Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.

In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

In these ways, diaspora is shaped by complex relationships between home and foreign, there and here. Clifford (1994) critiques early configurations of diaspora that underscore a teleology of return. In STS parlance, there is a tendency among early diasporic theorizing to a kind of homeland determinism in the shaping of diasporic imaginations and communities. The connections that bind a diasporic community may not solely be mediated through notions of homeland but may also be configured through “a shared, ongoing history of displacement, suffering, adaptation, or resistance” (Clifford, 1994, 307). In other words, the experience of displacement is diasporic, even as you dwell in places never to be your home.

The phenomenon of diaspora then is not so much a thing to observe in the world as a framework to think with, particularly through ideas of roots and routes. To consider diaspora through dimensions of roots and routes compels us to not simply ask what is diaspora? How do I identify a diaspora? Instead, diaspora as roots and routes encourages us to think about movement and circulations, qualities that create, enable, and propel diaspora. Diaspora is dynamic. How does movement happen? What propels the catalytic pivot and fork away from our homes? What forces then shape our routes? And most importantly, how do we then learn to “dwell in displacement” (Makalani, 2009)?


“Diaspora – Where do we locate ourselves?” Photo courtesy of Pierre Huyghebaert,

As an ethnographer of software and of the contemporary, my own biography continues the same diasporic biography typical to other STS scholars. These diasporic dimensions, however, are doubly reinforced as a Vietnamese-American studying software in Vietnam. There is a growing interest in ethnographic research of software and technology beyond Euro-American contexts. Most notably, Ethnography Matters’ own Jenna Burrell (2012) Yuri Takhteyev (2012), and Anita Chan (2014) have respectively published books on the use of computers in Ghana, software in Brazil, and information communication technologies in Peru. Within each of these studies the here of the global North and the there of Africa and South America is placed in tenuous relation. From these projects, we see how the connections across these divergent places are subject to desire, fantasy, myth-making, and disappointment.

In my own work, the tenuous relation between here and there is amplified through the dimensions of diaspora. Vietnamese-Americans, Vietnamese-Germans, Vietnamese-French have “returned” to Vietnam to promote economic development through the creation of start-up companies that specialize in mobile phone apps. After an extended history of disavowal of the overseas refugee communities, the Vietnamese government has now officially declared them to important actors in developing the Vietnamese economy. With Silicon Valley as their beacon, these sons and daughters of former refugees embark on journeys to a foreign homeland. Thinking about roots and routes invites me to consider the fantasies and nostalgias that propel these people into their new techno-economic enterprises. The work of building mobile-phone apps in Vietnam by Vietnamese diaspora brings together circuits of homecoming with speculation; that is, it combines geographical returns with temporal future-making.

In this manner, diaspora serves as both method and a phenomenon of inquiry. Diaspora extends network and multi-sited approaches to fieldwork well-established in anthropological practice (Burrell, 2009; Hine, 2007; Marcus, 1995). The framework of diaspora is especially urgent given the growing interest in transnational approaches to the ethnographic study of technology. By paying attention to the specific configurations of a given place and the specific formulations of rootedness, we can discern the particular kinds of routes available to different people at different moments.

Considering diasporic dimensions thus allows us to consider the nuanced connections beyond the binaries of us and them, beyond the mere here and just there. It allows us to consider the forms of displacement and dwelling that mirror our own intellectual trajectories.



Burrell, J. (2009). The Field Site as Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research. Field Methods, 21(2), 181–199.

Burrell, J. (2012). Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet cafes of Urban Ghana. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chan, A. S. (2014). Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clifford, J. (1994). Diasporas. Cultural Anthropology, 9(3), 302–338.

Hine, C. (2007). Multi-sited Ethnography as a Middle Range Methodology for Contemporary STS. Science, Technology & Human Values, 32, 652–671.

Makalani, M. (2009). Introduction: Diaspora and the Localities of Race. Social Text, (98), 1–9.

Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Reviews in Anthropology, 24(1), 95–117.

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tölölian, K. (1991). The Nation-State and Its Others: In Lieu of a Preface. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 1(1), 3–7.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Ethnography as Diaspora”

  1. April 3, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Reblogged this on Installing (Social) Order and commented:
    Ethnography work on software in Vietnam; interesting updates from the field.

    • April 3, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks for the repost, Nicholas!

      • April 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

        Of course, it is interesting work.

  2. April 3, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on Steven G. Anderson.

    • April 3, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Steven!


  1. March-April 2014: Studying Hackers, Makers, and Engineers | Ethnography Matters - April 2, 2014

    […] U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given […]

Leave a Reply