10 Bounded Religious Communities’ Management of the Challenge of New Media: Baha’í Negotiation with the Internet (1/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

Heidi A. Campbell and Drake Fulton
10 Bounded Religious Communities
Management of the Challenge of New
Media: Bahaí Negotiation with the Internet
The negotiation of new forms of media by religious groups is a dynamic and
complex process that involves decision-making engaging the history, tradition
and beliefs of the community. This negotiation process is especially complex
for bounded religious communities, which establish rigid social and value-
laden boundaries allowing them to create and maintain a unique and separate
cultural system. Observing how members of bounded religious communities in-
teract with the Internet enables us to consider how some groups resist the fluid-
ity of networked relations and instead use technology to maintain closed social
structures and solidify their unique identities. This is clearly seen in the case of
the Baháí faith, especially in the patterns of use and limits American Baháís
have developed to engage with the Internet. By using the Religious Social Shap-
ing of Technology approach, developed by Campbell (2010), as a lens to explore
the challenges and choices made by the Baháís, this process of technological ne-
gotiation is unpacked.
1 Bounded religious community and new media
Bounded community is a term used to describe groups who live within a fixed
geographic region and/or possess strict ideological boundaries limiting their en-
gagement with outside groups. It has also been used to as a way to discuss ten-
sions that arise between groups attempting to maintain tight identity structures
in light of the increasingly permeable social boundaries of a networked society.
Describing a group as a bounded community can be challenging. In one sense
all communities are bounded, in that all communities possess certain bounda-
ries related to their quintessential characteristics, such as membership, identity
or locality. In the 1980s, identifying a group as a bounded community within the
sociology of community studies became a way to distinguish traditiona l com-
munities constrained by geography and familial small-scale relations with
more contemporary notions of community as a network of social relations
where boundaries are permeable (Wellman 1979; 1988). It also draws on the no-
tion that all communities are symbolically constructed, and their identity forma-
tion and presentation is based on varying degrees of boundary maintenance in
order to maintain the desired continuity of community (Cohen 1965). Bounded
communities thus become a way to talk about certain normative inclinations
of groups, such as constraints forming the basis for identity construction, organ-
ization and control of people, materials and territories (Linklater 1988: 133).
The notion of a bounded community is important when considering certain
forms of religious community. It is useful as it denotes those religious groups
which seek to live within a constrained social and cultural system that seeks
to resist the forces and patterns of life within modern networked society. In
this chapter the concept of the bound ed community draws attention to the
fact that some religious groups actively seek to mark out and protect their iden -
tities in a cultural milieu that encourages fluidity of identity and relations over
static and controlled ones.
Researchers have found that the ambiguity and fluidity of postmodern cul-
ture encourages the creation of hybrid or blended cultural spaces among
many groups that were traditionally tightly-knit groups, such as ethnic minori-
ties (e. g., Waldinger 2007). This ambiguity is accentuated by the social affordan-
ces of digital technology that can make it difficult to retain a cohesive identity
structure. Increasingly, religious community leaders struggle to monitor the prac-
tices and interactions of their members with external sources, as the Internet can
make it easier for members to bypass traditional gatekeepers and channe ls of
control (Livio and Teneboim 2007). This struggle raises provocative questions
about how new media technologies such as the Internet are impacting commun-
ity authority and power relations, especially conservative and fundamentalist
groups negotiation with the Internet (Howard 2000; Shandler 2009). In order
to carefully consider how bounded communities negotiate new media usage
we turn to the social shaping of technology, which we argue provides a clear
frame for studying this phenomenon.
2 The social shaping of technolog y as a frame for
understanding media appropriation
One way to approach how bounded communities negotiate their use of new
media technologies is through the lens of the social shaping of technology.
This approach frames technology as a product of the interplay between different
technical and social factors in both design and use (MacKenzie and Wajcman
2001). Technology use and creation is seen as a social process. Social groups
shape technologies towards their own ends rather than the character of a tech-
nology determining its use and outcomes. Scholars taking this approach exam-
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ine how social processes within a particular group influence user negotiations
with different technologies. It acknowledges that groups employ a given technol-
ogy in distinctive ways, so a groups technology use is unique, and their appro-
priation reinforces valued patterns of community life or practice.
In order to understand how religious communities and individuals negotiate
their choices related to new forms of media technology, it is necessary to study
these groups choices in relation to religious norms and social factors which
guide their technological decision-making. This is referred to as the religious-so-
cial shaping of technology approach, which attempts to give an account of the
specific conditions influencing a community of users negotiations with a tech-
nology that can lead to changes in use or belief within a given social context.
It also attempts to explain responses to new technology in socio-technological
terms. In other words, the success, failure or redesign of a given technology
by a specific group of users is based not simply on the innate qualities of the
technology but on the ability of users to socially construct the technology in
line with the moral economy of the user community or context. It recognises
that individuals and groups of actors within particular social situations see
their choices and options constrained by broader structural elements of their
worldview and belief system.
