Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Internet and the Construction of the Immigrant Public Sphere: The Case of the Cameroonian Diaspora. Kehbuma Langmia. University Press of America, Inc., 2007. 100 pp.
Langmia’s book is a contribution to the rapidly emerging literature on the use of the Internet by Diasporic communities worldwide. It has been observed that the Internet is a medium quintessentially suited to Diasporas because they share transnational, trans-temporal and trans-spatial dimensions. Just as cyberspace has no physical location, the Cameroonian Diaspora has been spread across the globe. Cyberspace is ideally suited for the reconstitution of lost networks and the development of new ones that cross old lines.
Langmia analyzes the way in which the Internet has become the public sphere for the Cameroon Diaspora. Essentially his Ph.D. dissertation, he sets out two goals in this work: to apply [neo-Marxist philosopher Jurgen] Habermas’ concept of the public sphere to the study of the use of the Internet by the Cameroonian Diaspora and to study gender differences in the Cameroonian public sphere.
Langmia does this by posing two research questions: What do the dominant themes of Cameroonian Internet discourse reveal about the political views of Diasporic Cameroonians? What are the gender differences in the dominant themes in Cameroonian Internet discourse?
He conducts his research by doing Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of two months of discussions on four Internet discussion groups frequented by the Cameroonian Diaspora. Coming from the discipline of linguistics, critical discourse analysis studies language and discourse in social institutions, drawing on poststructuralist discourse theory and critical linguistics and focuses on how social relations, identity, knowledge and power are constructed through written and spoken texts in communities, schools and classrooms.
With regard to his first goal, Langmia concludes that Cameroonians in the Diaspora have used cyberspace to advocate meaningful change in their home country and that the Internet has become a democratic public sphere, “for both Cameroonian men and women to come together and question the role of their government and opposition leaders on the kind of policies and goals they envision for Cameroonians at home and abroad.”
In coming to this conclusion, he does not engage in any critical discussion of the applicability to the Internet of Habermas’ definition of a public sphere separate from the life of family and work and the state as a place for free communication and discussion of ideas. Ideally the public sphere should be marked by open access, equal status of participants and rational analysis of alternatives. A debate has arisen as to whether the virtual public sphere of the Internet does indeed create such as ideal public space. Does the Internet public space embody new politics? Does it lead to a democratization of views? Does discourse on Internet discussion sites constitute rational analysis? Do all have an equal voice to state their views? Langmia does not raise any of these issues.
On the second theme he concludes that men and women discussed the dominant political themes differently, that the Cameroonian Diasporic women on the Internet were more in favor of the incumbent president than men and that they were more constructive than men in their criticism of the opposition parties.
The book overstates its reach in its claims to employ feminist theory. Especially bizarre is the blurb on the back cover of the book that states, “The study builds on Habermas and other leading feminist authors’ conceptualization of the democratic public sphere . . ..” Habermas would be very surprised to be classified as a feminist author! Feminist theory is highly critical of Habermas’ blindness to gender issues and his negative assessment of the feminist movement and his androcentrism.
Langmia’s discussion of gender issues does not constitute what is generally regarded as gender analysis. He doesn’t deal at all with questions of differences in gender socialization, of why men dominate Cameroonian debates. At times Langmia seems to blame women for not using the opportunities that the Internet offers to realize the equal status that they have been awarded in the Cameroonian Constitution. As he observes, "The Internet has come with manifold advantages for both parties to form dependent and independent systems of communication that give each person the freedom to express his/her views with little or no constraint. The question then is whether Cameroonian women are using it to their advantage." He does not ask whether there are differences in computer skill levels or linguistic or educational attainment between Cameroonian men or women in the Diaspora, or, perhaps more importantly, whether women have equal access to the Internet, especially in terms of their multiple roles and workloads.
Langmia supplements Critical Discourse Analysis with a review of the literature on immigrant use of the Internet in the public sphere, women and minorities’ use of the Internet, and virtual versus physical reality of the Internet. The author says that little research has been done on the role of the Internet is the formation of the Diasporic public sphere especially as related to Africa. However, he seems to have missed the sources most relevant to his research: Victoria Bernal’s article on the Eritrean digital Diaspora that focuses explicitly on the issue of the public sphere would have been particularly useful to Langmia’s analysis (Bernal 2005). Other sources on the African Diaspora in cyberspace that he might have looked at include Camilla Gibb’s perceptive study of the Ethiopian Harari community in Canada on the Internet (Gibb 2002) and Amina Loukili on the Moroccan Diaspora on the Internet (Loukili 2007). He also would have profited from looking at Terence Lyons’ work on African Diasporas and homeland politics on the Internet, dealing specifically with conflict in Ethiopia (Lyons 2004, 2007) that show how rigidities in Diasporic communities can have negative implications for homeland politics. This might have tempered Langmia’s optimistic view that Diaspora discourse on the Internet provides “solutions” to Cameroonian political problems, as he states, “Cameroonians in the Diaspora have decided to use the Internet to air their grievances and provide solutions to the political predicaments of their country” (p.11).
The book is marred by many cases of awkward language (e.g. “English alphabets”, “a man of 71-years’ old”, “pile of vocabularies”) and would have profited greatly from editing. This book will be of interest to the growing audience of Diaspora studies and media studies. Its gender analysis is of a caliber to merit recommending it to those interested in gender studies.
Nancy J. Hafkin Knowledge Working, Framingham, MA
Bernal, Victoria. “(2005). “Digital Diaspora: Conflict, Community, and celebrity in virtual Eritrea.” Eritrean Studies Review, 4,2, 185-209.
Gibb, Camilla. (2002). “Deterritorialized people in hyperspace: creating and debating Harari identity over the Internet,” Anthropologica, 44,1, 55-67.
Loukili, Amina. (2007). “Moroccan Diaspora, Internet and national imagination: Building a community online through the Internet portal Yabiladi.” Unpublished paper, presented at Nordic Africa Institute Nordic Africa Days Workshop on Restrictions and Possibilities. The Media in Discourses of Migration, Citizenship and Belonging in Africa, Uppsala 5-7 October.
Lyons, Terrence. (2007). “The Ethiopian Diaspora and Homeland Conflict.” Paper presented to 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Trondheim, 2-7 July.
Lyons, Terrence. (2004). “Diasporas and Homeland Conflict.” Unpublished paper presented to DC Area Workshop on Contentious Politics.