• On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet


    sarahkendziorEditor’s note: In this thoughtful piece for February’s Openness Edition, Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) discusses the ways in which the internet has transformed the relationship between the writer and the people about whom he or she writes. Sarah has written extensively about open access to scholarly publications (‘one paper (she) uploaded to Academia.edu… helped Uzbek refugees find a safe haven abroad’, according to one interview). In this post, Sarah writes about a deeper question regarding the openness of the research process and the ways in which the internet has led to a leveling of the playing fields in a way that some anthropologists would rather ignore than confront. After all, when the “subaltern speaks” and anyone, not just anthropologists, can hear, who exactly is doing the exposing?

    Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist and communications scholar who studies digital media and politics. Her home blog is at sarahkendzior.com

    Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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    In the hallway of my anthropology department there was a map of the world. The map was covered with photos of students in the field, their exact location pinpointed by an image on a string. Every year, the academic coordinator would send out a call to students for a representative photo to add to the map, and every year, I failed to respond.

    During the bulk of my dissertation fieldwork, I lived in Missouri. The people I wrote about, Uzbek exiled political dissidents, lived all around the world — in Sweden, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, the United States, Turkey. Having fled a brutal crackdown following a massacre of civilians, they lived lives of constant upheaval, on the move and on the run. They thought less about where they were than they did about Uzbekistan, the one place they could not go. They spent most of their time online, talking to each other and talking to me. I could not go to Uzbekistan either, since my previous articles criticized its authoritarian regime.

    birdamlik_computer

    This picture shows the inside of the truck of the leader of the Birdamlik People’s Movement, an Uzbek opposition group. Birdamlik has branches in over a dozen countries (including Uzbekistan) but they are organized through the internet. The leader of the movement works in the US as a truck driver, and he calls this his “mobile office” — a communications center set up inside his 18-wheeler. The computer screen shows the Birdamlik website, which is banned in Uzbekistan. Pic by Sarah Kendzior (all rights reserved)

    The online communities of exiled dissidents made for an interesting dissertation. But it posed a problem when it came to the department map. Should I mark every point on the map or none of them? Should I designate Uzbekistan somehow – a skull and crossbones, a circle with a slash? What was my “representative image” – an activist curled up with his laptop, updating his Facebook status? A blogger staring at Cyrillic on a screen? Me, alone at my desk, checking my email?

    No one wants to see these things. No one wants to see visual documentation of their own online lives, much less the lives of others. It is the academic version of the tabloid reveal – “Uzbek dissidents – they’re just like us!” Such banality runs counter to anthropological advertising. The purpose of the department map was to show visitors that our research subjects are not just like us – but that we, for a time, could be just like them.

    I was like the people I studied too, in that none of us have a place within the traditional conception of anthropological fieldwork. We were too much on the move, or we were not moving enough.

    Journalism and Anthropology Face the Same Fate

    Before I was an anthropologist, I was a journalist. The week I quit my job at the New York Daily News, another young journalist bowed out in a more dramatic fashion. In April 2003, Jayson Blair was fired from the New York Times for plagiarizing other articles, inventing quotes, and, most intriguingly, fabricating travel in order to merit the dateline that lends a Times piece its veracity. Instead of going to the places he was supposed to go and talking to the people who lived there, Blair would interview them on the phone from New York. Sometimes, he would fly into a city and “report” without leaving his hotel.

    As the Blair scandal unfolded, it became known that the latter technique was occasionally practiced even by journalists who were not coke-addled liars. The dateline had its own value separate from the insight that the reporter was contributing. It was shorthand for the reporter’s personal involvement, his professional legitimacy, his deep, on-the-ground knowledge. Being there – regardless of what one was actually doing there – was enough, for this distinguished the journalist from the masses forced to rely on his words.

    At the time I quit the Daily News, most print journalists viewed the internet with suspicion and disdain. In 2003, the version of the Daily News that appeared at their website was almost an exact replica of the edition that had been published that morning, save a “Breaking News” bar, reluctantly implemented in 2002, that linked to stories from wire services. Even 9/11 had prompted hand-wringing among the web staffers – dare they announce that the World Trade Center had collapsed and risk incurring the wrath of editorial?

