiment of "key media-related categories and boundaries, whose performance reinforces, indeed helps legitimate, the underlying 'value' expressed in the idea that the media is our access point to our social centre", an idea that Couldry critiques as the "myth of the mediated centre" (2003, p. 2).

<3> I do not wish to summarize my findings here, however. Rather, this paper uses this experience as a possible exemplar in calling for a (re)emphasis in site-specific, open-ended investigation of individual experience as a viable and valuable strategy across disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities, especially in the face of ongoing trends toward globality, hybridization, convergence, and destabilization of symbolic and material culture. The paper is particularly interested in reporting on the application of such methodologies toward investigating the media-tourism complex, a constellation of governmental, industrial, and personal activity which relies on globally mediated conceptions of place and practice and which represents a dynamic and ever-present field of symbolic and actual capital within which consumers operate and from which "places" emerge. Following Minca and Oakes (2006), who reveal the greatly ambiguous nature of tourist, place, and practice in geographic areas worthy of visitation in the mediated global economy, this paper puts forward the possibility that the in-depth engagement with consumers and purveyors of place may yield important data not only about personal practice, but also about the nature of places and the influence of media. Moreover, a constructivist approach (Clark, 2004) - which allows the text of the response to intermingle with the context of the respondent and affords numerous opportunities to reevaluate both the applicability of the research questions as constructed and, more holistically, the place and behavior of the researcher - gives researchers the tools to produce detailed descriptions of the categories used by actors to describe their media lives, to illustrate the modes of deployment to which those categories are put in the search for integrative meaning and selfhood, and to bridge a widely perceived epistemological gap between audience and institutional studies. Qualitative work with individuals whose practices interact with, create and maintain numerous processes and meanings becomes essential in the consideration of the media "field" created by the worldwide traffic in images, bodies, and capital.

<4> Hobbiton is just such a cluster of the conceptual, the corporeal, and the commercial. But it is important to ask at the outset what exactly we are talking about when we talk about Hobbiton. Is it a "real" place? Unreal or fantastical? Is it a timeless village, a relic of film production, or just a pleasant grove peppered with sheep? The "placedness" of Hobbiton is what makes it ripe for ethnographic investigation, since it presumably could not be remade anywhere else. The intersecting discourses that make all of the characterizations above equally true (i.e. it is real, and it is unreal) come together in this particular fashion only in this geographic space outside Matamata [1]. Of course, the observation that all these characterizations of Hobbiton are "true" is a reminder of the importance of subjective interpretation and that one must attempt to understand the experience of place as it is articulated by its visitors and the other actors who encounter it. An ethnography of this kind is one which situates itself in the tradition of media audience research because its primary subjects - the visitors, guides, and townspeople themselves - are inscribed with the imperatives of a mediatized discourse and yet are not finally reducible to that discourse (Clark, 2003; Fiske, 1987; Hall, 1980; Morley, 1986, 1989; Radway, 1986; Riesmen, 1950). Whether subjects are brought to the site by an intense appreciation of the films or encouraged via word of mouth, what is inescapable is that the site itself would not exist were it not for the production of the films for which it was required. What was presumed at the outset to be highly variable is how people interpreted the site, what it meant to them, and how they incorporated visiting it into their own personal narrative. What was deemed valuable about these narratives is what they suggest about, in Nick Couldry's (2000) titular phrase, "the place of media power."

 

Situating media anthropology

 

<5> Rather than studying "cultures" in the bounded, Herderian sense, "the object of study of mass media anthropology is the system of cultural transmission through mass media" (Osorio, 2005, p. 36; cf. Carey, 1988). Coman and Rothenbuhler (2005, p. 9) point out that the more explicitly mythical focus of media anthropology is particularly suited to understanding how "media are cultural systems of the social construction of reality." They point out that "this construction is made under distinct circumstances, with the tools of symbolic reasoning rather than argumentative reasoning. The anthropological approach asserts that these images are accepted precisely because they have the status of symbolic constructions and, having that status, they function and signify the same way that mythical and ritual systems belonging to nonmodern societies do." Thus the particularism and detail of an anthropological approach to media audiences is positioned as the most fruitful way to understand the numerous processes of interpretation and practice that occur among individuals in a consumer economy which deals in a mythologized sign industry. "If individualism is the religion of modernity," Coman and Rothenbuhler summarize, "media anthropology shows how it is celebrated and proselytized" (8). It is no exaggeration to state, as Debra Spitulnik does, that such research has "greatly enhanced our knowledge of the diversity of media practices, and [has raised] significant challenges for theorizing mass media's relations to 'reality' and the construction of social meaning. In supplanting the simple picture of media message transmission as a one-way communication from sender to receiver, one might say that these authors have moved into a 'post-content' or 'post-text' era, and toward a rethinking of the usefulness of the production-consumption dichotomy itself" (1993, p. 298).

