Archive for the ‘Doing ethnography online’ Category

open anthropology cooperative

I’m a bit late (ignoring this blog to write a thesis of course), but if you haven’t heard yet, anthropologists have come together to form the “open anthropology cooperative”. The project has received a lot of enthusiastic support, and couldn’t have started off better! I’m looking forward to taking part, especially once I kick this flu… (did you hear its bloody 10 degrees in June? If only global warming was given a more descriptive name – like “montreal ice age, here we come”.

Sign up and participate at

Why people don’t respond

Just capturing a little quote from a discussion over at Savage Minds, which I might include in the thesis section on reader interaction.

“I am reluctant to post on a blog which, although raising central issues, so often then distorts and obscures them…”

Digital Rights Management and Anthropology

Running alongside the open access debate, are debates as to what kinds of information should be shared and how to go about doing it. As I mentioned in the previous post, “open access” is not synonymous with “universal access”, as was stressed by Peter Suber on his “open access overview” page that I linked to.

Thanks to conversations with Max Forte, I realize that the discussion is actually about good old DRM – digital rights management.

Little did I know, that anthropologists and the recording industry have so much in common!

Both are fighting against the “information wants to be free” slogan (who’s author I can’t track down.. someone help please). Both are arguing for some kind of control over how the information will be used. The recording industry has spent millions working on technologies to do this – they want to know who is using what, and they want to control how it is used. Unfortunately for some, their efforts have pretty much failed, and regardless of how many lawsuits they have laid or DRM schemes they created, copyright (read controlled) music finds a way to escape any locks placed on it.

This reality probably spawned the slogan “information wants to be free” since no matter how hard people try to lock it down, it finds a way out – as if it was never meant to be locked down in the first place.

But what about anthropologists? They are taking a different perspective than the artist who depends on copyright to earn a living. For the anthropologist DRM would not be about earning a living, or ensuring payment. It would be about making sure the right people are given access and the wrong people are kept out.

As Max points out, there is a problem with the open access philosophy of “share it with everyone interested” since by making it available to those people, it becomes far too easy for the information to make its way into the wrong places. Here we find the need to establish “degrees of access” as opposed to simply looking at it as “universal” or “closed”. We also need ways of changing such controls as political contexts change. What Max is arguing is that information we consider safe today may not be tomorrow and in this case perhaps it is foolish to share ideas openly, if one also has the option to limit access and therefore limit collateral damage.

It is a debate about control, but perhaps it should be about content. I believe information wants to be free, in that you cannot control how it will be used. DRM will not protect it. The only answer is to establish a chain of responsibility among owners – asking that they do not share it with the wrong people. This is perhaps possible. But if someone really wants it, they will either invent it independently, or find a way to gain access.

So does “Open Access” refer to removing price-barriers to academic research, or simply to making anything accessible on the internet? Ie: I never considered blogging to fit into the Open Access label, but perhaps it does?

ethnographic sources

I’ve been moving ideas from this blog and others into “my” thesis. I’ve run into some interesting challenges that relate directly to having done so much research on a blog. For one, I cannot mask the identities of people I spoke with. Some people used pseudonyms, but others used real names.

You might say, “well shit, since it was all public in the first place, you don’t have much to worry about”,

to which I reply “well actually, it is all public but that doesn’t mean amplifying the message won’t have an affect on the author of it! If a post was embarassing to someone, certainly re-posting it in my thesis isn’t a good thing to do!”

Especially when everything I am writing about in the thesis has already been said on this blog somewhere, and in this way it is easy to track down original discussions.  Hence it is much harder to obscure such interactions.

Further, I’m writing about things other people have also written about. When discussing open access and peoples access to information, I have a number of sources to draw on. I can cite interviews done in person, other peoples books, and other peoples blog posts. By using interviews done by me it looks like I’ve done something original, whereas if I quote someones blog, it seems like I was lazy and didn’t do the work myself.

How do you feel about this? Have you ever used interview material instead of quoting published work, as a way of “making it your own”? It feels like a nice plagiarizing strategy. Take the basic argument from someone, then go out and “back it up” with “empirical evidence” developed in the form of face-to-face interviews.

In fact, I would say I can find everything I learned in interviews, on peoples blogs. Especially now that I know what to look for. I’m researching a topic people are already vocal about, and these online expressions are as informative as any interview I did in person. What arguments might exist for using interviews over public blog posts… (when it is easy to find the desired points in both places…)

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.

Reader interaction in the blogsphere and elsewhere.

