March 21, 2014

The Context of Understanding World Events

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

How aware are you of world events? As you are reading this, whats happening in the world?

As I write this, there are things happening with Russia and the Ukraine and Crimea. The missing Malaysian airplane is still missing. I wonder if theyll find it by the time you read this?

There are many things going on in the world that concern people--if they know about them.

Lets think about why some people may be really tied in with events outside their immediate environment--and why others may not.

It could be a matter of interest. Some people are more interested in world affiars than others. Perhaps because they visited or know people in those places that are involved. Perhaps they are interested because they want to travel to those places. There are a vast array of possible reasons why individuals might keep up with current events.

Using our sociological imaginations, perhaps there are some broad societal or structural issues that tie in with this awareness or interest.

Proximity to the events certainly plays a huge role. If you were in Thailand during the tsunami, you would be aware of what was happening.

Technology is also a huge factor, as it gives us easy access to such information. Television and the internet give us news about whats happening where. Of course, the type of TV or internet sources we use will shape the nature of that news. Some news outlets may report the events from a particular perspective and another from a different angle.

I read three newspapers in print and a few more online. I also listen to National Public Radio and some other public stations. I try to avoid commercial sources since I dislike waiting out the commercials, and they tend to be more biased. I use a variety of sources of news so that I can see what they all have in common. I try to make sure that all of my sources use multiple sources themselves.

Have you noticed that many news outlets report the same tidbits of information? This happens because, as the companies that own stations buy up more stations and others disappear, those left tend to use a single source for their news to report. This is why you may hear the same story reported verbatim on many different TV news stations.

Having smart phones can give us access to the same news we get on TV or the internet, and many people share what is happening to them in their location through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.).  Over the past several years, these sites have becomes another important source of news about what is happening. Social media has become the newest source of news, and a tool to create newsas people can use it to mobilize and organize. (Heres an interesting dissertation looking at social media in Egypt in January 2011.)

I was thinking about all of this when driving home the other day. I have a family member who was headed to the Republic of Upper Volta, Africa years ago, but on the way there the government experienced a coup. This person was stuck in Paris, France, (oh darn) until the airport reopened. Once the airport opened and inbound travel commenced, the country was no longer Upper Volta, it was Burkina_Faso. (And still is.)

My memory of this includes the response I got when I asked how it was when they got to the village and settled in. Basically, life went on as it had before in the village. The capital was certainly affected since it was where the political activities were centered. But few people were concerned or even aware of the coup. The economics, technology, and living situation is, of course, very different from urbanized or suburbanized or even rural life in the U.S., but the lack of an infrastructure like our own certainly insulated many people from what was happening.

There were no cell phones at that time. The economic activities focused on small subsistence farming and raising livestock. (And still do.)

The rest of the world may have learned more about the coup than those in the country because of access to technology and different modes of communication.

Im not saying that people in remote areas wont notice or be affected if a governmental coup occurs. In this one instance, the technology used in the culture - both for the economic activities and communication - were such that people kept living life even as their country changed name and policies. That may not happen when every coup occurs but it did in this instance!

What else might affect peoples exposure to world events?

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