Field theory and the political process black box:

analysing Internet activism in a Kuala Lumpur suburb


By John Postill

This paper discusses a blind spot in Bourdieu's field theory: political process. This was precisely the emphasis of much earlier work on field theory than Bourdieu's carried out by members of the Manchester School of anthropology. The discussion, based on recent fieldwork in Malaysia, draws on Victor Turner's field concepts (chiefly on social drama and arena) to analyse two political crises involving Internet activists and the local authorities in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.


In recent years Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory has received increased attention from sociologists, anthropologists, media scholars and others (Benson and Neveu 2005). Anthropologists specialising in the study of media, for instance, have used Bourdieu’s version of field theory to analyse processes and practices of media production (e.g. Pedelty 1995, Dornfeld 1998, Moeran 2002, see Peterson 2003: 177-184). In this paper I join these media anthropological efforts with case studies based on recent fieldwork on Internet activism and local government in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. Yet instead of adopting Bourdieu’s field theory wholesale I concentrate on an area of field theory that is underdeveloped in Bourdieu but has an earlier history within political anthropology, namely the field-theoretical study of political processes such as social dramas undertaken by Victor Turner and other Manchester scholars (Swartz et al 1966).

The received wisdom about Bourdieu's field theory is that it neglects processes of change and overemphasizes social reproduction. One influential commentator, Richard Jenkins (2002: 95-96), follows Connell (1983) in pointing out that in Bourdieu's field theory, process is a ‘black box'. This assessment is misleading, though, on three counts. First, as Jenkins himself notes (2002: 96), Bourdieu does devote a great deal of attention to the processual aspects of walking, sitting, conversing, etc, what he calls ‘bodily hexis'. Second, Bourdieu's most fully developed exposition of field theory, The Rules of Art (1996), is nothing if not the detailed study of an unfolding historical process: the growing autonomisation of the field of art in 19th century France. Third, and most germane to the argument I am pursuing here, there is one other family of processes not mentioned by Jenkins that Bourdieu's field theory does indeed consign to a black box: political processes.

Take Bourdieu's (1996: 52) brief account of Flaubert's famous Madame Bovary trial, where the novelist stood accused of publishing immoral materials. At the time of the trial, the Parisian salons, says Bourdieu, became sites for mobilisation in support of Flaubert. Bourdieu mentions in passing this episode to illustrate the importance of the salons as points of articulation between the fields of art, commerce and government, distinguished more by who they excluded than by who they included (1996: 51-53). Yet he does not consider the trial to be a political process worthy of detailed analysis in its own right. Instead, Bourdieu's analytical preference is for the slow-moving, cumulative changes that take place within an established field (Swartz 1997: 129, Couldry 2004), not for potentially volatile, unpredictable processes such as trials that often migrate across fields. (My second case study below is one such example of a migratory process). In contrast, the Parisian salons, brasseries, courthouses, etc, provide Bourdieu with a relatively fixed spatial matrix of objective relations – a socio-physical backdrop to a slowly changing field of practice (see Bourdieu 1996: 40-43).

This paper is organised as follows. I first discuss briefly the concept of social drama with reference to the work of Victor Turner and the so-called Manchester School of anthropology (Evens and Handelman 2006). This is followed by the analysis of two social dramas that took place in my Malaysian field sites in 2003 and 2004. In addition to the notion of social drama, I draw on a less well known Turnerian concept, namely ‘arena' (Turner 1974: 132-136). Arenas are the actual physical settings where social dramas unfold; traditionally streets, battlefields or courtrooms, but extending in our current era to TV studios, web forums, social network sites, etc. To emphasize the increasingly complex mediation of social dramas in our day, I apply the term ‘media drama' to the two field crises analysed in this paper (cf. Wagner-Pacifici 1986). The paper ends with a summary of the main points.

The Manchester School

Political processes were, in fact, central to the collaborative work of a group of anthropologists known as The Manchester School whose field theories predate Bourdieu's by several decades. By political process they meant that kind of social process that is ‘involved in determining and implementing public goals [as well as] in the differential achievement and use of power by the members of the group concerned with those goals' (Swartz et al 1966: 7).

