Ethnography and the Internet

Chapter 3 – Ethnography and the Internet. v2

No longer about long-term fieldwork in far off places or even about particular groups of people, ethnography, as Wittel writes, is “on the move” (2008:1). Ethnographic research now targets political issues that involve multiple groups of people and different political positions. Ethnographers are tackling contemporary questions that can’t be addressed through long term stays in a single space. Ethnography is now multi-sited, and ethnographers have the internet, allowing some of them to return to the armchair, engaging their subjects through the computer screen almost anywhere they might be.

Prior to ethnography, early academics conducted research in universities, learning about non-European societies through the writings of others. Travelers, missionaries, and military men all wrote about the people and places they visited. These texts formed the base from which early anthropologists theorized the nature of humankind. But anthropologists found a need for more direct evidence from which to write, given the biased sources they had drawn on in the past. The act of traveling abroad, to remote little known destinations, became an important methodological commitment for anthropologists who sought out empirical evidence from which to establish scientific theory. The evidence they gathered was empirical, in the sense that they recorded their observations into texts, or fieldnotes, which then became scientific data that was considered to be more reliable and nuanced than the texts from missionaries and militaries. And since so few were writing about these people and places, anthropologists found an important academic niche in which to contribute.

Ethnography today continues the tradition. It continues to be based on fieldwork and anthropologists continue to write field notes, which are later turned into reports. However the ‘field’ is now conceptualized quite broadly, as are the kinds of questions currently considered interesting and valuable. Wittel writes,

“A century ago, ethnographers like A.C. Haddon, Franz Boas and a few years later Bronislaw Malinowski revolutionized anthropology by not merely studying decontextualised objects – this is what the armchair anthropologist did – but rather by studying people in their natural environment. To them the key to gaining an understanding of communities/tribes and their cultures, rituals and patterns of interaction was a long-term immersion in another way of life. This shift from decontextualised objects to the study of people in their natural environments has to be understood as an increase of complexity. What made perfect sense at the turn of the last century, now becomes the centre of debate…

… whereas a century ago fieldwork in the natural habitat of communities had the immense advantage of integrating context, a dogmatisation of the same practice in contemporary ethnography seems to achieve the opposite. It rather excludes the context of the people under observation.” (Wittel 2000:8)

The interests of researchers have changed such that it rarely makes sense to focus specifically on a place. In order to address issues such as globalization, colonialism, power, etc… ethnography today is typically multi-sited – involving different political groups at various locations.

Moving beyond traditional conceptions of ethnography.

In abandoning the long term commitment to a single space, anthropologists now divide their time among a number of different sites. While continuing to embrace interviews and participant observation, the location in which research is conducted is no longer geographically bound. Wittel writes,

“Gupta and Ferguson (1997b, p.37), referring to the work of Appadurai, suggest to decenter the notion of the field. Instead of the field being used to connote locality, to “the here” and “the elsewhere”, the field should rather be conceptualized as a political location.” (Wittel 2000:6)

In this way the anthropologists, ethnographers, or more simply researchers, of today, address issues across geographical, political and disciplinary boundaries. Place in this sense is less important than the questions being researched. These new conceptions of the “field” further blur the boundaries of anthropology online.

Ethnographic engagement and online interaction.

A defining research method of ethnographers is that of using participant-observation. It engages the researcher directly as a way of collecting data, allowing the researcher to make observations in a ‘natural habitat’. More generally, it involves various sorts of qualitative research, with an emphasis on the researchers direct engagement. It is no challenge then for ethnography to apply itself online. Michael Wesch writes,

"Understanding human relationships within this new mediascape will require us to embrace our anthropological mainstay, participant observation. We know the value of participant observation in understanding social worlds. Now we need to participate in the new media in order to understand the new forms of sociality emerging in this quickly changing mediated world." (Wesch 2007:31)

It makes perfect sense then, for anthropologists to be conducting research online and/or to make the Internet the subject of their research. But what makes these online studies ethnographic? Wittel worries about studies that are done entirely online, writing,

“If the research conducted is single sited, that is to say from the researchers office computer, it might be more appropriate to dispense with the term ethnography and talk about conversation analysis, text analysis or discourse analysis.” (Wittel 2000:21)

Wittel here pushes the importance of face-to-face interaction, as a means of distinguishing ethnography from other online research methods. But this distinction hasn’t held. Where there was once a clear division between the study of texts, and that of participant observation, online publicly accessible discussions merge the interaction that comes from participant-observation, with the creation and interpretation of texts.

