community, the internet, and anthropology

Through the Media Anthropology Network I’ve been introduced to a wealth of information on social networks, online communities, and the troubles encountered using such terms. I like the word “community” to describe a group of identifiable people with some common relationship – ala “anthropology”. But the term community is used to describe many things, and hence using the word is about as descriptive as the word “culture” (another anthro favourite). Vague, general words that sound nice and are hard to use effectively.

In his essay “Localising the Internet beyond communities and networks” (2008), John Postill discusses some of the problems that a reliance on these words can bring. He brings up the work of one of my teachers Dr. Amit, writing:

“Amit cautions that expressions of community always ‘require sceptical investigation rather than providing a ready-made social unit upon which to hang analysis’ (2002: 14). Relying on emotionally charged, bounded notions such as community (or diaspora, nation, ethnic group, etc) is unwise, she adds, for there are numerous sets of social relations that cannot be brought under these banners.”

I often say I’m looking at the online anthropology community, but in my proposal I tried to steer clear of such a description, opting instead to focus on problems (and questions) rather than people and places. I think by leaving the “field” vague, I can use the term community in an unbounded sense. But Postill suggests some other terminology which I am happy to use but am not quite sold on their advantage:

” One advantage of field is that it is a neutral, technical term lacking the normative idealism of both public sphere and community.” [referring to social field]

Why I like the word community is, it will make sense to tech savvy internet users caught up in “2.0”. The community in this sense is the users, the authors, and the relationships in between. So its pretty vague, and has no sense of being bounded or coherent. I also have concern that using concepts like “social field” might bring unnecessary jargon specialist vocabulary – and probably I don’t quite get the difference yet. Is it mostly a matter of semantics and translation?

Postill writes:

“As I have argued earlier, community is a vague notion favoured in public rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object. Amit (2002: 14) puts it well: ‘Invocations of community… do not present analysts with clear-cut groupings so much as signal fields of complex processes through which sociality is sought, rejected, argued over, realised, interpreted, exploited or enforced’ (my emphasis).”

I admit I’m a fan of public rhetoric, but I’m also a fan of Bourdieu so I’m happy to go either way. I’m pretty sure I need to read this article some more to understand what other differences such definitions bring. Can I use social field interchangeably? At that point, isn’t a “social field” just as problematic a concept:

“As I have argued earlier, social field is a vague notion favored in anthropological rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object.”

I wonder if any of these terms can be used without a great deal of contextualizing. [And I haven’t had time for this essay to sink in, but I find that when I post ideas on this blog, I can’t stop thinking about them, so heres to thinking]

Some key distinctions discussed in Postill’s essay:

  • Social network analysis overemphasizes relationships at the expense of social other forms of capital (Thanks to Dr. Postill’s corrections below!)
  • Postill argues interactions do need to be taken into account, and can be worked into Bourdieu’s concept of a “social field”. [aka finding a middle ground]
  • Kinds of sociality – how do we describe the networks/communities/field I’m engaged in. [do I need a general concepts for this? I wonder if the bigger problem is trying to get around writing context by using generalizing concepts for sociality].

Apologies to Dr. John Postill, as I’m sure I missed a lot of important points, but thanks for a constructive essay discussing issues with the terminology and approaches. He brings up more discussion surrounding the essay on his blog.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Hi OW, many thanks for discussing my article – it’s always a thrill to find that there are actually journal article readers out there!

    I’d like to correct your first bullet point where you say that “Social network analysis overemphasizes relationships at the expense of social capital”. No, if I remember my article correctly, in fact Bourdieu takes issue with social network analysts for overemphasizing the importance of social capital (i.e. who you know) at the expense of other species of capital, such as cultural capital (what you know) or symbolic capital (renown, prestige, etc).


  2. Wow it really is much different working online – its a pleasure to be corrected so quickly, and from the author himself! I can’t say I’m much of a journal reader though (okay maybe secretly in private), as I have been focusing on the articles you made accessible on your blog (and thanks for that!).


  3. OW wrote:

    “Why I like the word community is, it will make sense to tech savvy internet users caught up in “2.0″. The community in this sense is the users, the authors, and the relationships in between. So its pretty vague, and has no sense of being bounded or coherent. I also have concern that using concepts like “social field” might bring unnessecary jargon – and probably I don’t quite get the difference yet. Is it mostly a matter of semantics and translation?”