<6> As production, consumption and meaning-making have collapsed into a radical, dynamic "intertextuality" (Peterson, 2005, pp. 130-1), so too has the investigation of practice faced a quickening and a muddying of the field. Couldry (2000) faced this problem with a pair of his analyses, both of which sought to engage with the interaction of media processes and so-called non-media people. Such contexts did not allow the kind of immersion or time commitment required by traditional anthropology, but "if such sites were significant, yet not susceptible even in principle to ethnographic work in the traditional sense, then a different possibility, and necessity, was opening up for qualitative research" (Couldry, 2003, p. 51). Reflecting back on this research experience, Couldry makes the following observations:

The alternative mode...involved renouncing the aim for an impossible immersion in context and instead seeking as much context as could reasonably be obtained....My third source of context was provided by the interviewees themselves, as they reflected on their engagement with the site in question. They chose the relevant context within which to talk about their time at the studios or on the protest. They could have related it to any event in their lives whatsoever, but it was the context they chose, usually in retrospect, in which I was most interested" (ibid., pp. 51-2).

Buried within Couldry's remarks is an urgent message: in an era of mobility (of people, of ideas, of capital) what use, much of the time, are static investigative methods? What the impressions of actors have added to the analysis of a "place" like Granada Studios or Hobbiton is their own contextual attraction, reaction, and relationship to the place, not to mention its post-hoc positionality in their own life narrative. While, as I will describe below, I have approached the collection of this data through the interview, the circumstances of the tour environment did not allow an ongoing, face to face relationship. For the tourist population, my in-depth interviews took place via email correspondence, a concession to logistics that would disqualify most projects from the category of the "anthropological" in a traditional sense. The emerging media anthropology, however, as Coman and Rothenbuhler point out, has room for such a study: "the investigator's intention to achieve a deeper understanding of other people's life experiences thus counts for as much as the actual details of research procedures. If, in a given cultural context, these goals can be achieved without extended residential immersion in a foreign culture, then by the standards of most media scholars the process can still be called ethnography" (2005, p. 2). Moreover, the comprehensive and particularistic nature of my study as a whole - through which I hoped to consider tourist interviews alongside those of other individuals involved in the production of the site, as well as the texts which speak in various ways about the site - provided synchronic, contextual footing for the project where diachronic or longitudinal study was not possible. Such case-centric triangulation is, in my mind, one avenue by which "valuable interpretive accounts can be based on relatively small periods of observation, focusing on media texts as much as people and activities" (Coman and Rothenbuhler, 2005, p. 3)

The Hobbiton location and the famed "Party Tree," with the more recent additions of tourist photoboards and waste receptacles in the foreground.

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The moving target of context: people, texts and place

 

<7> In addition to the questions of "what?" and "who?", we must very often ask where to ask. One of the primary objects of my analysis is a particular kind of consumer, one that might best be described as a media-induced tourist. These people, their practices, and their understandings of these practices are of primary concern. But these subjects are simultaneously of, about, and around a particular place that filters textualized discursive material through site-based practice. There are, if we are to stay close the ground of our inquiry, no subjects without the spatial context of Hobbiton.

<8> At the same time, tourist activity obviously does not occur in a vacuum. Visitors are hailed in various ways by the text that is Matamata, as well as the larger text/context of New Zealand-as-Middle Earth, and thus in my field work I also considered materials which support the enterprise at Hobbiton. Of these there are many, but for the purposes of my study four key texts were analyzed: the Tourism New Zealand web portal, the web presence and promotional DVD commissioned by the proprietors of the Hobbiton location, and Ian Brodie's Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook (2003). The analysis of these texts interrogated both the modes of address utilized to attract visitors and the manifestations of Hobbiton they featured in carrying out this process. Each is produced with differing goals, each is a manifestation of local entities attempting to engage global capital, and each contributes to the construction of Hobbiton as a "place."

<9> Equally pertinent to this discussion were the experiences of tour facilitators and Matamata inhabitants, as well as the crucial places where these experiences intersect. The engagement of the first group attempted to provide a clearer understanding of how textual discourses were (or were not) employed by tour guides and how they channeled the mythic or special nature of such texts in the undertaking of their mandate. The consideration of the second represented my attempt at describing the potential flip side of the guide experience, or what might be called the local/global development of Matamata: the consideration of what the site means to those who live and work near it and who come to Hobbiton not so much as a media product but rather as an imposed reality constituted in part by media texts. The final portion of field work tackled the tour itself and engaged with those actors who came to Hobbiton and experienced it as a kind of product: visitors and, importantly, guides. The former visited from countries around the (mostly Western) world and attended to Hobbiton in a variety of ways. I initially established contact with 58 such respondents, and their reflections constituted the bulk of my reported findings. The latter, however, also experience the space (albeit three to seven times daily), and therefore through their interpretation of the location directly inflect its nature. I have approached this topic, thus, via textual analysis, participant observation, and depth interviewing, and it is through methodological triangulation that I hoped to paint as detailed a picture - or, as "thick" a description - as possible of the context in which this case study is couched.