Blogging and other social media tools provide a way for researchers to participate and engage with people. By participating in these media the researcher works to create publicly accessible texts. This coincides with Johannes Fabian’s discussion regarding the creation of ethnographic texts, where he distinguishes between the texts of literary critics, and the texts of the ethnographer. He writes,

“As I have done already several times I find it useful to stipulate the difference between the ethnographer’s and the literary critic’s texts. This is not to suggest that literary texts are simply given, as if they did not have to be appropriated in various ways before they become objects of interpretation and critique. Still, the literary critic is usually not the author of his or her text, whereas the ethnographer usually is, at least as far as the kind of text we have before us is concerned.” (Fabian 2008:40)

With email, listservs, websites and now blogs, twitter and Facebook, virtual worlds and games, ethnographers are making use of the tools offered to them to explore and at the same time they are blurring the distinction between ethnography and what Borneman calls "trendy cultural studies" (Borneman 1995:669). Blogs and social feeds like Twitter provide a new way for ethnographers to “make” texts, in a sense similar to what Fabian suggests. But unlike the texts Fabian discusses in “Ethnography as Commentary” (1995), the texts created through blogging and other social media are created in collaboration with others with the knowledge that they will be public.

Against an online ethnography.

There remains the issue, raised by Borneman, of ethnographers avoiding the "discomforts and uncertainties inherent in face-to-face interaction with strangers" (Borneman 1995:669). But this argument is dated. As it turns out, online interaction involves plenty of discomfort and uncertainty, with less face-to-face interaction, more computer mediated interaction, and yes, it involves more strangers.

Computer mediated interaction has been a hot topic among researchers. While researchers have experimented with online research strategies, they have also been careful to continue to emphasize the traditional mainstay’s of face-to-face participant observation. But researchers have shown how people interact differently through different media. It has been argued that people can not express themselves online to the same degree as they can face to face – that social cues are missed. How can you really know who you are talking to online? John Smith can write on a blog, and it might later turn out to be Veronica Adams. John can pretend to be whoever he wants to be. He can pretend to have a Ph.D., or he can pretend to be Bon Jovi. And who knows he might even be drunk which would explain the demonic rant he left in reply on your blog. But maybe he wasn’t drunk maybe he really is a bastard? These worries pushed some ethnographers to appeal for online interaction to be put in context with studies of so called "real offline lives".

But computer mediated technologies have also been shown to provide new means of expression. Christine Hine writes "… outside the strictly controlled experimental setting, rather than providing a limited and constraining medium, CMC has provided rich and complex social experience." (Hine 2000:15) Using sometimes anonymous (to a degree), online, publicly accessible, and possibly forever archived conversations as data brings new research issues.

Using the blog as a research tool.

A number of blogging approaches have been taken up by researchers (and anthropologists) in the research setting. Erkan Saka’s (2006) essay, "Blogging as a Research Tool for Ethnographic Fieldwork", discusses how blogging can compliment traditional peer reviewed, print publication. Publishing and review can take a long time challenging scholars ability to address events as they are happening. Saka points out blogging provides a means for more timely discussion, often in "the present tense", and that it "… forces the ethnographer to produce on a regular basis… with a constant appeal to narrate what would normally remain fragments of field notes." (Saka 2006:1).

This idea of publishing field notes ties into Eric Raymond, that of "RERO", "Release-Early-Release-Often" (Raymond 1997), which originated within software development circles as way to improve development by making it more iterative. By releasing a product early and frequently, feedback can be introduced into the design. It is an iterative development cycle that hopes to breach gaps between the developer and end user. This approach can be adapted to online publishing and academic research, in that drafts can be circulated as easily and as widely as the final published work. To explore the ability to use this writing strategy in the research setting, notes and drafts of this paper have been shared on the sites blog.

