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Power and Progress: The RidgiDidge Study
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Power and Progress: The RidgiDidge Study

Kate Liley | Griffith University | Brisbane | Queensland

The RidgiDidge Study employs a combined Cultural Studies and sociological approach to address the PhD research question of how new media technology figures in the lives of Australian children.

However, the ‘straight forwardness’ of this research question belies the complexity of the research process and the underlying issues concerning the intersection between Australian childhood and new media technology use.

What follows here is an outline of the research in the context of some of the literature and the methodology. A few key findings of the RidgiDidge Study will then be discussed in terms of what they might theoretically indicate about Australian childhood at its intersection with new media technology.

The importance of researching Australian childhood and the impact of new media technology emerges in several ways. Australia is seen as one of the fastest adopters of new media technology , with young people between 10 and 17 years of age most frequently using new media technologies in comparison to other Australian age groups . There is wide acknowledgment that new media technologies such as the Internet, the PC, the mobile phone and the games system, have created a paradigm shift away from traditional media discourses .

This new media-inspired paradigm shift is compounded at the user/audience level where children are thought to respond differently to the presence of media forms and content given that they have grown up in a media-saturated society, unlike their parents generation did .

This is particularly so given the recognition of the emergence of personal traits such as openness, curiosity and assertiveness in users of new media technology .

This suggests two positions: Firstly, that there is a need for inter-generational understanding where the concerns and ideas of adults about media are not ‘taken as read’ for young people .

Secondly, that ‘context matters’ , and that research from other developed nations does not necessarily have a direct cross-cultural application to young Australians.

Australian children’s media research is often conducted in response to community concerns about media as mandated by the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, adding to a canon of Australian research, spearheaded by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), Australia’s primary broadcasting regulator.

Regrettably this useful and rigorous work is often overlooked by the Australian media itself in favour of sensational research based on flawed assumptions and dubious methodologies .

A prevailing flaw of this type of sensational research is that children and young people are seen as inadequate, a position derived from psychological models where children must develop from an ‘irrational childhood to logical adulthood’ .

The adoption of a structural perspective of childhood within the RidgiDidge research is one way of recognising children and young people’s capacity to contribute to society, as well as facilitating the articulation of the ‘nature of the society whose childhood it is’ .

However, as Sonia Livingstone points out, researching children’s media issues from this perspective is yet to be ‘fully explored and pertinent interdisciplinary connections are yet to be made in a culturally specific context’.

Given the relationship between child potentiality and social context , and the recognition that developments in media technology and concepts of childhood go hand in hand , culturally specific research into new media and childhood holds broader policy implications for Australian education, culture and society.

These implications extend to the need for ‘the development of appropriate methodologies for the study of children’s interactive experiences’ .

The propriety of such methodologies would take in to account the complexities of children’s relationship to media and the added dimension this brings to established social research methods.

To this end, Glaserian Grounded Theory method informs the methodology of this research, allowing for a structural perspective of childhood where the views of its participants discipline the line of research. The application of this methodology to this research area seems appropriate given that the best use of grounded theory is in ‘investigations of relatively unchartered water, or to gain a fresh perspective in a familiar situation’ .

This approach is oriented towards ‘how technology functions in specific social contexts’ focussing on the impact of new media technology, rather than its content.

The findings of the field research will then form a culturally specific framework for discussion of the relations between new media technology and Australian childhood. Indeed, qualitative research is seen as ‘one of the best ways to learn about the differentiated subtleties of people’s engagement with television and other media’ .

To this end, the RidgiDidge research is designed as a three-year research project that uses qualitative and quantitative data gathered from Australian High School Students in Years 9 and 10.

This data is gathered from participants by means of a 7-day media diary, a short survey and an individual interview. Participants go through this data gathering process on three occasions over a six-term period.

The first of these data gathering occasions is complete, and some initial findings will be discussed later in the context of the theoretical framework of this research. The emergent theory is expected to assist in addressing deficits in the knowledge about Australian childhood at its intersection with new media technology.

As mentioned earlier, Livingstone has asserted that researching children’s media issues from a structural perspective is yet to be fully explored and that pertinent interdisciplinary connections are yet to be made in a culturally specific context . Given the nature of the research question, it cannot be denied that the RidgiDidge research locates itself as an interdisciplinary work that simultaneously wades in the waters of sociology and cultural studies.

Angela McRobbie points out that while ‘cultural studies flaunts its wild style [and] sociology prides itself on its materialist steadfastness’, the conflict between the two fields has regrettably ‘bubbled underneath [academic discourse] [and] taken the form of barbed references and footnotes, with occasional outbursts of hostility’ .

Despite this territorialism, it is reasonable to suggest that the combination of theoretical agility (cultural studies) and a grounded method of inquiry (sociology), will produce a cogent contribution to the understanding of contemporary Australian childhood at its intersection with new media technology.

If the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child is pertinent, then perhaps it might also take a ‘village’ to understand a child suggesting that understanding young Australian’s media technology use is not the sole prevail of any one discipline.

As McRobbie points out,

Cultural studies, while continually on the cutting edge of theory, must be willing to substantiate this interest, not necessarily through recourse to empiricism, but through a mode of research and analysis which explores more fully the rich suggestiveness of theoretical work.

In turn, McRobbie suggests that Sociology should consider that it is ‘no longer possible to conceptualise and analyse society as a whole, or even as a layered and uneven totality’.

‘There can be no longer one big picture, and that kind of theoretical imaging of ‘society’ which gave sociology its existence’ .

These ideas suggest an agenda for the discussion of children’s media issues here in suggesting a symbiotic and synergistic relationship between two disciplines of thought.

