In our Identities article, 'Digital institutions: the case of ethnic websites in the Netherlands', we conceptualised websites as digital institutions. Since the concept of institutions appears to be fuzzy, comprising formal and informal as well as micro and macro organisations, we argued that they, although socially embedded and culturally loaded, conceptually are insufficient to highlight their specificity. In order to specify the institution, we employ the concept of script, defined as recurrent activities and patterns of interaction. Empirically, we apply this concept to detail ethnic websites in the Dutch Hindustani community and to highlight what needs they fulfil for its visitors and in the Hindustani community. We argued that these ethnic websites fulfil a wide range of needs — notably, as a means of communication, a platform on which community members can address ethnic issues, a device through which to build networks, and a place from which to download material — thus fostering the identity of the ethnic group. Since evidence based on one community may be a matter of happenstance, we substantiate our argument with a comparison of ethnic websites from the younger generation of white Dutch, Hindustanis and Moroccans in the Netherlands.
In general, the concept of institutions refers to an interaction of people, be it face-to-face, by means of written communication as many government agencies do, or digital as has become typical for websites. Furthermore, the definition of institution suggests a bundle of roles or an interaction of individuals with a collective. Examples include schools, annual festivals, tax administration, but also informal organisations as households, networks of friends, and websites. This wide range and diversity of institutions indicate that the role performance of individuals may sometimes be very physical and at time less visible as in the case of digital institutions. This digitalisation of institutions has nowadays advanced to the point that the features of conventional institutions have become blurred. Specifically, personal interaction has declined, making the institution increasingly a latent structure.
Take the example of the Hindu festival Diwali, the annual fiesta celebrated with lights, in India as well as in the Indian diaspora that includes the Dutch Hindustani community. It is a typical family occurrence, although the celebration may be different across diasporic Hindu communities. After the family ceremonies, people may stay at home, sing religious songs and enjoy the company of family members. Sometimes, Hindu people visit a temple to attend a service. Alternatively, they may visit relatives and friends. Depending on the circumstances, family and friends may receive a Diwali card, similar to a Christmas card. This custom has become digitalised to a large extent. Wishing people Happy Diwali increasingly occurs by email and SMS messages, decorated with pictures. And nowadays these are extended by WhatsApp, sometimes to people they hardly know. The institutional nature of Diwali, a prominent institution of the Hindustani community, has become less tangible.
These changes comprise almost all institutions, both formal and informal, in communication with school, community institutions, birthday celebrations, Christmas, New Year and the like. In the Netherlands, WhatsApp messages are leading in this communication and have increasingly replaced face-to-face interaction and contact. Diminishing personal contact and interaction erodes the traditional concept of institutions that was characterised by fixed roles and face-to-face communication, even in its informal settings. It has become less a community happening and acquired personal traits since you can avoid being part of the crowd. The digitalisation of institutions fosters selectivity and individualisation, and changes the appearances of the Diwali feast. This development tends to blur traditional concepts that were extracted from an old world and aim to reflect that world. The digital world therefore requires established concepts, such as ‘institutions’, to be adapted and extended.
Blog post by Ruben Gowricharn, VU University, the Netherlands and Jaswina Elahi, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands
Read the full article:
Gowricharn, Ruben & Elahi, Jaswina. Digital institutions: the case of ethnic websites in the Netherlands. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1519239