Television and Social Change in Rural India

Television and Social Change in Rural India / Information and Communication Technology in Development: Cases from India

Stephen D McDowell

TELEVISION AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN RURAL INDIA. By Kirk Johnson. London: Sage Publications, Inc. 2000. 247. (B&W photos, charts.) US$51.95, cloth. ISBN 0-7619-9421-1.

INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY IN DEVELOPMENT: Cases from India. Edited by Subhash Bhatnagar and Robert Schware. New Delhi (India), Thousand Oaks (California), London (UK): Sage Publications. 2000. 230 pp. (Figures, tables, graphs, B&W photos.) US$45.00, cloth. ISBN 0-7619-9444-0.

Many commentators have noted the rapid changes in the uses of communication and information technologies in India in the last decade. These books offer detailed case studies outlining emerging characteristics of these uses. Their findings point to the need to undertake careful and close research of actual technology practices and implications in different settings.

These books illustrate distinct processes taking place simultaneously in “private” society and “public” organizations with new media introduction. Television equipment and use is simple and the cultural attractions of entertainment are strong, sought out by people in a variety of situations. The intended uses of television are planned mostly by private sector programmers and advertisers. Those uses are not entirely predictable, differing by audiences and reception contexts. Once embraced, the uses of television technology are dynamic and very sustainable. Although the consequences are debated, the program producers and distributors usually are not held directly responsible.

Compare this to the introduction of information and communication tools in complex public agencies. Here the public agency is responsible both for the intended uses and the actual results of technology implementation in a human organization. While new technology has advocates – Rob Kling says it is useful to think of computerization as a social movement – high costs, sometimes indirect benefits, and negotiation, bargaining, and learning make the sustainability of new technology practices more tenuous. These are the extra hurdles faced by the public sector in introducing new technologies to serve public purposes, the burdens of complexity, results and consequences.

Kirk Johnson provides a close ethnographic study of the ways in which television is being incorporated into people’s lives in two small villages in India. The book discusses mass media theories and research on the impact of television in India, as well as the ethnographic methodology and strategies undertaken in this study. Separate chapters include detailed studies of the two villages, a discussion of social change and village society, and the history of television in India. Only after this comprehensive background does the book report on the details of the reconfiguration of daily life with television.

The television experience is recent in one village (Danawali) and only one channel is available. Multi-channel cable television services are available in the other village (Raj Puri), as they are to many urban dwellers in India. Johnson concludes that television made a large difference in both places. The daily use of time in the morning, day, dusk and night has changed significantly, with people sleeping less and children spending less time on their school-work. “Entertainment shows are seen as attractive if not addictive” (p. 187).

Johnson confronts theoretic and methodological issues, and presents a rich historical and contextual picture of village life. The reader learns a lot about village life in general, and about these villages in particular, in addition to television in daily life. Qualitative observations are nested in a series of broader choices about theory, method and relevant context. These choices and judgements illustrate the multiple layers of decisions made in developing knowledge claims about social and cultural practices.

Whereas Johnson deals with television, a mass medium driven largely by commercial purposes and being integrated by individuals and groups into everyday life, Bhatnagar and Schware cover information and communication technology systems being introduced into public organizations to support the mandates and goals of these organizations. Fourteen chapters cover case applications, whether to assist the management of development programs (healthcare workers, disaster management plans), to provide public services more effectively (milk collection centres, registration of deeds, revenue offices, rural postal systems), to make information more accessible to citizens (documenting grassroots innovation, local area networks in a village, village telephony), or to deliver training programs. The training programs covered include satellite delivery of extension programs, training of barefoot women managers and physically and socially disadvantaged groups, support of literacy growth through same language sub-titling, and information technology employment in rural villages. The case reports discuss the problems in the conventional system that the new technology was to address, the specific technology configuration or application introduced, implementation problems that were encountered, and implementation benefits and results.

Some reports follow an evaluation format, focusing on the problem, the technology, the organizational context and outcomes. Others, especially the one by Anil K Gupta, Brij Kothari, and Kirit Patel about the Honey Bee knowledge network to support grassroots innovation, reflect on the broader social and economic context of the selected problem and technical application. While some applications automate organizational functions that increase efficiency and provide better services, others are more information intensive and transformative, allowing people to work together in qualitatively different ways.

Florida State University, Tallahassee, U.S.A. STEPHEN D. McDOWELL

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 2002

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