Digital ethnography

Heikki Wilenius

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Helsinki

August 2020

I’ve had an on-and-off interest in online social phenomena for a while now. I fancied becoming an internet ethnographer during my undergrad days, but finally, my interests veered into other things. However, I’ve always kept at least half an eye on the literature. Also, since COVID-19 botched my postdoc fieldwork plans, I – like many others – started to think with new urgency about what kind of “mixed methods” one could utilize when doing office chair anthropology.

I had two selection criteria for this bibliography. Firstly, I have only included works – with one notable exception – which take as their object of research the digitally mediated interaction of humans (and other entities, such as bits of computer programs). Secondly, I have tried to choose studies that attempt to contribute something to the anthropological understanding of human behaviour more generally (i.e., ethnographic theory).

Even though the selection is a bit eclectic – among other things, there’s texts on semiotics, the ontological turn, performativity, and publics – I’ve attempted to delineate a field of inquiry, that (1) avoids fetishizing the “digital”, (2) recognizes that various forms of the “digital” have already reconfigured anthropological inquiry, alongside other social practices, and (3) is open to the possibilities that follow from this reconfiguration.

All the references are listed in chronological order.

Dibbell, Julian. 1998. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 11–29. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. [Originally published in 1993].

This is an early text about performativity, collective action, politics, and violence in an online meeting place called LambdaMOO. I think it is a useful historical reminder that the issue should not be the “newness” of digital media – some of these social forms are more than 30 years old!

Dibbell’s text is also interesting in how it shows that – reminding of Victor Turner’s analysis in Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1957)– the contours of a social world come to the fore and potentially get renegotiated in situations of conflict also in digital contexts.

Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.

Even though this book discusses textual and spoken discourses, I think its analysis of performativity is good to think with regarding online domains as well. For example, when Dibbell’s article is read through the lens of Butler’s analysis, it is clear that communication in digital domains can have performative effects, but how they differ from performativity mediated elsewhere depends on the media ideology (see Gershon 2017) of the platform in question. Dibbell examined a MOO, a text-based real-time environment, where most participants subscribed to the idea that their avatars had a personally meaningful connection to their “real live” selves. Hence, they made themselves “linguistically vulnerable” to the “injurious” speech acts on the platform, in line with Butler’s analysis.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet. Durham: Duke University Press.

This is an ethnography of open source advocates, describing the ethos of “geeks” and mapping their social history. Kelty argues that this social space should be understood as a “recursive public”, which, in addition to the properties of a public Michael Warner has outlined, is constituted by attention to reproducing the possibility of the said public. Kelty’s argument is important in the way it points attention to the ways “the digital” is reproduced in society. Digital infrastructures consist of more than fiber optic cables – things like specific techniques of the self are vital for their reproduction.

Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London: Verso.

On the face of it, this is an ethnography of an acephalous social movement, the Anonymous. However, it is also a study of how the crowd functions, in the tradition of Elias Canetti’s Masse und Macht, utilizing digital methods in order to gain an unprecedentedly nuanced view of the dynamics of a mass movement.

Fattal, Alex. 2014. “Hostile Remixes on YouTube: A New Constraint on pro-FARC Counterpublics in Colombia.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 2: 320–35.

This is an analysis of the politics of “remixing” digital content, namely, propaganda videos in the Colombian armed conflict, buttressed with interviews of the different participants of the conflict. The analysis concludes that the different hierarchical positions of publics and counterpublics get reproduced in the context of the circulation of YouTube videos. Finally, Fattal argues that the varying dynamics and reconfigurations of circulation should be given more attention by ethnographic inquiry.

Pink, Sarah, Heather Horst, John Postill, Larissa Hjorth, Tania Lewis, and Jo Tacchi. 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

This book delineates categories of ethnographic analysis, such as “things” or “events”, and examines how they are reconfigured by digital practices and what implications this has for the researcher. The chapters make a conscious effort not to reify “the digital”, but instead, treat it as a spectrum of media phenomena, with associated implications for the study of ethnographic categories.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2016. “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology 57 (4): 387–408.

This essay reframes the debates in the so-called ontological turn into something that can be used to analyse the difference between “digital” and “real”. Boellstorff argues that the digital/real dichotomy is a false distinction, and suggests that it is more useful to think in terms of similitude and difference. Instead of conceptualizing the digital as a simulation, the digital can be as “real” as the physical: for example, the physical is often modelled after digital networks.

Nardi, Bonnie A. 2016. “Chapter 11. When Fieldnotes Seem to Write Themselves: Ethnography Online.” In eFieldnotes. The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World, edited by Roger Sanjek and Susan W. Tratner, 192–209. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nardi’s article, on the basis of three ethnographic examples, problematizes the traditional definition of fieldnotes and argues that the definition of fieldnotes should be extended to include “natively inscribed happenings in the field that are automatically recorded in computer files and coextensive with the activity under study” (p. 204).

Gray, Patty A. 2016. “Memory, Body, and the Online Researcher: Following Russian Street Demonstrations via Social Media.” American Ethnologist 43 (3): 500–510.

Gray argues that a digital ethnography allowed her to “be then” if not “be there” during the phenomenon she was investigating (opposition protests in 2010s Russia). By her “copresence” and sensual/bodily experiences of participating in the protests, she took part in the reality of the street protests, allowing her to collect ethnographic data of the protests.

Beukes, Suzanne. 2017. “An Exploration of the Role of Twitter in the Discourse Around Race in South Africa: Using the #Feesmustfall Movement as a Pivot for Discussion.” In Digital Environments, edited by Urte Undine Frömming, Steffen Köhn, Samantha Fox, and Mike Terry, 195–210. Ethnographic Perspectives Across Global Online and Offline Spaces. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Beukes analyses the Twitter-facilitated discourse on white privilege and education, unforeseen in South Africa. She problematizes the view of social media discourse as a public sphere and instead frames it as a tool for social mobilization and expression of group interests.

Gershon, Ilana. 2017. “Language and the Newness of Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46 (1): 15–31.

According to Gershon, the role of digital media should be analysed in the historical context of emergent media, taking into account the media ideologies, i.e., the beliefs on the meaning, function, and significance of each medium. She reviews the literature at the intersection of linguistic anthropology and media anthropology, and sees many promising avenues of research, for example, using insights from existing studies on standardization to analyse how entities such as markets or nations attempt to standardize the use of new media.

[1] This bibliography was compiled with the help of four things/persons/collectives:

  1. A thread started by Rachel Irwin on anthropology-matters listserv, asking for online ethnography resources, which grew into this collaborative annotated bibliography:
  2. LSE Digital Ethnography Collective’s reading list, the latest version should be available here:
  3. Philip Budka’s selection on digital and online ethnography:
  4. Sonja Moghaddari, who curates this blog, and suggested this bibliography in the first place.

Thanks, everybody!