 

Situations thickly described

<10> Like most researchers who seek penetrating analyses of complex contexts, I engage with the Geertzian (1973) mandate on "thick description"(p. 6). For Geertz, while the ethnographer certainly does perform the traditionally ascribed roles of "observer" and "reporter," what the enterprise really inheres in is "interpretation":"Right down at the factual base, the hard rock, insofar as there is any, of the whole enterprise, we are already explicating: and worse, explicating explications. Winks upon winks upon winks" (p. 9). Geertz's understanding of culture is, of course, a semiotic one, and certainly the explication of symbol systems is crucial to my interest as it is to ethnography generally. But I, with Geertz, understand the analysis of such systems to be "actor oriented" (p. 14). The tourist experience, for example, must be described in terms of the "constructions" tourists "place upon what they live through, the formulae they use to define what happens to them" (p. 15).

<11> Ethnography, however (like its traditional umbrella discipline, anthropology), is somewhat poorly named: it is not just about people. It is also intimately and indissolubly about place. Despite Geertz's well-founded concern with actor-orientation, and his oft-quoted premise that ethnographers don't study villages, but rather "study in villages" (p. 21), the importance of spatial and temporal context is implicit in any valuable ethnographic description. Clifford (1992, p. 98), similarly, points out that "one can only be a participant-observer some where," although he is ultimately after problematizing this rigid "placedness" of ethnographic research in a context where the "field" is ever more difficult to discern in terms of spatial or temporal boundaries. For Clifford, a dogmatic attachment to the field site in the bounded sense elides "the wider global world of intercultural import and export in which the ethnographic encounter is already enmeshed" (p. 100). The effect, according to Clifford, of this tendency in classic anthropology, is the "localization" of phenomena which are in fact linked to "regional/national/global" forces of great complexity (ibid.). What essentially results in an implementation of the researcher's point of view of local reality - a simplification.

<12> If we are to believe with Couldry (2003), then, that place remains a vital part of ethnographic interpretation of media practices, we cannot jettison the notion of placedness entirely (though Clifford's argument is well taken). Couldry, via Marcus (1998), offers the reminder that "we try, even if we often fail, to make sense of our location in 'places [that are] simultaneously and complexly connected, by intended and unintended consequences' (Marcus, p. 551). Ethnography must aim to do no less" (2003, p. 47). This emphasis on placed-ness is of particular urgency for Couldry when the object of analysis is media audiences, where methodologies must address both traditional and "hybrid" sites of media circulation and consumption (p. 48), places "where individuals and groups in the various media audiences encounter media texts and engage in media practices" (Hoover, 2006, p. 1). Indeed, "the situatedness of the local is not a site, place or space merely to pin down and capture, but rather a point of reference through which to engage the emergent dimensions of globalization" (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 14). The importance of "situatedness" is echoed by Parameswaran (1999, p. 102), who suggests "that the exciting, untapped potential of ethnographic research lies in its ability to challenge realist epistemologies by taking into account the context of ethnographic knowledge production and by underscoring the thoroughly situated ways in which people talk about their responses to the media" (102). Couldry goes further in characterizing the nature of ethnography in the mediated context with the phrase "passing ethnographies," which suggests the fluid meanings that must be the goal of qualitative research into contexts of, at best, partially emplaced subjects rather than traditional ethnographic placement in space and time (2003, p. 44). That is, context is crucial, but it is also impossible to reify into a static entity.

The Hobbiton "village," with the home of protagonist Frodo Baggins (Bag-End) at the top of the hill.

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Tourism and the unstable nature of places

 

<13> The preceding statement is especially true in the case of spatialities made somehow special in their brush-up against tourism. The connection between "tourism" and "place" is a bit of a chestnut: a layperson's view of tourism is, after all, the act of traveling somewhere for the purposes of vacation, relaxation, or some other form of personal enrichment. In many cases, this activity is influenced by what Neil Smith (1991) has called "the ideology of nature," a conception of an other place outside of normal social and industrial activity which is defined as its opposite even while the latter is fundamentally constitutive of the former's conceptual and actual realization. To some degree, the discourse surrounding Aotearoa New Zealand as a tourism location has, as Jutel (2004) has pointed out, utilized this "poetic" sense of nature (Smith, 1991, p. 7), as well as the semiotic indigeneity which is its lasting symbol. Places of whatever stripe, however, are of course attractive only because of perceived qualities, qualities which may include physical appearance but more often also include various mobilizations of what is generally referred to as "culture". The conflation of tourism and culture as concepts has been investigated by Rojek and Urry (1997), who point out that "people tour cultures [and] cultures and objects themselves travel" (p. 1). Tourism and culture, for Rojek and Urry, were once theorized as separate phenomena, a characterization that was defensible given the particularly circumscribed, time- and place-bound understanding of tourist practice. Such a distinction is no longer tenable, however, in an era of disorganized capital where differences collapse into a "culturalisation of society" (p. 3). For Rojek and Urry, the boundary which separated them (based in space and time) has been consistently eroded in an increasingly mediated and hybridized globality. An erosion of traditional senses of "home and away" (p. 4) and ongoing appeals to tourists/consumers via notions of "culture" are indicators by which Rojek and Urry seek to show that "tourism is a cultural practice; that tourism and culture hugely overlap; that tourism as a cultural practice and set of objects is highly significant or emblematic within contemporary 'Western' societies organised around mass mobility... and that none of the supposed essences of tourism, such as the notion of 'escape,' provides the kind of desired conceptual unity (p. 5).