In this way, the RidgiDidge research might enjoy the best of both worlds by adopting an anti-essentialist approach to the personal and lived experience of its participants (sociology) as well as connecting this range of experiences with concepts of difference and subjectivity (cultural studies).

It is this acknowledgment of difference and subjectivity that contextualises the RidgDidge research in both quantitative and qualitative forms as illustrative of the role played by new media technology in Australian High School students lives rather than representative.

Such illustrative research has the capacity ‘produce regularities, patterns of repetition which are indicative of the ‘hardness’, the resistance, of social fact; and they have the capacity, crucial to empirical research, to take [one] by surprise’ .

This suggests that research must go beyond taking the ‘voices of young people’ at their ethnographic face value, and to see them as ‘complex social constructs which are the products of pre-given discourses, in effect "written" in advance as scripts made available by dominant culture for their teenage speakers’ .

With this in mind, it is possible to see the waft and weave of the relationship between the RidgiDidge participants and their new media technology, to the broader issues of culture and society.

Indeed, it is the RidgiDidge participants to new media technology that offers an entrée to a discussion that sees young Australian’s choices in new media technology adopting the ‘role of taste judgements as mechanisms of social and cultural power’ .

In keeping with ideas of culturally specificity, Andy Bennet has pointed out ‘local factors both limit and shape the types of cultural resource available to youth and the sensibilities inscribed within such resources’ .

This is in keeping with Jenkins 1983 assertion that ‘lifestyle’ is a more suitable term than ‘subculture’ in describing ‘the formation of distinct social practices while at the same time acknowledging the wider set of common cultural practices within which such alternative collective strategies are played out’ .

It is this negotiation or agency, apparent in the RidgiDidge participant relationship to new media technology that sees the theoretical framework of the RidgiDidge research turn to hegemonic theory in the guise of the Birmingham School’s ‘neo-Gramscian hegemony theory’ .

This position indicates Gramsci’s preference for ‘an interpretation which stresses the fundamental role performed by human agency in historical change’ given Gramsci’s concern to eradicate economic determinism from Marxist theory. Indeed, Hall sees a ‘Gramscian understanding’ of ‘conjunctural knowledge’ as providing stability to cultural studies .

This knowledge is in turn applicable to ‘specific and immediate political or historical circumstances; as well as an awareness that the structure of the representations which form culture’s alphabet and grammar are instruments of social power, requiring critical and activist examination’ .

If children are seen as social agents and childhood as a structural category in society, then a range of theoretical concepts can be discussed in relation to children and their childhoods. The concept of power is one such theoretical avenue to travel after resituating childhood in a new sociological light.

However, the struggle for power here is not envisioned in the Marxist sense. Rather, it is the Foucauldian concept of power that suggests the ways ‘we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others’ and that power is ‘taking charge of life’ .

Hartley points out that power manifests itself as Foucault’s idea of a ‘governmentality’ demonstrated ‘in knowledge, and in the organisation and administration of bodies’ . Here, ‘power could be seen in the minutæ of everyday transactions, in private life, and in the technologies mobilised to evaluate, measure, appraise, hierarchise - and so to produce - ‘normal’ society.

Here, the imbrication of the disciplines of Cultural Studies and Sociology lead to a change in emphasis from aesthetic and moral judgements about culture ‘to the overall map of social relations’ in whose interests cultural difference and practice are articulated .

Thus the idea that children’s choices in new media technology are a mechanism of social and cultural power becomes a key theme in the approach to the RidgiDidge research.

From the outset, the RidgiDidge research was based on the working assumption that the consumption of new media, both as object and as content, was a popular cultural practice for High School students, an assumption predicated on Australia’s high rate of technology adoption and use and bourn out by the initial research findings.

Thus, the participation in popular culture of Australian High School students through, but not exclusively, new media technology suggests a site where the dominant ideology of home, school and media-consumer life is resisted and negotiated with.

The multi-discusivity of popular culture has been recognised in many ways such as books, records and clothes (Hebdidge 1976); as a form of patriarchal domination (Feminism); as ‘an expression of universal and unchanging social and mental structures’ ; and as a form of consumer subversion (Fiske).

The point here is that ‘popular culture is defined on the basis of the way it is explained and evaluated theoretically’ .

This act of differentiating between high and popular culture is a way of exercising ‘taste’, a term Bourdieu contextualises as an ideological category where the concept of class exists as both ‘a social economic category and a particular level of quality’ .

In this way, the consumption of culture fulfils ‘a social function of legitimating social differences’ .

However, Woodward and Emmison suggest that academic ‘understandings of taste’ are rarely built upon ‘the perceptions and attitudes of ordinary actors’ . Woodward and Emmison’s assert that often, ‘everyday judgements of taste are not only understood [by research participants] as a question of aesthetics but that they are also matters of moral, ethical and communal sensibility’ .

In terms of the RidgiDidge research, early findings suggest that the purchase of new media technologies must often perform several roles and please several family members, suggesting that judgements of taste can apply to both the personal and the communal sphere.

Similarly, the adoption of a neo-Gramscian perspective where ‘popular culture is what men and women make from their active consumption of the texts and practices of the culture industries’ allows for a discussion that addresses how the RidgiDidge participants use new media technology outside of their content choices.

Indeed, hegemony allows for a compromise equilibrium where the ‘commercially provided culture of the culture industries is redefined, reshaped and redirected in strategic acts of selective consumption and productive acts of reading and articulation, often in ways not intended or even foreseen by its producers’ .

Thus children’s choices in new media technology use and acquisition speaks to the exercise of social and cultural power, or to echo Foucault, taking charge of their lives where they can.

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RidgiDidge: 
A study of how new media technology figures in the lives of Australian High School Students