Ethnography, the internet, and an apprentice anthropologist. Draft.

In his book “Body and Soul”, Loic Wacquant discusses the way he approached his research on boxing and the ‘universe’ around it:

“The other virtue of an approach based on participant observation (which in this case, is better characterized as an “observant participation”) in a run-of-the-mill gym is that the materials thus produced do not suffer from the “ecological fallacy” that affects most available studies and accounts of the Manly art. Thus none of the statements reported here were expressly solicited, and the behaviors described are those of the boxer in his “natural habitat”, not the dramatized and highly codified (re)presentation that he likes to give of himself in public, and that journalistic reports and novels retranslate and magnify according to their specific canons.” (Wacquant 2004:6)

Part of ‘being there’ is to engage people in a more natural setting. More natural than say, sitting directly in front of a microphone. The day to day interactions can ‘correct’ or balance out representations based on ‘solicited questions’. Boxers, he argues, play up to stereotypes when interviewed (surveys won’t cut it, he is pushing ethnography to sociologists). His engaged long term participation allowed him another position – that of the apprentice. As an apprentice, there is less emphasis on general ‘otherness’ which avoids numerous issues of representation. He is a boxer, not an academic studying boxing from ‘afar’. Also a key point is that people can be represented, and can represent themselves, differently in the context of public media.

Applying these ideas to this research project – and to other ethnographic studies done online, we can ask, “is the blogsphere both public and natural?” A well disciplined ethnographer might argue that it is impossible to observe online interactions in person, without invading their homes and watching them type. Who are they? How old? What gender? Without knowing these things the interactions will lack necessary context. Following Wacquant’s argument that people represent themselves differently in public media, we can also ask what ways people represent themselves differently online. [link to studies on identity formation online]

This ties in to my chapter on “new ways of speaking”, and on knowing ones audience. I found I represented myself quite strangely on an academic list serv. Writing to hundreds of Ph.D’s somehow motivated me to write very differently, with more attitude, than I might normally. The language I used, call it pretentious, changed and to date I can barely re-read it.

Similarly, when I first started the blog, I would allow myself to comment on other peoples blogs more freely. The comment’s I would leave would be immediate gut reactions to posts. Sometimes I’d just be trying to make a joke, some stupid one-liner. And guess what, later on it stayed there as a stupid joke. It would have been fine in passing, but dumb jokes stick around forever in the blogsphere.

On many of the academic listservs I participate on, emotional outbursts frequently occur. I was relieved to see other people embarrassing themselves as much as I had, and eventually I got used to it, realizing we are all human beings who spazz out, act irrational, miss our morning coffee etc. Being able to send messages instantly means  that those spazzy emotional outbursts are bound to get archived. So be it.  Does this change the way I present myself? Absolutely. Can I avoid future embarrassment online? I doubt it. It’s a different place, but it’s still real life. I have no doubt that after going through such experiences, that online actions are every bit as real and embodied as offline ones.

Going back to Wacquant’s introduction, he discusses the first chapters goals:

“A reflection on an experience of apprenticeship in progress, this first part of the book pursues a triple objective. The first is to contribute precise and detailed ethnographic data, produced by means of direct observation and intensive participation, on a social universe that is all the more unknown for being the object of widely disseminated representations.”

I am an apprentice anthropologist, a student-researcher if you will, engaging myself online. Cultural anthropology is widely mis recognized, misinterpreted, and basically misunderstood outside the discipline. Anthropology bloggers are a new public face of anthropology, (as are the Human Terrain military anthropologists). That cultural anthropology is not well understood reflects a poor relationship between mass media and anthropologists. Perhaps anthropologists were irrelevant and uninteresting, or perhaps they were ignored because they were saying something unpopular. Thankfully Anthropology bloggers are playing a role in re-representing anthropology in the mass media, as the chapter, “Human Terrain System meet the Blogsphere” will detail.

The blogsphere is so widely disseminated, that it too can ‘mis-represent’. The blogsphere is filled with unedited drafts, drunken rants, emotional outbursts, passionate engagement, and yes bias. Already I am guilty of misrepresentation to some extent. When I blogged Johannes Fabian’s conference at Concordia, who would have guessed I would dominate Google’s index for a period of at least three weeks. As one discussion among many its contribution would be great, but as the only discussion available it can cause trouble. In other words, you need to be tapping into a crowd.

[link to online community and personal networks -> “tapping into wisdom of the crowds”, and filtering information].

[moving all these undeveloped crap posts to Diigo if it works out]


Wacquant, Loic. 2006. Body & Soul.  Oxford University Press.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Many thanks for these reading notes on Wacquant, OW, I’m going to have to get hold of the book now – sounds magnifique.


  2. Interesting mix of theoretical, personal, and methodological points. The “ways of speaking” dimension easily connects to classic issues in the ethnography of communication.
    There also seems to be a growing interest in treating ethnography as an epistemological framework, instead of a set of research methods. Going back to Briggs’s Learning How to Ask (at the end of the “Crisis of Representation”) can help us focus on epistemology.


  3. Thanks for the support. I’ve been dumping unedited drafts onto the blog much too freely, almost as if I was drunk.

    I need a place to work, less public than this blog, but still accessible to anyone interested. Diigo looks good, I’m playing with it now. After trying to use the blog as a place for revising, I’ve found that sorting by date really limits the relevance of your revisions. Also I think it is safe to say thesis language isn’t exactly ideal in the blogsphere. If I continue to draft my thesis on the blog, I’ll run into massive trouble.

    And after doing even the slightest amount of editing, I’m quite certain I want to *hide* some of my work better. I’ve really been letting loose with the brainstorming, and it shows. Overly transparent might be another way of putting it…

    I keep fighting the desire to put out ‘quality’ blog posts. What made this blog work for me in the beginning was that I didn’t worry about quality! I was less comfortable clicking the ‘publish’ button however. I’ve always written with the idea I’ll edit it later, if it finds a place in the thesis.

    All the feedback the blog has generated has made it impossible to ignore the fact blogs are meant to be read, and regardless of how poorly I edit my work, people still read it. So in this way, when I find some nasty typo, or mistyped quote, or sometimes complete nonsense, I feel pitty for anyone who stumbled upon it. “When RERO get’s selfish” might just have to be the title of this story.

    I remember you wrote about this issue, “To Rero or to Edit”, or something to that effect didn’t you Alexandre?

    Dr. Postill, I presented the book to my writing ethnography class, and it was well received by everyone. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! That it has any relation to a Bourdieu book is quite amazing, in that it makes sense and is easy to read.


  4. @OW
    This is getting rather “meta.” For instance, I got a notification of a new comment here (thanks to the new “subscription” feature in but I notice that your comment is longer here than in the notification version. Seems like even that difference goes to show the issue with editing any kind of blog content.
    As you noticed, my policy is now “Release Early, Release Often.” I do occasionally add content to a previous blogpost but I stopped bothering with any level of editing. I press the “publish” button without thinking much about what I could change. In my case, it’s not much of an issue but I can see that it might be an issue for you (as blogging has some consequences on your thesis).

    As for Diigo, I mostly use it as my main social bookmarking service but I did occasionally use it to blog or “write commentary” (in something vaguely similar to what Fabian was describing, during the ConU talk). I should look at your Diigo stuff, at some point. In a way, Diigo is almost “obscure enough” for this type of thing to work.


  5. […] Wiltshire, Ethnography, The Internet, and an Apprentice Anthropologist. Is it possible to observe interactions online? To develop an embodied understanding? This […]


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