Media Work Book Review (6)

As I blogged earlier this week, it has been a fantastic ride with my last book, Media Work (Polity Press), especially in terms of the feedback I've been getting. The latest issue of The Information Society contains yet another (by my count 6th) scholarly review piece on the book - after earlier ones in the International Journal of Media Management, the European Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, Ecquid Novi:African Journalism Studies, and Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

The review in The Information Society was done by Greg Downey of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin, Madison (US). Greg is an expert in the field of (the historical analysis of) information labor, and his work and teaching - check out his excellent information society course materials - are a source of inspiration for me. His review of the book is critical, but overall I am pleased with the comments he makes.

Greg Downey particularly laments my lack of historical grounding - which is true, and as a historian by way of my graduate training I should know better - and the rather limited use I make of my empirical material (in-depth interviews with 600+ media professionals in the US, The Netherlands, South Africa, and New Zealand), or my theoretical framework (particularly Zygmunt Bauman's concept of liquid modernity). Again, I have no qualms nor excuses here.

Other than that, I'm thrilled that he described the book and my writing style alternately as "lively", "readable", "useful", "effective", and generally part of what he calls an "important niche", whereas he considers Media Work especially powerful when read next to his own work, citing his 2004 edited volume (with Aad Blok), Uncovering labour in information revolutions, 1750–2000 (published by Cambridge University Press). I must admit I did not know that book, which is my bad.

Overall I must admit that one thing bugs me about this book review - something which I have noticed a bit too often in the responses of scholars in more or less established (read: older) fields of study to work that is explicitly done or located in the realm of new media and digital culture (which Polity's title for the book series, Digital Media And Society, alludes to): a tendency to dismiss many of not all of the work, theorizing, and claimsmaking done in new media studies as intrinsically overemphasizing the "new". Although this is a valuable critique, it is also a bit too easy. As Greg and other historians know, nothing is ever really new, as everything is caught up in micro, meso, and macro flows of history. To claim that someone is not articulating the history his or her argument enough (simply by stating that whatever he or she signals today has been signaled one way or another before), is something that can be pretty much stated about almost any scholarly work.

Furthermore (and I may be mistaken), I do not think I am actually stating anywhere in the book that whatever I found to be happening in media work today is exclusive or unique to the situation right now, but I do argue that the historical categories we have used to this day to explain things in (media) sociology and social theory are perhaps different, less useful, or run the risk of turning our field into a (as Giddens and Beck among others argue) "shell" and "zombie" sociology. Considering Greg's valuable thoughts and comments, I should do a much better job exploring and articulating such notions.

Some highlights from the (copyright-protected) review:

Media Work, by Mark Deuze. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007. 278 pp. $69.95 cloth/$22.95 paper. ISBN 978-07456-3924-6 (cloth), 978-07456-3925-3
(paper). Reviewed by Greg Downey, School of Journalism and Mass Communication and School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA


"Mark Deuze’s Media Work is a useful but limited attempt to situate and synthesize recent literature on what it means to be a creative professional in four cross-cutting industries: advertising, journalism, screen entertainment, and video games. This lively and readable account demonstrates that the study of new media through the lens of labor—both the increasingly contingent labor of media professionals and the increasingly interactive labor of their fragmented audiences—is an important and vibrant area of interdisciplinary scholarship, sitting at the intersection of communication studies, labor studies, technology studies, and cultural studies.

Although Deuze falls short of his goal to present a rich global ethnography of these industries, the anecdotal firsthand data that his students and colleagues have collected does add flavor and perspective to his narrative. And while a lack of theoretical breadth and a frustratingly shortsighted view of media history will limit the usefulness of his book for most graduate students and media scholars, Media Work would make a provocative and productive text in any undergraduate course on mass communication, cultural theory, or new media technology.

[...]

In his very brief conclusion, Deuze seems to reject wholesale a century of media sociology, stating that “It is tempting to analyze this kind of media life in terms of the boundaries and parameters that have well-established meanings such as social institutions (the family, the company, the state), and corresponding conceptual categories (culture, economy, creativity). However, the overview of the lives and identities of people professionally employed as media practitioners if anything suggests that these analytical devices are not particularly helpful if we want to make sense of media work—and thus of the problems and solutions people in overdeveloped capitalist democracies increasingly face on a day to day basis” (p. 233). But if the category of “media work”—or, more broadly, “knowledge work” or “information work”—is worth defining and analyzing, it is precisely because such a concept must be productively used together with those “well-established” analytical categories that Deuze derides as “not particularly helpful.” Arguing that these categories might be more “fluid”—interpenetrating, impermanent, contingent, or just changing historically—is not the same as accepting that these categories are useless.

[...]

As a snapshot of present-day working conditions and recent interdisciplinary scholarship around the question of professional media work, Deuze’s short and readable volume fills an important niche. But in the end, the broadest conclusion Deuze is able to make is that “a structural sense of constant change and permanent revolution is the strongest guide or predictor of the human condition in the digital age” (p. 235). Rather than always seeing historical discontinuity around digital networked infrastructures, perhaps we must admit that “constant change,” especially when it comes to practices of cultural creation, knowledge production, and information circulation, has been a hallmark—if not the hallmark—of what has been called “modernity” for a very long time indeed."