One key Manchester School concept is ‘social drama'. Coined by the other major field theorist besides Bourdieu, Victor Turner, a social drama is a political process that originates within a social group but can spread across a wider inter-group field unless appropriate ‘redressive action' is taken (Turner 1996: 91, 1974: 128-32). In 2003 and 2004, the field of residential affairs in Subang Jaya went through at least two social dramas, the second of which was widely covered by the Malaysian mass media. These dramas provide us with an insight into how local activists are appropriating the Internet to pursue their aims. They also reveal the workings of the laws of turun padang and volunteerism and their effects on Internet localisation. Social dramas usually unfold around crises in the political lives of key individuals and point at structural contradictions within the group or broader social field. In his classic monograph Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1996), originally published in 1957, Turner explored the structural contradiction among the Ndembu of Zambia between virilocal residence and matrilineal descent. While among patrilineal groups inheritance, succession and group membership come under a single principle, matrilineal groups use different principles for different rights and duties (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 98).

Social dramas undergo four stages: (1) breach, (2) crisis, (3) redressive action, and (4) re-integration or schism. First, there is a ‘breach of regular norm-governed social relations', e.g. an aspiring Ndembu leader repeatedly failing to show respect towards his elders. This breach may give way to a stage of ‘mounting crisis' that could rapidly spiral out of control. Crises are of special analytical value as, according to Turner, they reveal the state of a group's factionalism. Beneath the turbulence of dispute, an embedded – yet slowly changing – social structure becomes visible. This structure is made up of fairly constant social relations. The post-crisis stage opens when the group's leaders activate both formal and informal redressive mechanisms. These can vary greatly depending on the depth and social significance of the breach, the nature of the group, the group's degree of autonomy from ‘wider systems of social relations', etc. The final stage is reached when the disputing parties either return to the fold or go their separate ways. While established societies will have legal or ritual institutions designed to handle breaches, new groups lacking such institutions will be prone to fission (Turner 1996: 91-115, cf. Skinner 2005).

Media Drama I: “Use your brain, clear this drain!”

Subang Jaya and its twin township, USJ, form a largely middle-income suburb of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. In 1998 the Subang Jaya municipality as a whole had an official population of 480,000, consisting of some 60% Chinese, 25% Malays, and 15% Indians and ‘Others’ – predominantly immigrant workers from poorer Asian countries. The local Creole is Malaysian English (see Nair-Venugopal 2001). I conducted anthropological fieldwork in Subang Jaya (mostly in USJ) for 12 months in 2003 to 2004, followed by intermittent online research since my return to Britain. The aim was to study whether the Internet was making any significant difference to the governance of this multiethnic locality. Subang Jaya is renowned in Malaysian ICT policy circles for its rich diversity of ‘e-community’ initiatives, ranging from a federal-funded ‘smart township’ project to a municipal cybermosque and multimedia libraries to a self-funded residents’ Web forum, among numerous other projects. It was this vibrant Internet scene that attracted me to the locality.


This drama was triggered by a breach of the regular norms governing relations between residents' groups and the municipal council. The drama started when Jeff Ooi, the founder and leader of a fiercely independent residents’ Web portal named, came across a photograph in the Mandarin-language press in which a small group of residents – myself included – were demonstrating behind a banner bearing the portal's domain name. They (we?) were protesting against the council's inaction following the collapse of a drain's retaining wall. Councillor Yap, the state assemblyman Lee Hwa Beng's right hand, had turun padang and called the press to draw attention to the plight of Lee's constituents. Jeff was incensed at the misuse of the domain name on a banner whose text contained what all agreed was an insulting remark hurled at the council (MPSJ), namely ‘ USE YOUR BRAIN CLEAR THIS DRAIN !'. He then translated his anger into a front page editorial on the web portal under the headline: WE DESERVE A PUBLIC APOLOGY. The editorial showed the offending picture and demanded an apology from the culprits within 72 hours.