    Ten years later, such a scenario is unimaginable. The collapse of print journalism, and the attribution of its demise to the industry’s reluctance to adapt to the internet, has been thoroughly (and gleefully) eulogized by media and tech reporters, and was predicted years before it occurred. What few saw coming was how, in less than a decade, the internet would go from disreputable scourge to the dominant source of news and information, with reporters breathlessly parroting the Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses of famous people and ordinary citizens alike.

    In 2003, I never thought CNN would film a website, but today this happens all the time, because well-placed internet users are now viewed as authorities due purely to their geographic proximity to an event. Facebook and Twitter users have become unwitting reporters (unpaid unwitting reporters), and media outlets rely on them. It is enough that they are there, updating from the scene, unlike the journalist whose travel budget was cut – never mind if the Twitter user knows from what he tweets.

    A Discipline in Crisis

    Today anthropology is facing a crisis of place, representation, and legitimacy similar to what journalism experienced a decade ago. Like journalists at the turn of the millennium, anthropologists have dealt with the challenges posed by the internet by ignoring them, downplaying the importance of the medium, and discounting its impact on the lives of the people they study. Despite the importance of the internet to people all over the world, there are few ethnographic studies of internet use conducted by anthropologists, and the anthropologists who do conduct this kind of research are marginalized and dismissed.

    In a 2002 essay titled Another Revolution Missed, Maximillian Forte bemoaned the widespread refusal of anthropologists to acknowledge the web. “Why would anthropology, as a discipline, routinely ignore one particular field site?” he asked, noting that this field site is populated by “almost 600 million people of all ages, classes, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, personal interests, and professions.”

    While public acknowledgement of the internet as a medium worthy of anthropological inquiry has increased since the publication of Forte’s essay, there has been little in the way of ethnographic studies of how people are using it, save for a disproportionate focus on virtual worlds like Second Life. Anthropological research on the internet is rare compared to that of other disciplines, and the stigma of conducting it has remained.

    In a 2012 interview with Fast Company, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman recalled how her dissertation research on hackers, conducted in the early 2000s, was viewed with bafflement by her professional peers. “My advisers knew it was super-interesting, but because it wasn’t focused on a particular area of the world, they warned me I was going to have trouble getting a job in an anthropology department,” she said.

    Coleman is now a leading figure in the study of online communities, but that makes little difference to a discipline trading on exoticism and insularity. Even today, she says she is rarely invited to give talks in anthropology departments despite the fact that her research on Anonymous has captured the attention of the world.

    On the Internet, No One Knows You’re an Anthropologist

    That most anthropologists dismiss the internet as a subject worthy of ethnographic research is unfortunate but not surprising. As sociologist Christine Hine observes in Virtual Methods, “When we talk about methodology, we are implicitly talking about our identity and the standards by which we wish our work to be judged.” She notes that this is a particularly thorny issue for social scientists studying the internet, as “we threaten the security of a community of research practice.”

    Anthropology of the internet challenges paradigms and practices that have been part of the discipline since its inception. The most notable methodological divergence concerns what many consider the hallmark of cultural anthropology: long-term ethnographic fieldwork.

    In anthropology of the internet, there is no clear sense of a field site or of “time spent in the field”. (The researcher is either always in the field, or, naysayers claim, never in the field). The boundaries of the field site tend to be determined by the researcher, and its demarcations are often not clear even to the people he or she studies. Subject anonymity, another standard practice of anthropological research, is difficult to maintain with so much data public and traceable – and so much information fraudulent and fabricated. Anthropologists are left both fearful of exposing people and of having nothing “real” to expose.

    There is also the question of who is doing the exposing. Much as the internet leveled the playing field between the reporter and the reader (often reversing their roles in the process), the internet has transformed the relationship between the social scientist and the subject, with the former no longer the lone recipient of the latter’s concerns. Not only does the “subaltern speak”, the “subaltern” shares the details of his life online in a way that anyone – not just anthropologists, anyone – can access.

    The question then becomes what to do with this information. How do anthropologists connect online texts to the people who produce them? How do they judge whether their interpretations of an individual and a community are accurate? From where do anthropologists draw their authority and accountability?