<14> Following critical ethnography, Rojek and Urry also take issue with the traditional sense of "cultures" as emplaced, static contexts which act as receivers for the more mobile "tourist." The increasing mobility of "cultures" suggests that "these cultures are impure and are being continuously re-invented" and thus "the 'culture' which gets produced and consumed by tourists may not be as obviously artificial or contrived as once was thought" (p. 11). This seemingly paradoxical statement indicates the elusive and perhaps impossible nature of "authenticity" in tourist practice and industry. Indeed, tourist practices and cultural sites - like anthropological fieldwork and research sites - are mutually constitutive.

<15> Although later analyses (Lash and Urry, 1994; Rojek and Urry, 1997) have problematized the spatial and temporal character of John Urry's (1990) central and influential thesis (i.e. that "tourists" are individuals whose behavior is not reducible to the discourse within which they operate, and who effect changes upon both the environments they visit and the methods through which those environments are mediated as significant), the latter's understanding of tourism as definable largely by its opposite (circumscribed environments of work) remains a foundational analysis. Only by understanding tourism in such a way can the changes effected in it through the re- and dis-organization of post-Fordist capital (Lash and Urry, 1994) and the enculturation of tourist practice (Rojek and Urry, 1997) be properly understood. Urry's dichotomous conception of "home" and "away" is now vulnerable on a number of fronts, and this vulnerability is acknowledged by commentators including Urry himself. More steadfast, however, in Urry's initial work is his understanding of a tourist "gaze," a phrase which borrows from Foucauldian notions of discipline to explain the ways in which tourists-as-consumers both shape and are shaped by cultural, spatial, and temporal discourses of quality.

<16> Key to Urry's argument is his specification of "anticipation" as a crucial component of tourist activity which is "constructed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature, magazines, records and videos, which construct and reinforce" the tourist gaze (1990, p. 3). Such anticipation is constructed in Urry's estimation specifically through signs and symbols, which act inferentially and connotatively to construct in the consumer's mind a particular associative quality. This process not only affects the nature of the tourist's anticipation; in Urry's estimation, such sign-based anticipation also contributes to the construction of tourists sites (and sights) themselves, since the latter are increasingly produced and modified to meet the expectations of the tourist (or the desire of the consumer). It is in this way that Urry proposes tourism not only as an activity inscribed with modern, patriarchal power relations but also as the model of the consumer at large.

<17> Such a state of affairs leads to an ever-evolving savvy on the part of consumers, such that one can begin to think about a "post-tourist," in Urry's estimation a distinctly postmodern animal whose familiarity with and traffic in sign commodities allows a blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal, the authentic and the produced. In Urry's estimation, a post-tourist is one who knows full well that places of visitation and experience are constructed for her benefit, and yet is nonetheless able to appreciate and construct systems of validity for such places. For the post-tourist, "the world is a stage and the post-tourist can delight in the multitude of games that can be played" (p. 100). The activities of the post-tourist are understood reflexively as game play, such that the post-tourist is "above all self-conscious, 'cool' and role distanced" (p. 101). The productions of various media institutions play a key role in the crafting of anticipation, thus forming the critical tool box with which the post-tourist approaches the experienced and imagined world.

<18> More recently, the nature of the tourist gaze has been reformulated by Minca and Oakes (2006), who reveal the greatly ambiguous nature of tourist, place, and practice in geographic areas worth of visitation. By way of an autoethnographic account of a trip to Venice, Minca and Oakes use their experiences to discuss the paradoxical nature of both individual and geographic identity in the context of tourism. Minca, as the host, is as aware of his changing nature upon Oakes' first-time visit as Oakes is aware of his reactions to the highly mediated, "touristy" city of Venice. Places like Venice, where tourism is so central to geographical identity, increasingly produce not only an increasingly "post" tourist eager to understand "what it must really be like to live there" (ibid.), but also an increasingly variegated, fragmented resident, aware simultaneously of her place as both home and destination, backstage and frontstage. The constitution of "hyperreal" (Eco, 1986) destinations like Venice, creates, according to Minca and Oakes, an element of "trust" in the tourism encounter; tourists trust or do not trust the representations presented to them, and residents are self-consciously aware of this trust factor and embody in practice some commitment either to continue or subvert the hyperreal projection of "Venice-as-Venice." Arguing against Edensor's (2001) notion of tourism as an unreflexive practice which reifies traditional tourism-related binaries, Minca and Oakes locate the performative element of tourist and host behavior in the paradox-laden context of modern, traveled-to destinations as a practice in which such categories and habits may be disrupted. And, despite the fact that such disruptions may also be commodified by the tourism industry (through, for example, the genre of "adventure" tourism or "eco-tourism"), such co-optation can never define place completely.