Jeff also started a discussion ‘thread' on the topic, thereby opening up the web forum as the main arena where the social drama unfolded. An arena is a ‘bounded spatial unit in which precise, visible antagonists, individual or corporate, contend with one another for prizes and/or honor' (Turner 1974: 132-3). It is an ‘explicit frame' in which ‘nothing is left merely implied' and major decisions are taken (1974: 134). To the field theorist, it is an opportunity to study the field at close range. Throughout the crisis, Jeff and his forum co-administrator, KW Chang, ensured that nothing remained ‘merely implied'. In addition to demanding an apology, they repeatedly asked forum participants to clarify comments or insinuations they had made in previous posts. For instance, one of the demonstrators was asked to clarify an ‘amazing' comment in which he appeared to present himself as a forum moderator, when in fact he enjoyed no such status. Another participant was asked to explain his insinuation that Jeff feared that the demonstration may frustrate his secret plan to sell off the portal to the local council– a rumour that had been circulating offline for some time. This poster also ‘flamed' Jeff for bragging about his international profile as a blogger and e-community activist who had been invited to speak at Harvard University; the poster was duly reprimanded. Reaching for the egalitarian rhetoric of ‘community', this forum user had written:

[…] is a community website(unless i am wrong). It is NOTa primary site as intellectual forum for show offs, wannabes and what nots.

a community web site serves the needs and wants of a community. it assist the residents to voice its opinions and overcome obstacles or red tapes. It should assist and solves pcommunity problems. […]

The target audience, the subang jaya residents (me for e.g) is interested in using to assist in making subang jaya a better place to live in.

I do not give a flying banana about mit,oxford or harvard talk. I have that already in the office and in any half decent pubs.

A third poster adopted a more diplomatic tone to express his concern that the once proudly independent forum may have become ‘tamed'. Throughout the crisis, Jeff's position was clear and consistent. He insisted that with independence comes responsibility, and that there was much more at stake than a mere clogged drain. At stake was the long-term prospect of ‘building bridges' with the local council towards a democratic partnership and a knowledge society.

At any rate, the crisis was overcome through what Turner (1996: 91) calls ‘redressive action': heartfelt apologies were extended to the council and the offenders eventually returned to the forum after a voluntary ‘cooling off' period (Turner's ‘re-integration'). Meanwhile, Jeff had introduced a new set of forum rules and regulations to ensure that ‘mature' forms of online communication prevailed. Initially some of the regular contributors found these rules constraining, but over the course of the next few months there was a growing sense that there was still ample room for manoeuvre on the forum.


As with Turner's Ndembu villagers, this social drama reveals a key structural contradiction within the field of residential affairs in Subang Jaya (and perhaps elsewhere). Here the contradiction has to do not with kinship but rather with status. The dogged egalitarianism of the residential field is at odds with distinctions of status and power that derive from other fields yet cannot but percolate into the field. This explains why those residents who are thought to be boasting about their extra-field achievements (e.g. having been invited to speak at Harvard) have to be brought back down to the padang 1. There are two further problems. First, even in the most egalitarian of small-scale societies, distinctions of status, ability and achievement are both inevitable and publicly indexed in social practice and convention. We saw a clear example of this when a forum participant was scolded for assuming the role of moderator when in reality he was a mere subscriber. Second, and to use Bourdieu's metaphor of capital, exchanging currencies obtained in other fields is a complicated business for leading residents. Whereas powerful outsiders such as the state assemblyman are allowed, indeed expected , to convert financial capital – euphemistically known as ‘sponsorship' – into symbolic capital in order to assist ‘the community', residents like Jeff Ooi place themselves in a difficult position when they do the same (e.g. by part-funding the web portal himself). The fundamental field law for residents states that they must donate their spare time, not their spare money, for the collective good of fellow residents. To accumulate symbolic capital, residents must visibly support ‘the community' through disinterested acts of generosity in the form of voluntary work, useful advice, etc. As in the fields of art and Christian charity described by Bourdieu (1993, 1998), local activists have developed a vested interest in disinterestedness . Any activist suspected of abusing his position for personal financial gain must be prepared to face online challenges.

Media Drama II: “We want a police station!”

I will now turn to a Subang Jaya media drama of greater complexity and much wider ramifications than the drain drama just analysed. If in the latter drama Jeff Ooi succeeded in limiting the potential damage to intra-field relations, in this second crisis he joined forces with other activists to spread the crisis well beyond the regular bounds of the residential field, reaching all the way up to Malaysia's highest corridors of political and media power. This second drama revolved around the building of a food court on land reserved for a police station and was triggered once again by a perceived breach of the regular norms governing relations between the residents and the local council.


