Too much analysis makes for trauma

21st July 1995 at 01:00
TELEVISION, ETHNICITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE by Marie Gillespie Routledge Pounds 12.99 - 0 415 09675 8

Farrukh Dhondy considers television's influence on ethnic communities. A Martian lands on earth and after nosing about decides to write a book entitled Western Civilisation. The problem is that she has landed in an Albanian village, talked to a couple of Albanian violinists and then concocted a thesis. No sign of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe, Titian, Napoleon, Plato, Marx . . . just the Albanian fiddlers - Western Civilisation of a sort, but surely the wrong title for the book.

Marie Gillespie starts off with a fairly narrow objective. "This book is about the role of television in the formation and transformation of identity among young Punjabi Londoners." Even this narrow task poses its difficulties. First because "identity" is a very elusive quality and second because no amount of "fieldwork" can quantify the total effect that TV has on a particular group.

It is no doubt easy enough to set up an experiment to study the effect an advertisement has on a group of people. Did they go out and buy the soap powder or not? After targeted bombardment by some films with attitude, did they pick up such attitudes? Unfortunately, Gillespie doesn't choose to work through such narrow experiments or indeed choose this methodology at all. She relies on ethnography which she defines as "the empirical description and analysis of cultures based on intensive and extensive fieldwork in a selected local setting".

The method leads to meandering and meaningless conclusions in every chapter. Here's one from the chapter entitled "TV News Talk": "Breakfast news, the shorter five-minute bulletins, regional news, and the simplified, entertaining children's new programme Newsround are the initiation ground from which a subsequent interest in news develops." Isn't this true of any British teenager? And can Gillespie say with any confidence that ardent watchers of Newsround become developed watchers of Newsnight?

Another example from the chapter "TV Ad Talk":

Dalvinder: It's good to get out of Southall, go down Hounslow with me mates and sit in McDonald's, get a Big Mac and a Coke . .

Amrit: Yeah, and have a good gossip . . .

Dalvinder: . . . and check out the guys (giggling) . . .

Amrit: . . . and get checked out by the guys.

The apparent rejection of Indian food by many young people in the peer culture can be seen as a gesture expressing the desire to establish some degree of independence from the family culture and at the same time to exert some control over one's own body.

I don't know that the "fieldwork" merits this conclusion. Couldn't it be that teenagers everywhere eat Big Macs, whether they're Sikh, West Indian or Anglo Saxon? And is noting that they eat McDonalds really a profound comment on the role of TV? Too much of the "research" deteriorates into this sort of chit chat:

Saira: You don't really know what boys are really like, they don't discuss Neighbours, they think it's a sissy drama, they discuss computers, the latest films, video piracy, sport and boring stuff like that, they don't like discussing relationships.

So interview data suggests that soap talk is much more a feature of female than male communication.

Do we really need "fieldwork" to arrive at this notion? When Gillespie is not feeding us these half-baked contentions, she degenerates into polytechnic- lecturer-speak:

"Social interaction and relations are no longer dependent on simultaneous spatial co-presence. Instantaneous communication through a variety of media fosters intense relations between 'absent others' (Giddens, 1990: 18-21). As this happens, our experiences of time and space become 'distantiated' - we experience distant events unfolding instantaneously on screen in our homes (Giddens, 1990; Williams, 1989: 13-21)".

Two authorities to tell us that the people on TV screens aren't really sitting inside the box?

Farrukh Dhondy is commissioning editor for multicultural programmes for Channel 4.

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