A guide working for Rings Scenic Tours, Ltd. leads a group through the Hobbiton village.

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<19> The paradox of personality located in tourism practice by Minca and Oakes extends to the nature of places as well, which are constructed as "stages for 'ordered disorder'" (ibid.) where tourists can experience both comfort and adventure. The result is that "the tourist is always looking for an impossible balance between the need of finding and establishing order in the world - that means mapping tourist spaces, landscapes, and cultures - and the desire (possibility) of transgressing that same order, of going beyond and behind the map" (p. 12). Places, thus, in proportion to the level of tourist interest, are mindful of and mired in this paradox, and Hobbiton (and Aotearoa New Zealand more generally) is an excellent example. How to get at the nature of this place is the question, and the answer, in my summation, is through people.

 

Toward a constructivist media anthropology

 

<20> There is no handbook for the investigation of discursive, spatial clusters like Hobbiton, and so the media anthropologist must, as Alasuutari (1995, p. 2) has observed about methodology in cultural studies more generally, engage in a process of "bricolage." Such a process is, of course, as tenuous as it is emancipatory. Most researchers who choose a method and stick with it do so, in addition to a general epistemological faith in the method, because it is infinitely easier to master one method over myriad others. In the case of my Hobbiton project, I designed a research program that engaged with a unique environment through three primary qualitative research methods: textual analysis, depth interviewing, and participant observation. Each of these segments of the program overlapped and influenced one another, allowing me to monitor the ongoing salience of my research questions, follow interesting leads, and continuously keep my own position in view as an explicit influence on the data - a mode of inquiry which Clark (2004) has categorized as "constructivist."

 

Textual analysis: The media environment as village

<21> I began by trying to understand the "place" of Hobbiton as it was being constructed in the mediascape prior to the arrival on site of any of my respondents. Cultural studies paradigms informed by Athusserian structural Marxism (e.g. Hall, 1981) have called attention to the relationship between the practice of the subject and the "interpellations" of various kinds of texts. Semiotic analysis (Barthes, 1972, 1967; Silverman, 1983) locates within connotative, myth-related symbols various levels of ideological sign construction, and feminist studies informed by Foucauldian discourse analysis (Butler, 1990) and Lacanian psychoanalysis (Modleski, 1988; Mulvey, 1975) have connected a critical perspective with the qualitative investigation of personal experience. As a case study analyzing the various ways in which the practice of individuals is informed by several textual manifestations, my project applied textual analysis techniques to a number of the latter as relates to the site under question.

<22> In thinking about the media-tourism complex and its relationship to the concept of the "mediated centre," it is important to recognize the co-determinative relationship between text, practice and place. When Dean MacCannell (1976, pp. 41-45) positions tourist activity in relation to the "structure of the attraction," for example, he recognizes that a place is not deemed worthy of visitation by modern society without an accompanying complex of discourses and activities. At the outset, at what MacCannell calls the "naming phase" of the sight, the latter is "marked off from similar objects as worthy of preservation." Later, at the "framing" and "elevation" stages, the sight is given boundaries and is in some way put on display. His structural argument here is an effective heuristic for understanding the modes of address utilized by texts which, in MacCannell's words, allow the attraction to have "a moral claim on the tourist."

<23> Such a "claim" is the provenance of a cultural studies or "culturalist" approach to texts which is concerned mostly with the ways in which particular images have a social life; that is, the way the viewer/reader interacts with the image based on both its and their cultural inscriptions. Lister and Wells (2001) offer that the culturalist methodology "approach(es) the images as part of what has been described as 'the circuit of culture' (cf. du Gay, 1997). Each one can be thought of as passing through a number of 'moments' and its passage through each moment contributes to the meanings - plural, not singular - which it has and may have. In short, they are socially produced, distributed, and consumed." Cultural studies as a school of textual analysis, then, which is as concerned with the context of viewing and the context of production as it is with the image itself, emerges largely in contestation of the structuralist tendencies in semiotics and iconography: "it has become clear that a too rigid application of systematic methodologies for visual analysis, which take written or spoken language as a model, is self-defeating. There is always a tendency in such attempts to miss the specificity of the medium, and the practices built around it in social use, where signification actually takes place" (Lister and Wells, 2001, p. 73).

<24> Jewitt and Oyama (2001, p. 134), meanwhile, describe a particularly social semiotics which shares much in common with both a culturalist and psychoanalytic framework and places texts and their component parts into a social context. Social semiotics is defined by what Jewett and Oyama call its "functionalist" approach, meaning that "it sees visual resources as having been developed to do specific kinds of semiotic work" (p. 140), which indicates in social semiotics a particular concern with the way images "act." Much of this activity has to do with potential, as with the mechanisms of distance, contact and point of view. It is the ability these mechanisms possess to act upon viewers in certain ways that concerns the social semiotic paradigm, rather than specific instances of this action (which is more the domain of semiotics proper).