3 The religious-social shaping of technology
approach to media
Based on extensive online and offline ethnographic research regarding how var-
ious religious user communities engage media technology, it has been observed
that religious communities typically do not reject new forms of technology out-
right, even if the communities they come from are highly bounded or controlled
groupings. Rather, they undergo a sophisticated negotiation process to deter-
mine what effect technology may have on their community. If a religious com-
munity sees a new technology as valuable but notes its use may promote beliefs
or behaviours tha t run counter to their communitys values, the group must care-
fully consider what aspects of that technology must be resisted. This resistance
often leads to the reconstruction of the technology regarding either how it is
used or discussed within the community. It may even lead to innovation,
where technical aspects or structures are modified so that they are more in
line with the communitys social and religious life. The religious-social shaping
of technology approach is offered as a way to investigate and analyse the prac-
tical and ideological negotiation process these communities undergo. This ap-
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proach is outlined in detail in the text When Religion Meets New Media (Campbell
2010) and involves scholars employing four levels of examination in relation to
the specific group being studied: (1) the history and tradition of the community,
(2) its core beliefs and patterns related to media, (3) the specific negotiation proc-
esses it undergoes with a new technology, and finally (4) the communal framing
and discourses created by them, which are used to define and justify the extent
of their technology use and the way they will or will not engage certain media.
Together, these form the basis of the religious-social shaping of technology the-
oretical approach to the study of religious communities use of media, which is
described below.
As suggested, taking a religious-social shaping of technology approach be-
gins with studying the history and tradition of a given religious community in re-
lation to their media use. Here, researchers start by carefully considering the his-
torical context of the specific religious community under study to see how a
religious communitys positions toward and use of different media have emerged
over time and what decisions or events in the community history might have
shaped these decisions. It is important to note that decisions made regarding
texts, one of the earliest forms of media, often serve as a template for future ne-
gotiation with other media. In this phase of study, researchers should pay atten-
tion to how history and tradition form standards and a trajectory for future
media negotiations.
This leads to investigating religious communities core beliefs and patterns,
where attention is paid to how these specific communities live out their core so-
cial values. It is important to note that while beliefs are often derived from a his-
torically grounded tradition, they must always be contextualised and applied
anew to the social, cultural and historic context in which a given community
finds itself. Researchers should identify how a communitys dominant social
and religious values are integrated into patterns of contemporary life and how
these might influence their interactions with contemporary technologies. In an
age of digital technologies, close attention must be paid to how core beliefs
guide communal decision-making processes related to media use and what pat-
terns of use this encourages and discourages.
These two areas set the stage for the study of the negotiation process that re-
ligious communities undergo when faced with a new form of media. Religious
communities must consider in what respect the new form of media mirrors
past technologies so that old rules can be applied. If qualities, outcomes or so-
cial conditions created by the technology are problematic in any way for the
group, the community must enter into a rigorous negotiation process to see
what aspects of the technology can be accepted and which ones might need
to be rejected or reconstructed.
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Heidi A. Campbell and Drake Fulton
Innovation takes place if a technology is viewed as valuable but posse sses
problematic qualities requiring it to be altered in order to be more in line with
community beliefs and practices. Researchers consider how the previous phases
inform a communitys choices and responses to the new technology when con-
sidering the ways in which a new technology is accepted, rejected and/or recon-
structed. Key to this stage is the communitys positions towards authority roles
and structures, which can indicate who has the right to govern media decision-
making processes and involvement in innovation.
Finally, attention must be paid to communal framing and discourse resulting
from the adoption of the new media form. This is a stage often overlooked in
studies of the social-shaping of technology, yet it plays an important role for re-
ligious communities in their internal justification for their approach to new
media. Researchers should consider how new technologies may require amend-
ments to previous language about media or how official policies regarding tech-
nology are constructed and publicized. The negotiation and adoption of new
technologies requires the religious group to create public and private discourses
that validate their technology choices in light of established community bounda-
ries, values and identities. The communal discourse can also serve as tool for re-
affirming traditions and past standards as well as for setting a new trajectory for
the future use or negotiation of technology. Thus, it is important for researchers
to pay attention to the language used by a religious community to frame technol-
ogy and prescribe communal use. Together, these four levels of inquiry make up
the religious-social shaping of technology approach to show how multiple social
and structural processes influence religious groups responses to new media.
4 Negotiation between the Bahai faith and the
Internet
Investigating the American Baháí community shows the complex process reli-
gious groups undergo in their negotiations with new forms of media. This exami-
nation of their history, tradition, core beliefs and reactions to older forms of
media provides a clear basis for understanding this religious groups current re-
sponse to the Internet .
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