7/20/2020 Peter Durantine

Professor, Student Data Mine Terms of 1960s Media Theorist

More than 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan’s work on media theory produced terms like “global village” and “tribalism,” which resonate today even more than in the 1960s. A Franklin & Marshall College professor is studying the man she describes as “the first theorist of digital culture and society.”

“His notion of the ‘tribal’ was foundational for his theory of the ‘global village,’ as McLuhan believed that global media networks would integrate society, especially in the West,” said Associate Professor of American Studies Carla Willard. “He predicted that the digital would ‘tribalize’ the West in sync with his idea of tribes in Africa, Asia, and Australia, as well as other geographies and cultures.”

In analyzing McLuhan’s notion of tribalism, particularly in the Canadian philosopher’s seminal 1964 work, “Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man,” Willard mines the digital data on his terminology. Hackman scholar Morelia Guzman, carrying on last year’s student researcher efforts, is assisting her. 

  • Hackman scholar Guzman is helping Willard analyze McLuhan’s notion of tribalism, particularly in the Canadian philosopher’s seminal 1964 work, “Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man,” by "mining" the digital data on his terminology. Hackman scholar Guzman is helping Willard analyze McLuhan’s notion of tribalism, particularly in the Canadian philosopher’s seminal 1964 work, “Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man,” by "mining" the digital data on his terminology.

“I've continued helping with the ‘digital term mining’ process by documenting where we can find particular words throughout McLuhan's work,” said the senior sociology and American Studies joint major. “Such words were those that related to ‘tribal’ or ‘village,’ allowing us to analyze how McLuhan is utilizing these terms.”

Willard said her interest in McLuhan’s theory stems in part from the relatively recent resurrection of his stature “by hundreds of idolizing students and readers” who have flocked to his work over the past two decades. 

“There are nearly 100,000 references to McLuhan's body of publications, according to Google Scholar, so he has become, yet again, a towering figure in studies of media, culture and society,” Willard said.

But his rising stature concerns the professor because McLuhan’s notions of the “tribe” and his theory of “global village" were profoundly Eurocentric. 

“McLuhan stereotyped black and brown indigenous cultures as he wrote about prototypical ‘tribal man,’ concocting a realism that was part of a powerful colonial imaginary,” Willard said.

For Guzman and past student researchers, their primary work tool for “digital-term mining” is Voyant, a web-based program that allows users to find and graph the location, frequency and proximity of specific terms in tens of thousands of words. F&M’s digital initiatives librarian, Brianna Gormly, and library director, Scott Vine, were instrumental is assisting the researchers.

Guzman also creates citations for sources that could be used in the bibliography of Willard’s work, and in so doing has come to rely on the College Library, which, she said, “always provided a solution to anything that was needed.” 

With law school a possibility after she graduates next year, Guzman said, “This experience has exposed me even more to the research world and the work that is required to create something you believe in. It also has reminded me of the research I have done for various courses and how each one has been a continuous learning process.”

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