Monday, December 22, 2008

Indigenous communication: Pamela Wilson versus Des Wilson

Des Wilson took a PhD in African indigenous communication from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria in 1988. Des’s thesis was on the indigenous communication media and channels of the Ibibio people in South-South Nigeria. Des defined indigenous media as those media of communication that had been in use before the modern mass media and are still in use today. Adopting some of his terms from music, he categorised these media into several groups including membranophones, ideophones, aerophones, symbolographic displays, extramundane communication and music. Examples of such media included talking drums, wooden drums, rattles, folk tales, tattoos, symbolic writing and codes. A little unwieldy, you might think. Yet, to many of us, Wilson’s work was not only an important improvement on the complicated work of Doob (1960) but also a take-off point and launch-pad for enquiry into African indigenous communication media and systems. And this has led to a number of graduate theses. Years after, Mundy and Compton (1991); Mundy and Lloyd-Laney (1992); Millar and Aniah (2005) and several others continue to map the territory of indigenous media a la Des, that is, as that which was there pre-colonially and is still being used today. With the probable exception of the chapter by Louise Bourgault, this line of thought runs through the book edited by Ghana’s Ansu-Kyeremeh, Indigenous communication in Africa (2005). Newspapers, radio and television are described as exogenous or foreign media; the exact opposite of indigenous media. Points of intersection and interaction between these exogenous and indigenous media are explored but as points of distinctly intersecting entities.

But the recent very brilliant book edited by Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart, Global indigenous media, defines indigenous media completely differently. Acknowledging the internal tension in the phrase “global indigenous”, the editors and contributors consider indigenous media as any media used by the indigenous peoples, defined by Manuel and Posluns as “people who have special nontechnical, nonmodern, exploitative relations to the land in which they still inhabit and who are disenfranchised by the nations they live”. Among such media are radio, television, cinema, and even the internet. "The stone rejected by the builders..." you might think. (“Interestingly”, Pamela Wilson’s book, which has fifteen chapters focusing on different peoples, has nothing to say about any of the peoples of Africa. Never mind that the title reads “Global...”. Contributors were drawn from across the globe: that is, from America and Europe!).

Whereas Des Wilson and others focus on the origin of a medium in classifying it as indigenous, Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart and others focus on the users of the media (the indigenous people). Does that say something about the difference between a media scholar and an anthropologist? This difference can take fundamental dimensions especially when mapping out research focus is the issue. And the difference will certainly persist especially since there is little or no interaction among the two groups of scholars symbolised by these two Wilsons. Maybe there should be a journal of indigenous communication studies to engender such interaction.


Loomnie said...

First of all, I am aware of Des Wilson's classifications, but I am not really sure whether the other scholars who have written a la Des are media scholars. I take it that they are, or at least that they are not anthropologists. Second, I am not very familiar with these areas of research so what I will write here will simply be comments from a person who is close to the two disciplines.

I have a friend who would say that the fact that researchers stuck to Des’s classification is due to path dependency: people did research a la Des because he was the first to propose a definition/ classification of indigenous media that they found incredibly relevant; maybe if the second definition had come before Des’s it would have stuck instead of his. I strongly doubt that Pamela Wilson’s could have come at the time of Des’s though. In 1988, for instance, who foresaw the possibility that claims to being indigenous would be fought over the internet, or that cable television and internet would be part of the life of many of the people that we call indigenous? So, at the time that Des Wilson wrote his thesis, there was no imperative to look at the ways that indigenous peoples interact with the ‘modern’ media.

I think that rather than ascribe the difference in definition to turf claims, it might be interesting to see the way scholarship on indigenous peoples has changed, having it in mind that the media has been a great part of that change. Times have changed, and the imperative of the Now propels academic research, as you well know. It would also be interesting to see how the idea of the indigenous has changed over time, and how the media has been part of it, and how that has informed political awareness and mobilisation. If there is a project like that I would be interested in being a part of it.

In short, I think that the two prongs you have shown belong to the same fork, and both are equally important areas of research, for both anthropologists and media scholars. In fact, in this case, there is no clear distinction between the two disciplines, except, of course, in methodological issues.

As per the complaint about a lack of contribution on Africa, maybe you should edit a collection on that, a collection that fuses the two areas you identified. Just a thought, but I would love to read that book. ;)

Nwachukwu Egbunike said...

Nice one Dr. Found it useful in understanding Indigenous communication.

Although, Des Wilson's classification may neither be throughly exclusive nor exhaustive. Nonetheless, of all other classifications, his still remains the best, including his definition.

I am not particularly attracted to Pamela's definition. If my grand folk in the village starts using the internet, by Pamela's definition it means that the internet is now part of indigenous media. This shows the great gap between anthropology and communication studies.

Des definition is culture specific, while Pamela's is people bound. I think I'll rather stick to Des Wilson's.

Anyway many thanks and please don't stop writing.

Akeem Ademola Azeez said...

a check through the dictionary definition of "indigenous" refer to it as "originating, where it is found" (wordmonkey dictionary via igoogle - accessed on 7th may 2011). if this is correct, and about which there is no doubt in my mind, i want to say pamela wilson et al have done a great injustice to the definition of the word and by extension the definition of indigenous communication. i believe that there is nothing indigenous to africans about most of the products of the new media to make them indigenous to africans or other parts of the world where they have been exported to.

i also believe that it is also wrong for them to have tried to play down the relevance of africa/africans in the content of their book which they claim is for the 'globe'. in my own view, it is a mordern attempt to present african as the "dark continent", or a place where nothing is happening.

as for des wilson. i think he has done a good job but i believe is list of the indigenous media ought to be increased by those in the field already and those of us just finding our bearing in the field.

Anonymous said...

There is no how an indigenous communication scholar or student can overlook Des's definition of indigenous communication system.Rubbishing his attempt at shining light on what constitutes indigenous communication is as good as good as overlooking the follow-up studies of the likes of Akpabio, Ansu-Kyeremeh and others. As a research student in this area and an African as I am, I stick with the Wilson of Des not that of Pamela.Keep it up, Sir. Rasheed Adebiyi.

Pamela Wilson said...

Hello, Professor Ojebode. I have just read your blog with interest, and I would be happy to engage in a discussion with you about the different perceptions of the term "indigenous media" that your very interesting article brings to light. My background is both in cultural anthropology and in media communication, and the concept of "indigenous media" that the book I co-edited with Michelle Stewart embodied originated in American anthropology, particularly the works of anthropologists such as Faye Ginsburg and Terence Turner who studied media produced by tribal groups in Australia and Brazil, respectively. Most studies of "indigenous media" (sometimes called "aboriginal media") seem to focus on Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Native Americans and tribal groups of Central and South America. When Michelle and I were editing our book, we actively sought to find studies that represented a broader geographical area, and we actively asked for submissions regarding African communities, but did not receive any. It was not an oversight on our part. I would very much like to include more studies of African communication in my future work, and so I look forward to speaking with you and your colleagues. Please feel free to email me at

Anonymous said...

Des definition is the one i can agree with bcos stating in the definition that there are the channels that traditions use to disseminate data b4 modern media and there are still using it shows that even though modern exploits but our traditions means are not totally eliminated

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