    My own view is that we should try to keep separate our technical/specialist vocabulary from the vocabulary we use when interacting with people ‘in the field’. When communicating with fellow practitioners we use technical language (where appropriate); when doing so with non-practitioners we search for common ground. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the vocabularies separate, especially if we are working in the same natural language (e.g. English) both in the academic setting we’re working in and in the field.

    All practitioners need to learn and use with dexterity the specialist language of their practice, in my case anthropology; for other people, this can be the language of plumbing, rock-climbing or acupuncture. I would worry if the technicians fixing my central heating didn’t speak their own lingo – which I have no need to learn. We’d be lost without our jargon. May a million jargons blossom!


  4. Another interesting plus for this concept of social field is that it includes the word field. The weakest section of my proposal has been the part answering “wheres the field?”.

    What I like about the “social field” you are describing is the way it detaches “field” from associations with people and place. In this way, I can describe the social field surrounding the questions I’ve been bringing up in my proposal. AKA it will be very helpful in convincing people that I’m still doing ethnography. And then I can silence my critics with “Are you dissing Bourdieu?” 🙂

    I’ve been reading a lot about making anthropology more relevant to public issues – i.e. Eriksen’s “Engaging Anthropology”. So that’s why I’m playing with this idea that jargon can be a burden. I’m not against jargon, but I’m trying to write in clear language with as little scientific rhetoric as possible.

    In some interviews I held with fellow students at Concordia, the idea that jargon made anthropological essays less accessible came up quite frequently. At the same time, I haven’t even written a thesis yet so its an experiment. I suppose if I had two options: one technical term, and one everyday term, I’d go with the common term whenever possible.

    Good luck with the central heating! Funny you mention it because I’m in the midst of installing a radiant heat concrete floor. [the concrete team just delayed another week…. uggh]

    And thanks again for your input!!! [This discussion has even motivated me to login to the databases to access further relevant readings.]


  5. Oh yes, I’m all in favour of Eriksen’s plea for a more public engagement of anthropologists that uses accessible language and wish the UK academic system was as supportive of such engagements as Norway – Eriksen’s country – appears to be.

    At the same time, to reiterate my point, it is only to be expected that specialists in any field will use among themselves (eg in our case specialist journals) a specialist vocabulary, degoratorily known as ‘jargon’. On the pleasures of acquiring a new specialist vocabulary, see


  6. Thanks again for all the great comments and ideas. I’m working now on incorporating the social field concept into my proposal, so if you have any recommendations for further readings please do share! I see how “jargon” is a bit derogatory, [more than my intention] I do like the term “specialist vocabulary” especially in the context of discussing accessible language.

    [edit adding link to one of Dr. Postill’s posts defining social field:]
    Further reading.


  7. You say: “Why I like the word community is, it will make sense to tech savvy internet users caught up in “2.0″.”
    I agree with you and John there that one needs to use the same language people use ‘in the field’. The way I have theorised this is by arguing that the term ‘community’ is an ‘actant’ – following Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. People use the concept in different ways and it carries its own semi-autonomous ‘power’ to influence practices – therefore while analytically it is debatable, we also cannot ignore it.


  8. Owen, my anticipation level is very high now. I have never seen a research proposal develop in this way before, it is amazing, and in this case it really blurs any boundaries between proposal and research.


  9. […] in her/his work…A live example is the fascinating discussion between Dr.John Postill and Owen Wiltshire which I found in the latter blog in which Dr.Postill clarifies what he meant in his article…Therefore, I believe that Dr. […]


  10. Thanks everyone this discussion has been very helpful. I’m currently losing myself in Bourdieu readings. Once some of it clarifies in my head I’ll check out Latour’s work. Thanks for the references!

    I am working out how to use the social field, but I realize the online participants are but one part of the social field [ie balancing offline and online experiences].

    Could we say the discipline of anthropology is a social field? or is that still too narrow I wonder. How do I deal with overlapping fields? Things to think about!

    I have been following the debates surrounding the U.S. Military’s “Human Terrain System” and I think it will make a fascinating topic to look at as a “social drama”.

    Thank you all again for your input.


  11. […] open access, expanding knowledge, and engaging the public can and is changing anthropology Best: Community, the internet, and anthropology Exploring why and whether the concept of “community” makes sense for the […]


  12. […] the Horror of the Provincial, and Western Cosmopolitanism at Risk (Open Anthropology) [11 comments] community, the internet, and anthropology (Another Anthro Blog) [10 comments] Stable Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Canada (Disparate) […]


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