 

Posing inside and outside Bag-End is the climax of the Hobbiton tour experience.

Click image for larger version.

 

<25> Understanding the appeal of the textual materials which surround the LOTR media/tourism complex, then, relies in part on the semiological interpretation of those texts. Such an approach was step one in my constructivist investigation of Hobbiton, part of the more comprehensive understanding of visual communication research followed by Jensen (1991). In valuing "the three master concepts of the humanities: discourse, subjectivity, and context," Jensen calls for a social semiotics which addresses "a qualitatively novel media environment, where the discourses of media and everyday life may become increasingly indistinguishable" (pp. 39-41). By approaching texts in accord with a Peircean emphasis on understanding "meaning production in its social context," Jensen expresses the value of a textual analysis, which operates in context and in concert with an equally vital constructivist, ethnographic approach. If the media anthropologist cannot immerse herself indefinitely in the "village" of her respondents, then place-based investigation must be supplemented by an investigation of the "media environment" that is increasingly shared beyond national and regional borders.

 

Interviewing the individual at the social level

<26> With Hoover (2006, p. 87), I believe that "it is important to understand how informants represent the social and culture contexts that they inhabit." In considering personal reflection in context, it is crucial "to bring into descriptive definition the way that specific resources from the culture (including the 'symbolic inventory' of media texts, symbols, and messages) [are used]...we want to be able to see how the individual and socio-cultural interact and are inter-related in the meaning-making process. The best way of describing this is as the individual seen on the social level" (ibid., emphasis in original). In-depth interviewing is one method of addressing this connection between the personal and the social, since it works at the epicenter of meaning-making processes related to experience. "There is reason to believe," states Hoover, "that media reception is much more a matter of such meaning-making by its audiences than it is a question of media 'creating' meaning" (p. 85). This epistemological point of view is one which enables a careful consideration of not only what respondents say but also of how they say it. It allows the text of the response to intermingle with the context of the respondent, and, in the case of Hoover's work, to reveal information not only about text but also about the actor's "levels of engagement" with it. Depth interviewing also affords numerous opportunities to reevaluate both the applicability of the research questions as constructed and, more comprehensively, the place and behavior of the researcher. This is a methodology described by Clark (2004, p. 20) as "constructivist" in the sense that "the research evolve[s] as the researcher learn[s] more about the specific (respondent) being interviewed" [3]. Earlier, Guba and Lincoln (1994) employ the term to "acknowledge the social construction of knowledge, recognizing that knowledge is always generated in relation to the context - or series of contexts - in which it is created" (Clark, 2004, p.22). Constructivism is thus highly reflective and reflexive, blurring the distinction between the researcher and the researched and acknowledging the assumptions "coded" into the questions en route to forging trends in response data and presenting those trends to a critical readership. "The knowledge that emerges from interview-based constructivist methodology is therefore at least in part created, not discovered, by the researcher" (Clark, 2004, p. 23). That such a characteristic of a research program is seen here as a benefit rather than a limitation - the manner in which positivism might see it - is indicative of the method's search for particularity over generality.

<27> Part of this particularity is the respondent's sense of her self, an observation that invokes the Giddensian personal narrative (1991, p. 54). For Giddens, past events and emergent situations are incorporated into an ongoing tale which produces "ontological security" in a world unmoored from traditional markers of status and personal progress. When considered in relationship to practices surrounding media, this notion is expressed in Hoover, Clark and Alters' (2004) concept of "accounts of the media," a theoretical construction which expresses the ways in which respondents in a constructivist ethnographic project "located their families in U.S. society and in modern life" by referring to "stories, or accounts, of how their family operated in relation to media" (p. 5, emphasis in original). Thus the media, under this concept of context, are important not so much for what they offer in terms of content, but for how they provide material around which parental responsibilities (and family identities) might be articulated.

<28> In addition to offering a novel perspective on the role of media in family life, Hoover also highlights the importance of recognizing a level of reflexivity in the respondent, such that "we can imagine that what they are telling us is a reflexive account related in some way to what they actually think about who they are and where they fit in the cultures they inhabit". Accounts, thus, are a "heuristic," providing "an opportunity to understand how all of the elements of life experience are drawn into these narratives... The point," finally, "is what goes into the narrative" (17).

<29> My informants, then, were engaged and their responses were analyzed as a means to investigating the experience and discourse of tourists/respondents on two distinct levels: first, on the level of their "experience in the media" represented by their comments about the visit to Hobbiton itself; second, on the level of their accounts, or the language they use to talk about themselves vis-à-vis the media (the film, the site) involved in this experience. The responses of interview participants are thus called to open a number of doors toward understanding on what Radhika Parawesmaran has called an "intercontextual" level. For Parawesmaran, intercontextuality is "the notion that an audience's understanding of a specific popular culture text is influenced by their multiple everyday experiences with other social contexts and different social structures" (1999, p. 101). It is in this realm that media anthropology, while renouncing claims to universality or prediction, can nonetheless continue working to bridge the gap between practice and material.