The drama began on Wednesday, 22 September 2004 at 4:57 p.m. when Raymond Tan, a neighbourhood watch activist, started a thread on the main web forum entitled ‘A new balai?' ( balai polis is the Malay term for police station). The contents of that first posting were also sent to subscribers of's mailing list under the heading ‘A new police station?':

From: Raymond Tan
Sent: Wednesday, September 22, 2004 4:57 PM
Subject: [uSJ NewsGroup] A new police station?

The construction has just started but sorry to disappoint you, folks. It isn't for a new balai that we have been asking for! The land which we understand to be reserved for the future expansion of the existing mini-balai in USJ8 has instead being leased out to a private individual who has sub-leased it to Pack Connexion Sdn. Bhd., to be turned into a food court. This food court will be called Subang Food Garden with 107 food stalls, e.g. 35 for halal food and 72 for non-halal food. Operating hours will be from 5pm to 3am or 7am to 3am, subject to confirmation. What do you feel about this new development? We have created a quick poll to solicit your response. Go to to cast your vote!

As was the case here, Raymond frequently uses mailing lists to direct subscribers to his Nwatch portal. The aim of the poll was, of course, to mobilise residents against an imputed council's breach of their duty to serve the ratepayers, with the implication of a hidden profit motive. The following day another well-known activist replied both to the web forum and to the mailing list suggesting that there may be ‘somebody in MPSJ promoting Food Courts in SJ/USJ'. The fact that the land was reserved for a police station made the issue ‘even fishier'.


By Saturday, 25 September 2004, the discussion had spread to other local mailing lists. In an email sent to five mailing lists across the porous government/non-government divide separating residents' groups, a local resident asked for advice on the recently launched campaign to text local MPs and state assemblymen via SMS protesting the building of the food court. This person had received an SMS reply from the state assemblyman, Lee Hwa Beng, suggesting that they contact the council directly (the same response had been reported by a web forum poster the day before). Raymond replied by encouraging others to feed the politicians' responses back to the mailing list, or alternatively to either the Nwatch or portals. With hindsight, this request was an early indication that a formidable cross-field alliance was in the making. Meanwhile, on the web forum, Raymond's balai thread was growing rapidly. A participant had suggested that all major residents' groups be informed of the campaign, to which Raymond replied: ‘ worry not - OUR relevant platforms are in constant contact with each other. Right now, all we need most is PEOPLE POWER!'.

On Sunday 26 September, Jeff Ooi sent subscribers of all five mailing lists a piece he had recently posted on the portal's news section. The headline left no doubt as to the item's mobilising intent: ‘Stop the FOOD-COURT mania!'. The piece chided the MPs and assemblymen for ‘keep[ing] mum on the progress of their job to relay the resident's protest to the local council'. It then noted the absence of a project notice board at the building site, ‘mandatory of all the erection of new holdings'. This remark resonates with reports of local activism from elsewhere. Faced with powerful interests, people around the world ‘have quickly invented resourceful means of resistance' (Abram 1998: 13). Thus, local activists in France ‘check whether planning procedures have been correctly followed'. Should any ‘procedural lapses' be identified, ‘the project can be challenged in the administrative court and any further planning or development works suspended' (Newman 1994: 220, quoted in Abram 1998: 13).

That same day, Raymond announced the recent formation of an S.O.B. (Save Our Balai) Action Committee both on the web forum and in an email to all five mailing lists. In an unusually strongly worded pun, the stated aim was to ‘Save our Balai.. from some greedy SOBs who see it fit to sacrifice public interests for other purposes'. He then listed the names and affiliations of the pro-tem committee members, with himself at the helm as Protem Chairman and his Nwatch right hand, Robert Chan, as Deputy Chairman. The other 11 members were recruited from across the field of residential affairs, including Nwatch, the council's residents' committees (JKPs) and the independent but sleepy USJ Residents' Association (USJRA). In keeping with the direct appeal character of the campaign, Raymond ended his email with a call to action: ‘Our meeting notes will be posted in this forum shortly. Can we count on your support?'.