I’d wanted to investigate the ways online journals where adapting to new communication opportunities online, but I had to chop much of this from my proposal to keep things manageable. Thankfully other people are writing about it, and my “ethnographic” exploration can continue “from the armchair”. Gary Kamiya at discusses the way reader interaction has changed journalism for better and for worse.  The article details the experiences of a number of writers, and discusses the publications changing strategies for capitalizing on reader contributions:

“You, gentle and not-so-gentle readers, have been on my mind lately. You vast and invisible online throng, slouched in front of thousands of computer monitors, have done something revolutionary. You have forever altered the relationship between writer and audience. The Internet has turned what was once primarily a one-way communication into a dialogue — or maybe a melee. From a cultural perspective, the new democracy of voices online is a wonderful thing. But writers have an odd and ambiguous relationship with their readers, and the reader revolution is having massive consequences we can’t even foresee.”

(Kamiya, Gary. 2007:1) has worked to integrate reader interaction into it’s online publishing strategy. But not all feedback is equal, and the process of democratizing reader feedback had unexpected consequences. The article highlights both the good and bad. For the good he highlights the ability of reactive audiences to act as “an enormous fact checker” pointing to “an explosion in expertise”, albeit a very chaotic one. These reactions demand authors respond to meaningful critiques and these interactions can lead into longer lasting relationships.

This strategy of building relationships through online interactions has been my main research strategy. Blogging my research has not only worked to fact-check my interpretations through the generous contributions of collaborators, but it has also worked to develop a network of personal relationships. For example, I am now working on an email survey which I will send out to people who have responded on the blog. This will hopefully go over better than a random email survey sent out to people I’d never spoken with before.

But enough with the internet utopianism already. And enough preaching to the converted (ie blogging about open access…). The tough sell will come from those just coping with email. To sell this online revolution to more conservative anthropologists, my thesis will have to detail all the bad. [objective = (equal number of good points, listed next to equal number of bad points).] The article discusses the brutality, idiocy, and thoughtlessness that come with many reader comments, along with long winded tirades and rants. They point to different norms of behavior within traditional print magazines from those online:

“Moreover — and this is a crucial point — the percentage of letter writers who are fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts has exponentially increased. In the old stamped-letter days, the difficulty of writing in weeded out more of these types; letters tended to be somewhat more thoughtful, and letter writers usually adhered to certain conventions of etiquette and decorum governing communications between reader and writer. Not forelock-tugging subservience to their betters, but simple courtesy. There was a tacit acknowledgment of the implicit contract between writer and reader, one characterized by at least a modicum of idealization and respect on both sides. I don’t want to exaggerate this — certainly there were plenty of ad hominem and intemperate letters back then. But having edited several magazines in the print-only era, I can say that there were far, far fewer. Perhaps the unseen presence of an editor, the slightly formal nature of writing a “letter to the editor,” led readers to be on their better behavior.”

(Kamiya, Gary. 2007:2)

While authors deal with brutal, often idiotic responses,  my own experience has been a bit different. Responses so far have come from academics, or previous academics.  Reader comments have been very supportive and kind, and are often quite formal. authors on the other hand highlight issues of sexism, insensivity, and intolerance – so bad that some authors at Salon avoid reading responses, or searching their names on Google. Academia breeds formality, even without an editor, for I haven’t received any anonymous hate mail yet…

Anthropology and academia in general, are described by Vassos Argyrou as a ‘game of power’, and formality is part of this game. It’s interesting to see how academic blogs attract different kinds of responses than online magazines and other more popular blogs.

The other possibility is my academic drivel bored the trolls to death…

[random notes from the reading]

  • reader comments can scare other readers away, and give a bad overall image.   -> important consideration for ethnographic projects where you might want to develop diverse, conflicting, opinion.
  • Fear of responses can lead to “creative paralysis” [but I dont think this is new to the online world, since in my discussions with fellow students very few people I meet are willing to share creative work publicly. Creative paralysis seems to affect most people, and blogging is a way to work against this].
  • article concludes with hope for more respect in author-reader interactions… Discusses ‘playing the game’ which relates to Vassos Argyrou’s quote in my proposal about anthropology as ‘a game of power’. Academics have to maintain some formality and respect in order to advance themselves in the field… This differs from popular publications where readers are not playing the same game.

Kamiya, Gary. 2007. “The Readers Strike Back”,

Ethnography is to anthropology as…

Many anthropologists stress the importance of ethnography, and when it comes to disciplinary turf wars anthropologists can also be very protective of it. In his post “Ethnographic Disciplines”, Enkerli argues ethnography has also developed in a number of other disciplines. He writes:

“I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.”

Many disciplines play with ethnographic, or ethnographic-like methods to do research. As Enkerli goes on to say, ethnography is also done by market-researchers, but he wonders how close the methods really are in application and purpose.

[Note that the “disciplinary turf wars” line is an official trademark of the Carl corporation. Patent can be found here. ]

See also:

Dr. Postill discusses Tim Ingold’s position that “Anthropology is not ethnography”.