Entering the field.

The blog can be used to share research intentions, to help conduct research openly. With the help of other interested bloggers, a single post can be disseminated quite broadly. This can work to inform people about a research project, while creating a valuable network of collaborators. Included here are some of the first posts from this project’s blog

Surviving a masters program

November 15, 2007, 4:02 am
Filed under: What is anthropology?

I’d have started with a tale of entry, to locate you in the journey, but its nearing the end of the first semester and I’ve lost sight – of the beginning, and of the end. What is anthropology? That is a good question, and you might even consider asking it to a grad student like myself. Unfortunately for you, I’ve been engaging in a history of anthropology, a history that problematizes our curiosity, casts doubt on our past and future integrity. It is a history of colonialism, of imperialism and its effects on anthropological perspectives, and on people around the world. It’s anthropological shock doctrine, a rite of passage perhaps, that motivates a sense of ethic and responsibility as an anthropologist and as a global citizen. So for now I’ll sidestep the question, and with much humility, introduce my attempt at an academic blog.

Research Interests

November 15, 2007, 4:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am interested in collaborative research methods, and the growth of anthropology online. [okay hound me for being way too vague, but for now lets look at "method" as in, publishing medium, discussion format, style]. I’m particularly interested in open-access journals, and feel that opening up academic publishing is an enormously important step for anthropology. Of course, I don’t know the whole story yet, but prior to beginning this anthropological journey I worked as a web developer for 10 years, and I have enormous bias favoring all open source and open access projects. Delving into the interesting colonial history of anthropology, and into discussions of globalization and neoliberal economic injustice, it’s pretty easy to see how it makes sense to make anthropological work freely available to the world that it studies.

In this way I’ll be exploring ways to study online communities – in this case communities of anthropologists. Its an exciting time for anthropology online. I’ve been following anthropology blogs for a year now, and its amazing how fast its growing. Its quite inspiring, and I think reflects a very vibrant community that’s just itching to work (and fight) with each other! So while my research proposal is extremely vague, and I’ve been made aware of this, I’m absolutely confident that the internet, blogs, and the desire to liberate anthropological knowledge from the world economy are fueling a change in anthropology, and that within this excitement I’ll find an interesting “field” of study.

This is also an invitation to all other interested parties who might like to collaborate on research ideas and methods!

These two posts sat quietly for a while, almost a month. But with a little help from the academic blogsphere, the posts above spread more broadly than I’d anticipated.

An Open Academic Audience.

Within a month or so, Lorenz Khazaleh of and Erkan Saka of, two motivated bloggers, had linked to the posts. Lorenz Khazaleh had summarized my research intentions and posted them on his well trafficked site. This helped to disseminate the intent of this research to other interested academics. Through these posts I came into contact with a number of other researchers similarly interested in Open Access publishing (a subject Lorenz, and others, have long been covering). These posts, which highlight the work of other bloggers, are often called ‘pingbacks’. I made an effort to reciprocate their kindness by highlighting other interesting researchers and blogs I came across. These pingbacks and responses from people I’d never met, proved to be quite motivating. Further I was able to keep on top of a number of issues they themselves were writing about. This revealed a network of fellow academics who were willing and interested to talk anthropology in the blogsphere. Balancing this excitement was the reality that responses to posts I found interesting did not develop immediately, if at all.

Previous connections proved to be important for the development of the blog. Alexandre Enkerli, and the supervisor of this research project, Maximillian Forte, both teachers at Concordia University, participated throughout. Having a few people to develop conversation on the blog helped to encourage others to share their own ideas. As Eric C. Thompson argues, this ties in to recent research showing that online interactions are still influenced by physical proximity,

“The most recent research on this rapidly maturing communication technology offers a more complex picture. Physical proximity and face-to-face interaction remain important determinants to the intensity of communication among scholars and development of collaborative interactions. (Koku et al., 2001).” (Thompson 2006:42)

Enthusiasm from researchers at Concordia University helped to get the ball rolling. With their participation alone, the blog would have been an effective collaborative space. But in being publicly accessible and open to commentary, the blog invited contributions from people I would never have encountered otherwise.