With the formation of S.O.B. we are witnessing the making not of a ‘community' but rather of what anthropologists call a sodality , 'a group bound together by common goals' (Peterson 2003: 271), or, in some contexts, a ‘pantribal association' 2. The term was traditionally applied to tribal societies lacking in a central government to refer to non-residential groupings that linked people ‘across the social boundaries of kinship and village' and were ‘important in getting things done -- fighting wars, negotiating settlements, repairing tracks and roads, and so on' (Gillogly 2005). Analogously, the S.O.B. Action Committee was a field sodality that cut across boundaries of project, precinct, and personality in order to solve an urgent problem affecting all residents.

On 27 September, Raymond's close ally, Robert Chan, informed web forum subscribers that the campaign to lobby MPs and assemblymen via SMS had ‘ resulted in jolting each and every one of them into action'. Robert appended a list of local politicians and their reactions to the texted messages, which ranged from ‘full support' to a promise to ‘look into the matter'. Here we can see clearly Turner's arena principles at work through a new technological articulation, that between Internet and mobile media. Nothing must be left unsaid; all actors drawn into the drama (‘jolted into action') must state publicly where they stand on the dispute at hand.

The following day, Raymond contributed a web and listserv posting in which he identified, like the French activists mentioned earlier, a number of procedural lapses in the food court project: ‘But what baffles is how this application could be approved without the green light from Licensing. Fishy, fishy, fishy'. Furthermore, no application had been made to the Engineering Committee, responsible for approving all building work. All this suggested there may be ‘[a] higher power at play'. That same day, a resident reported on the Nwatch forum having received the following SMS from the state assemblyman, Lee Hwa Beng:

MPSJ had issued a stop work order last Friday. Shall follow up till work stop. Agree the hawker ctr is not suitable. Should built police station only- Hwa Beng

On 3 October the drama's central arena shifted offline when some 200 residents (a large gathering by Malaysian standards) demonstrated peacefully at the building site ‘under full media coverage', as Raymond put it. Simultaneously, the S.O.B Action Committee released a statement to the press ‘ Just to make sure that we do not get mis-quoted'. This statement signals both the activists' learning from past experience and the field's gradual maturation and autonomisation from the fields of journalism and government.

Redressive action

The climax of the drama came on 4 October, when the Deputy Home Minister Datuk Noh Omar paid a visit to USJ (Subang Jaya). Raymond's emotive web announcement captures a rare moment of jubilation, a fleeting moment when the structural contradiction between the laws of turun padang and volunteerism was held in abeyance:

We disagreed. We came together. He heard. And he turun padang .

Friends and neighbours, Our Timbalan Menteri Keselamatan Dalam Negeri YB Dato' Noh Omar made a personal visit to USJ 8 Pondok Polis about noon time. After hearing views from all parties concerned (including the operator's rep), he decided that the food court is a 'no-go' and he directed the operator to withdraw the application or he will get Bukit Aman to revoke the lease agreement. He also promised to look into the construction of a new balai by 2005/2006.

Congratulations, folks!

Tune in to RTM and TV3 tonight!

This redressive action by the federal authorities was soon reciprocated by the local activists, who were only too eager, as one of them put it, to ‘complete the cycle' of the campaign. To this end, the S.O.B. deputy leader, Robert Chan, circulated a message asking residents to show their elected representatives their gratitude by sending them an SMS with the text: ‘ Thank you for helping us get back our Balai Polis'.


Yet only two months after these auspicious events, in December 2004, fresh rumours began to circulate online that the operator was planning to resume construction of the food court. On 16 February 2005, the local council approved the project, and physical work reportedly resumed at the site on 18 February. Raymond's reaction was: ‘Friends and neighbours, are we going to allow these clowns push the FOOD court down our throats?'

There is no space here to discuss the subsequent unfolding of events, which included a highly unusual offline arena, namely a public hearing held on 26 March 20054. At the time of writing, two and a half years after this hearing, activists are reasonably optimistic that the police station will be built with funds from the forthcoming 9th Malaysian Plan. They are not, however, claiming victory just yet.


This drama demonstrates further the perils of relying too heavily on the notions of community and network – what I have termed the community/network paradigm – for the study of Internet localisation (see Postill 2007). By broadening out the analysis from the neighbourhood domain to the wider field of residential affairs in which Raymond Tan operates, we have gained further insights into his individual agency, his relations with other local agents, and the multiple uses of Internet technologies by activists at a critical point in the suburb's history.