    Such questions are not new. Anthropologists who practice “traditional” fieldwork have been asking them for years. But like journalists of a decade ago, anthropologists are reluctant to address them in the context of online communication — in particular, to acknowledge how the internet has transformed the relationship between the writer and the people about whom he or she writes. The internet makes ethnography something anyone can do, a threatening prospect for a conservative discipline struggling to locate its relevance. It is easier to dismiss the internet as not worthy of inquiry at all.

    Anthropology of the internet forces the question of whether being seen as an anthropologist is more important than doing meaningful ethnography. It strips the discipline of its elite trappings, requiring no excessive funding or dramatic upending of one’s life. What it does require is for the researcher to rely on more than just a dateline. When you are not going anywhere, you have to make the journey matter.

     

     

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  • Citation

    Suggested citation: sarahkendzior (2013) On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet. Ethnography Matters. http://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2013/02/13/on-legitimacy-place-and-the-anthropology-of-the-internet/

  • About the Author(s)

  • 22 Responses to “On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet”

    1. February 15, 2013 at 4:27 am #

      As a scholar whose “field site” spans hundreds of cities in multiple countries, I can certainly relate to the lack of interest or uptake shown to virtual communities. That is not to say, though, that there is zero interest. In my own subfield, linguistic anthropology, I can point to Ling and Pedersen (2005) Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere; Baron (2008) Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World; and some sociocultural work in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Virtual communities via the internet or mobile phones are also often in the background of work such as Blommaert and Rampton’s (2011) Language and superdiversity, or Jacquemet’s (2005) Transidiomatic practices.

      The internet and the groups of people who use it don’t receive the attention they should. But there is some valuable work being done.

      • March 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

        I agree — there is great work being done; the problem is that people who are doing it are often encouraged not to. The same problem seems to exist in sociology and other social sciences. Anyway, thanks for the reading recommendations.

    2. February 16, 2013 at 6:05 am #

      Thanks for this insightful post. The commercial sector has been paying close attention to virtual communities for years now and the internet is bursting with tips on how to build and encourage these communities. Professions across the board are shifting gears as they come to terms with the social internet – many are looking to anthropologists and other social scientists for direction on how to make sense of the data. I think your questions about authority and accountability are spot on.

    3. February 19, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      On the one hand, I would say that from my perspective the trade in ‘anthropology of the ‘net and virtuality’ seems to be a bustling business. At the same time, color me unsurprised that folks can’t get a job. Tl;dr — anthro hiring still done by old white men using compuserve accounts.

    4. zeeblake
      February 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

      The internet is the past, present and future. It is essential to study. We humans do much of our daily communication, financial and social interactions within this zone, if that’s not a holy trinity of societal ways, I don’t know what is! I don’t understand why internet anthropology and/or ethnography has not made its way into academia as an imperative region of study.

    5. Alex
      February 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

      Very nice piece indeed!

    6. February 28, 2013 at 4:10 am #

      “Despite the importance of the internet to people all over the world, there are few ethnographic studies of internet use conducted by anthropologists, and the anthropologists who do conduct this kind of research are marginalized and dismissed.”

      A nice post, thanks Sarah. I agree with the first part of this statement, but not with the second. Yes, a lot more research could have been done by now, but as an anthropologist who’s been working on the internet for the last 10 years I’ve never felt marginalised or dismissed. (Caveat: I’ve been working outside anthropology depts, but that said I don’t recall coming across any anthropologist who finds the study of the internet unimportant).

      Anecdotal evidence suggests that anthropological interest in the internet has grown quite strongly over the past 5 years or so, perhaps because it’s become so central to our lives and to those of some of our research participants (this will depend, of course, on who you work with). I’ve seen a great upsurge in interest particularly from doctoral students wondering how to go about researching the internet. Often they’ll have stumbled across the internet (esp. Facebook, blogs, etc) while researching other topics, which is what happened to quite a few anthros with TV back in the 1980s.

      • March 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

        Thanks, John. I appreciate the feedback and agree with you, to an extent. I think there is a lot of interest in the anthropology of the internet, particularly among younger scholars. But I do think anthropologists are not encouraged to pursue this sort of research, mostly because it dims their career prospects within the discipline. You can see this reflected in anthropology journals –which rarely publish articles about digital media — and in the lack of disciplinary organizations and teaching positions dedicated to this specialization. Careerism and adherence to outdated disciplinary norms is preventing interesting research from being done. That said, those of us who continue doing this work anyway tend to find a big audience outside anthropology (you and Gabriella Coleman are good examples). Anthropologists are doing great work on the internet – just not in anthropology departments.