Introducing Commentary

The main reason for using the blog as a research tool was to seek out feedback. Feedback was sought out from anyone who read the blog and who was willing to take interest in its development. This was done without formally involving them, and without imposing expectations on their participation – aside that it be contained in the form of commentary, that it be related in some way to the discussion, and that it be written in a language I could understand or translate from. In this sense the blog played part of an exercise to utilize commentary as part of an iterative research and writing strategy.

Looking at critiques of ethnographic writing in the past, issues have been raised as to the lack of input of interested groups into the design and development of research. Wallerstein et al write,

"For unlike the natural world as defined by the natural sciences, the domain of the social sciences not only is one in which the object of study encompasses the researchers themselves but also is one in which the persons they study can enter dialogues or contests of various kinds with these researchers. Matters of debate in the natural sciences are normally solved without recourse to the opinions of the object of study. In contrast the peoples (or their descendants) studied by social scientists have entered increasingly into the discussion, whether or not their opinion was sought by scholars who, indeed, frequently considered this intrusion unwelcome." (Wallerstein et al. 1996:50)

Responses to researchers involved in the study, but lacking a Ph.D., have not been well integrated into the academic publishing process. Caroline B. Brettell writes,

"Reflecting on what she did and did not show to her respondents prior to publication, Lawless (1992) concludes that she should have included her key respondents’ interpretations of her interpretation, as well as her own reinterpretation, in the final text of her book "Handmaidens of the Lord." "if we insist upon interpreting other people’s interpretations, at the very least, we are obligated to allow them space to respond. At the very most, we stand to learn far more than we ever bargained for" (Lawless 1992:313) (Brettell 1993:21)

Blogging and other publishing options online can provide, in particular contexts, a means of interacting with people involved in the research. At the very least it can be used to share information and make research accessible.

“One could also point out that setting up virtual archives can be a step toward meeting not only demands and expectations to “return” our research results to the people we study but to initiate discussion of our work as well as additions to the corpus. That documents created by blogs and chat groups devoted to themes anthropology is interested in deserve our attention is by now widely recognized; Internet based ethnography has become accepted as a legitimate alternative or compliment of, traditional fieldwork…” (Fabian 2008:122)

Beyond making the research accessible, it also provides a place for people to respond and challenge the representations of the researcher.

Commentary as a form of peer review.

Posting drafts of thesis chapters worked to elicit a number of responses from helpful collaborators. Writing about the history of anthropology is a challenge, and while journal articles provide an extensive written record, it helped to bounce my representation of that record off a few readers before submitting it to the supervisor. The following two tables include comments received in response to posted drafts of the previous chapter,

Posted by Socect on October 3, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I would ask you to reconsider your critique of anthropology-as-handmaiden-of-colonialism, largely following in the tradition of Talal Asad. The problem with this critique is that in moving from a position of marginality – when Talal Asad first proposed it – to one of general hegemony (the paradigmatic story of “what anthropology is”), both inside and outside academic anthropology, Asad’s critique (and more generally Said’s related “Orientalism”) has gone from being revolutionary to reactionary. It is a critique which positively transformed anthropology (a successful revolution!), through further development in both “writing culture” school and postcolonial theory (e.g. subaltern studies). I most often find it used these days, however, to either rubbish anthropology in contrast to sociology, political science, geography and other disciplines, which blithely carry on deeply blinkered ethnocentric, Euro-American projects in the meantime (in places such as Singapore where I work); or within anthropology as a discipline (specifically American anthropology) the critique is used to justify disengagement with the world; i.e. “studying at home” because “studying abroad” is so morally suspect. I question, however, whether ignorance of “others” (however defined) is really so revolutionary?