<30> In-depth interviewing, "with its base in local practices and the performative features of culture, offers the material to bridge the gap between meaning and structure without losing sight of the complexity, context, and inherent power imbalances of cultural consumption" (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 15). A constructivist approach is thus an appropriate method of articulating ethnography in the realm of international communication. Murphy and Kraidy (2003, pp. 6-7) point out that "the elaboration of audience ethnography for global media studies offers a heuristic opportunity to examine the local implications of globalization, which concern how the majority of the world population experiences globalization in its everyday life." Although the persistent local/global dichotomy constantly presses media ethnographers in the areas of international communication to consider the implications of their results on a supra-contextual level, constructivism helps the researcher maintain focus on their respondents, who "differentially read and make sense of messages which have been transmitted, and act on those meanings within the context of the rest of their situation and experience" (Morley, 1980, p. 11).

 

Media anthropology and participant observation

<31> Media anthropology imagines participant observation in slightly different tones than did its classical disciplinary ancestor. One of the crucial dissimilarities with the classical program is echoed in the critique James Clifford (1992) prosecutes, pointing out, as I alluded to above, the fallacious notion of a bounded "laboratory" where a "field" is imagined as a separate entity from any number of intersecting extra-contextual influences. In addition, the same logistical concessions made in terms of time of engagement with interview subjects applies to the activity of media-related participant observation. Often, mediated practice is not "lived" so much as "experienced," which is to say that the phenomena under investigation are often fleeting; indeed, the reasons for participation often include this very transient or liminal quality.

<32> The primary purpose of participant-observation research, according to Jankowski and Wester (1991), "is to describe in fundamental terms the various events, situations, and actions that occur in a particular social setting" (61). This foundational definition is a good start, but the actual implementation of a participant-observation program is significantly more complex. Researchers must make a series of decisions, each of which is informed directly by the goals of the research. For example, investigators must decide on their level of immersion. Since "the research is, ideally, performed in a naturalistic setting with emphasis on everyday behavior" (pp. 44-5), the investigator must decide what degree of involvement will be appropriate to observing phenomena germane to the analysis. In my case, my participatory involvement with my research group was limited to the purchased tour experience, a period of much shorter time and lesser familiarity than the traditionally conceived participant observation.

<33> One must also decide on issues of identity. An investigator who is known to the community under study as a scholar is likely to observe behavior which is more self-conscious than the researcher who remains anonymous (cf. T Williams,,1989; Whyte, 1943). Parameswaran (1999) states the problem (or opportunity) nicely:

In ethnographic fieldwork, where researchers and their subjects encounter each other in interpersonal situations, informants may become much more self-conscious and reflective about the way they present themselves. As Bourdieu (1997) pointed out, the strategies people adopt in their everyday lives are usually unconscious, tacit, and prereflective, but people are also to some degree strategic improvisers who respond differently to the opportunities and constraints offered by various situations (102).

A corollary of this problem concerns the eye of the researcher; does the investigation proceed from a subject/object perspective or will the researcher understand her observations reflexively? The participant observation undertaken for the Hobbiton study in February and March of 2007, then, could be described both as an immersion (of sorts) and as a more conspicuous researcher-researched environment. From the first moment of my roughly five weeks in Matamata, for example, I began to carefully examine the semiotic culture that had grown up around Hobbiton, to listen to those shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and bankers with whom I had everyday interaction, and to observe the visitor and inhabitant activity taking place in the bustling daytime environment of Matamata's town square. My partner and I participated in the social life of Matamata, enjoying meals at local cafés and talking with locals about their experiences vis-à-vis The Lord of the Rings. We also, to some degree, participated in the social lives of one or two guides, who would often invite us out in the evenings.

<34> My initial meeting with the owners of the tour company occurred on my second day in town and at that time we established the parameters of my access to the tour experience (which was extraordinary and generous). I began tagging along on tours later that day and finally participated in 26 tour experiences, each of which was just over two hours in duration. This number was not established prior to commencing fieldwork; rather, I was encouraged to join as many as I wanted and endeavored to do as many as I could. On a daily basis, given the schedule of tours and the comings and goings of tour buses, the maximum was three. On some days I did three, but my desire to tour with each of the tour guides, experience a tour at different times of the day, and spend time where possible engaging with guides or visitors in person before or after a tour often meant paring the goal down to two. In any case, the final number of observations was more than enough to establish a sense of information saturation and I began to feel (as, I found, do the guides themselves) how the tour can have an exhaustingly repetitive quality.