      • March 3, 2013 at 6:23 am #

        John it’s so awesome to read your comment – I’ve been such a long time fan of your work so getting your perspective is super lovely.

        Some of the most awesome work on internet studies is coming from prof trained in anthro and soc who are teaching in non-traditional anthro and soc departments. I love the work coming out media studies, communication, cultural studies or special institutes on internet studies.

        it’s just that I didn’t end up in one of those dept – I really had to turn to the internet to look for a community. And in the last 7 years, I have come across so MANY others who went through something similar.

        One of the reasons I started reaching outside of anthro & sociology is that I didn’t feel that either of these fields were giving me the support that I needed to do my research. This is not to say that you and many other scholars weren’t doing this research for a long time but as a graduate student it’s not easy to find professors like you. It just isn’t.

        While interest in internet studies have grown in the past 5 years, there aren’t enough tenured professors in positions of power leading academic departments.
        I totally shared Sarah’s experience as a grad student.

        My work was dismissed by many professors. I was laughed out of many offices – professors said if I study “cellphone culture”among marginalized communities or urban uses of tech then I should go to to the ethnic studies department – which is the backward sociologist’s way of degrading someone isn’t “sociological” enough.
        Many prof said I could never get funding if I didn’t stick to 1 physical field site. Other said that I needed to frame my work as ICT4D – I should do more “practical” research.

        Luckily I eventually found awesome committee members in my dept who weren’t like the rest of the prof in my dept- but before I found them I was on the verge of dropping out day 1 of grad school. Before I found them – I read your work and many others (mimi ito, gabriella coleman, danah boyd, jack qiu, jenna burrell and many many more) who became my intellectual pillars and kept me sane.

        ps JOHN WE WOULD BE HONORED TO HAVE YOU GUEST CONTRIBUTE!!!!!

        • March 5, 2013 at 6:11 am #

          Thanks both. On second thoughts perhaps I responded too quickly. I suppose in my case (I got into media anthropology as a University College London PhD student in 1995) from the outset I thought it unlikely I would be hired by an anthropology department and more likely to be doing media/internet anthropology out of a media studies dept or school, which is what eventually happened first in the UK and now in Australia. It would be interesting to hear other people’s experiences, but you both seem to be pointing at some very real systemic issues that I hadn’t given enough thought to.

          ps. Yes, I would be delighted to contribute, although I have to warn you that I’m quite busy (aren’t we all!), so I may not be as quick as I am when it comes to posting blog comments . What sort of contribution did you have in mind?

    7. StepsInShadows
      February 2, 2014 at 1:41 am #

      Reblogged this on Swift, like Shadows and commented:
      “How do anthropologists connect online texts to the people who produce them? How do they judge whether their interpretations of an individual and a community are accurate? From where do anthropologists draw their authority and accountability? …Anthropology of the Internet forces the question of whether being seen as an anthropologist is more important than doing meaningful ethnography. It strips the discipline of its elite trappings, requiring no excessive funding or dramatic upending of one’s life. What it does require is for the researcher to rely on more than just a dateline. When you are not going anywhere, you have to make the journey matter” – Sarah Kendzior, everybody!

      Can I just – can I get a “HELL YEAH” up in here?
      Digital ethnographers grapple with many of the same theoretical problems and methodological problems as their meatspace-sited peers: in some ways, the anthropological picture is bigger, the pace faster, more frenetic. Does it require a tight definition of the project at hand? A tight definition of the community, the aspects of community, or the social phenomenon you want to describe? Sure does. Does this discipline have the ability to let in its poorer practitioners – those of us who will have to work, to scrimp and save and take out loans just to survive before we even get to ‘the field’ (don’t forget applying for funding in the hopes of going somewhere ‘exotic’ – yes, we still do that, that’s how we take each other seriously, no matter how loudly we doth protest to the contrary) – you mean it’d let us messy lower-middle and working-class students IN, instead of keeping us out on the basis, not of talent, but of our ability to make it rain?
      I’m here for that!

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