You also seem to reinforce and reinscribe anthropology-as-Euro American-undertaking even up to the present day. This ignores the “world anthropologies” movement, which has gained some ground over the past ten years or so. It would seem, in a work about how anthropologists communicate with each other, taking this into consideration would be of substantial importance.

Posted by Jérémy on August 20, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Maybe the idea of “pure science” could be debated a bit more. I doubt that anthropology can ever be “pure science”, or at least I can’t see what the meaning of “pure” would be in this phrase. And the pretense of doing pure “Science” can be used by people who confuse “dominant” and “objective”, and don’t recognize or acknowledge their own politics.

These comments helped to bring some clarity and perspective to a very rough thesis chapter that badly needed editing and revision.

Ideas developed through blog posts as the research progressed. Pondering issues related to centering research around an online community of academic bloggers, I wrote a post “Community, the Internet, and Anthropology”, which discussed material I’d read in a published journal article. I hastily wrote up my thoughts and published the post. Within a few days I’d received the following response, which was revealing as to how powerful the medium was.


Posted by John Postill on June 26, 2008 at 9:39 pm

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).

In the post I had unwillingly ‘gotten it wrong’. Interestingly the author of the published article found the post, and he took time to correct aspects of my interpretation.

Blogs and time.

Reading and commenting on academic work takes time. While writing the initial research proposal I sent off a draft to Lorenz Khazaleh, hoping to get some feedback on it. He declined the offer, and apologized explaining that he was deep into a project and had no time to even read it. I thanked him anyways, and realized yet another enormous advantage provided by an open blog. Sometimes people are busy, sometimes they aren’t. The great thing about blogging as a research strategy is that it invites people to contribute in their own time, without having to be asked. While unwilling to attack a graduate student’s research proposal in the middle of his own projects, other people were..

It is particularly fascinating then, that researchers are spending time “working” in the blogsphere at all, given that most are not paid to engage this way. David Price comments,

“the political economy of academia is not structured to reward individuals building things for a common good outside the peer review process. It has long been true that many of the most useful academic resource tools (annotated bibliographies, reference books, and the like) are undervalued or unrecognized by formal academic assessments. For now at least, academic blogs seem to be an electronic extension of this troubling phenomenon.” (Price 2010:141)

As I also learned through interviews at Concordia, anthropologists are rarely paid to review work, and new scholars are even warned against spending too much time writing in the wrong places. On a professional level then, there is tension between a formal publishing record established in peer reviewed presses, and between spending time doing anthropology outside the classroom. Is it fair to expect researchers to maintain an online presence? For many, online interaction hasn’t become a part of the rest of their lives. But for some it has, and among this group there is a new raison-d’etre for engaging oneself online – the act of ‘being there’. Rather than being in a remote place, the act of being there, for the internet ethnographer, is about maintaining a presence online, such that people involved in the research, students, researchers, and anyone interested can interact directly with the researcher.

In conclusion ethnography, as a research approach that focuses on the involvement and participation of the researcher, is perfectly suited to online studies. It has changed as researchers address different questions, but as Christine Hine argues, ethnography has always been adaptive – necessarily as a way of engaging changing research contexts. With the Internet there are numerous ways to interact with people, and one interesting distinction made here has been between ethnography and different forms of “textual analysis”. How is blogging research as it develops ethnographic? Media and dialogues are created by the ethnographer in public in collaboration with others, as a means of informing research. Most importantly it is a new way for people to participate in, and to respond to, anthropological research. An Internet ethnography justified, let us continue our exploration into the “Open”, to see why, given such opportunities to disseminate their work, many anthropologists continue to restrict their audience.


4 responses to this post.

  1. […] – IntroductionEthnography and the InternetAnthropology: Arguments for ChangeOut in the "Open"ConclusionMaking […]


  2. […] thesis drafts. Leave a Comment Just a quick note to let a few interested parties know that Chapter 3 v2 has been posted. The thesis is coming around second base now and well on its way home. The next […]


  3. My very first reaction, and I need more time and a closer reading, is pure enthusiasm for your writing and for this project as a whole.


  4. Thanks Max. Printed draft coming up Monday as promised!


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