Paper for SEM 2008 panel: “Media consumption as social organization in a New England primary school”

My contribution to the panel mentioned in the last post will be a paper titled “Media consumption as social organization in a New England primary school.” (I’m really happy with the allusion to Goodwin’s He Said She Said, but I really need to start writing more explanatory titles.) Abstract after the jump.

This paper considers how kids’ media consumption is organized within a complex ordering of social space. At the small Vermont primary school that hosted this ethnographic project, portable music players circulate among lockers, desks, pockets, and backpacks. Kids pass earbuds among friends as they participate in the dense and expressive overlap of talk, touch, and gesture that characterizes their unmonitored peer interactions, sharing access to media that for some is limited by parental resources or restrictions. Throughout the day, kids continually move between adult-structured classes and the relative freedom of the hallway, playground, and lunchroom, their music players disappearing at the classroom door. In class, kids listen surreptitiously to earbuds concealed in hoodies, talk “off-topic” about music, and imitate popular singers, contesting and destabilizing regulations of noise and disorder.

These kids participate in an apparently binary organization of school into classroom and playground, teacher and student, structure and unstructure, engaging in a classic example of Certeau’s “tactics” as they accommodate and resist school’s institutional “strategies.” Incorporating media use into this framework, kids marshal the global media industry’s strategic cultivation of childhood consumerism in their local negotiations of authority with teachers. Examining kids’ everyday talk and routines reveals that they link consumerist habitus with the intimate, engaged, and “natural” sociability of their peer groups. Positioning both in structural opposition to the behavioral and educational expectations of classroom teachers, kids situate themselves at a nexus of conflict between media and educational institutions, childhood sociability and adult authority, and local and global power structures.

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