<35> On each tour, I would board a bus with a group of visitors to the site. At first, I was unknown to the guides (except by some level of reputation - they had heard "someone was coming to do some research"), and one of my first goals was to introduce myself to each of them and establish rapport. This action would often be observed or overheard by tour participants, with whom I was quite open about my motivations when asked. On other occasions, especially once my presence was of little consequence to guides and the groups were large, I was truly integrated anonymously into the tour group. Under such conditions, my activities on site would be very much like everyone else's: walking, listening, looking and photographing. Only when I found it relatively unobtrusive to engage with a fellow visitor did I reveal myself as a researcher, though this happened at variable times throughout the tour.

 

Constructivism and data analysis

<36> In considering the analysis of qualitative data, I again look to Geertz and his characterization of ethnographic analysis as a "fixing of the said" (1973, p. 19). Geertz characterizes this process as one of "tracing the curve of social discourse" and "fixing it into an inspectable form" which allows the investigator to engage with "the meaning of the speech event, not the event as event" (ibid.). In other words, what Geertz is after are the signals given in spoken form by respondents which indicate "intentional exteriorization" or what Hoover, Clark & Alters (2004) have already termed, in a slightly different light, "accounts." It is this writing down of the passing dialogic event between respondent and investigator that allows the "delicate" process of "guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape" (Geertz, 1973, p. 20).

<37> This method of analysis is, of course, inductive rather than deductive. Thus the data have guided the analysis in the sense that "terms and concepts are meant to serve as guideposts for investigation and not, as in traditional social science, expressions based on theoretical constructions designed to be tested" (Jankowski and Wester, 1991, p. 45). In my case, while I framed the investigation under a certain set of terms and within a theoretical ballpark, the data acted organically upon those terms and allowed for reformulations, surprises, and impressions. "We enter the scene," as Stake (1995, p. 1) puts it, "with a sincere interest in learning how (subjects) function in their ordinary pursuits and milieus and with a willingness to put aside many presumptions while we learn." But this approach should not suggest the adoption of abstractions, or at least not abstractions which are not close to the data; in fact they are "grounded" in the data and allow the researcher to engage with and improve her research program based on emerging patters. Such an approach has been called the "constant comparative method" (Clark, 2003, p. 245; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). In this way, data are not made to fit into prescribed categories and modalities, but are rather collected under concepts which "rest on a general sense of what is relevant" (Blumer, quoted in Jankowski and Wester, 1991, p. 67) and, finally, allow for more incisive and specific research.

 

A tour group ascends the path to Bag-End, "just like Gandalf did."

Click image for larger version.

 

Conclusion

 

<38> The titular phrase "practice in mediated space" brings together several aspects of media anthropology. Individuals engage with one another and with particular geographical spaces within a media ecology operated largely if not completely under the ideals of capital accumulation. It is much to consider, and yet if we lose touch with any of these strands while conducting our inquiry, the web is weakened. Each utterance speaks the connections, rather than the distinctions, between text, practice, and institutions. A commitment to grounded, deep, qualitative inquiry is thus a viable and valuable step in exploring the "global" media landscape and its impressions upon "local" contexts. It is the radical particularity and detail of such studies that can offer, over time, a meaningful if not statistical generalizability regarding questions of individual practice and media power.

<39> One of the interesting things about studying tourism through methods associated with constructivist media anthropology is the striking historical similarity between the object and the method of inquiry. As a practice, tourism, as the saying goes, ain't what it used to be. While many of the economic and structural forces at work during the era of the European Grand Tour (privilege, capital, mobility) remain, and while the stains of colonialism and Orientalism continue to define more than inflect much touristic practice, there can be little question that much of what passes for tourist activity in the 21st century is fundamentally different than that which has come before. Much of this difference, where it exists, can be attributed to the rise of media technologies and availability: ask a Hawai'ian tourism official, for example, about the impact of ABC-TV's Lost series. At the same time, ethnography, an enterprise nearly identical in form to that of tourism, has also changed. Much of the above has been intended to highlight that change in the globalized era and to suggest that, while ethnography as it has been traditionally defined may become less viable every day, a new, more challenging - and therefore more vibrant - media anthropology is emerging alongside (or in place of) it. It is here, on the ground and in the thick descriptions which are the fruit of careful qualitative inquiry, where media scholars can continue to demonstrate the absolutely central - rather than indulgent or esoteric - importance of their discipline in late or post-modern social life.

 

Acknowledgment

 

This paper was presented in an earlier form at the April 2007 conference on Media Fields at the University of California-Santa Barbara and has been enriched by the many helpful comments there received. The paper also derives from my 2007 doctoral dissertation, completed under the auspices of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I would like to thank the members of my committee - Shu-Ling Berggreen, Chair; Stewart Hoover; Lynn Schofield Clark; Timothy Oakes; and Ann Hardy - for their insight and guidance in the completion of that project and, of course, the development of the epistemological standpoint that is at the root of this paper. Thanks also, finally, to the editors of Reconstruction for their help in carving a concise piece out of a much larger monolith of information.

 

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