Raymond emerged from this drama not as the ‘caged monkey' he was made out to be after he accepted public funds, but rather as a formidable field broker. Like residential cyberactivists in other parts of the world, Raymond possesses ‘an unusual combination of technical, political and cultural skills' (Coleman 2004: 39) – skills which he hones not only online, for they are still ‘highly dependent upon face-to-face contact' (2004: 39). Throughout the drama, he connected and coordinated the disparate parties involved (activists, politicians, civil servants, journalists, etc) using a range of Internet and telephone technologies as well as face-to-face encounters. At least five mailing lists, two web forums, personal email and mobile telephony were recruited to the intensive campaigning. Two key ‘Internet affordances' (Wellman et al. 2003) were exploited to the full, namely hypertextuality and interactivity. Whilst the widely circulated hyperlinks ensured a high degree of message redundancy, the interactive web forum and email threads aided the active participation of residents in the fast-moving drama. The effect was magnified by the high-quality grassroots journalism of Jeff Ooi and by the ample mass media coverage. Crucially for the history of local activism in the township (and indeed in Malaysia), four residents' groups – ranging from the self-funding through the federal-funded to the local council-funded – came together for the first time to fight a common cause.

By incorporating into the analysis of this episode anthropological notions such as field, arena, and sodality, as well as folk notions such as turun padang , I was able to reach beyond the ‘specialized mythology' (Appadurai 1986) of Raymond's neighbourhood. More importantly, I could counter the gravitational pull of community and network as the paradigmatic notions in the study of Internet localisation. Under conditions of rapid social and technological change, with ‘settlers' arriving at suburban frontiers at the same time as the Internet and other new social technologies, it is no coincidence that anthropological notions arising from fieldwork with African urban settlers in the 1950s are still relevant today (see Werbner 1990, Kapferer 2005). Like rural migrants in the booming urban settlements of post-War Africa (Epstein 1958), present-day suburbanites in Malaysia find themselves in densely populated settlements with inadequate social and public facilities. The result is the emergence of ad-hoc groupings seeking to address pressing problems. Those groups (many of them short-lived) that cut across parochial and ethnic affiliations can be classed as sodalities. Unlike the poor African migrants of a previous generation, however, today's middle-income Malaysians have access to a wealth of modern cultural capital and digital technologies. This latter episode illustrates their aggregated, Internet-mediated agency in the face of the state's failure to provide for their perceived surveillance needs.


This paper has discussed a blind spot in Bourdieu's field theory: not process in general (pace Jenkins 2002: 95-96) but more specifically political process. This was precisely the emphasis of much earlier work on field theory than Bourdieu's carried out by the Manchester School of political anthropology in Central and Southern Africa. The discussion drew on Victor Turner's field concepts, chiefly social drama and arena, to analyse two crises that unfolded in Subang Jaya's field of residential affairs in 2003 and 2004. The first crisis was small; influential residents managed to contain it largely within a single field sub-sector (the Web forum, preventing it from spreading to other field sectors and beyond. The second crisis, in stark contrast, spread very rapidly, spilling over to the powerful fields of federal government and the national mass media through the deft use of a range of ICTs by an unprecedented alliance of residents' groups. Residents were protesting against the building of a food court on land reserved for a police station. Together, both crises revealed the field's dynamics of factionalism, alliance-building and technological mediation, as well as its entanglements with powerful neighbouring fields at two specific points in time.

John Postill is an anthropologist who specialises in the study of media. The author of Media and Nation Building (Oxford: Berghahn, 2006) and Grounding the Internet (forthcoming, 2008), he is currently a Senior Lecturer in Media at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His research and teaching interests include Internet activism, ritual, cognition, ethnicity, and nationalism, with special reference to Malaysia and Southeast Asia.


I undertook this research while being a research fellow at the University of Bremen in 2005-2005. My project was part of Netcultures, an international comparative study led by Dorle Drackle and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. I am very grateful to all my Netcultures colleagues for their insightful questions and to the Volkswagen Foundation for supporting my research.


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1There is an interesting parallel here with Britain 's House of Lords where, according to the anthropologist Emma Crewe (2005), peers are treated literally as peers regardless of their status outside the House.