I am co-organizing a panel entitled “Ethnography 2.0: Anthropology of Online Commitments,” at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association:
This panel examines how anthropological theory and methods can critically engage with people’s daily lives as they increasingly encompass diverse online platforms. Early ethnographic research about the internet emphasized that existing cultural categories and practices loomed large both in understandings of cyberspace and in imaginings of its transformative potential. These studies of online forms of sociality, modes of interaction, and representations highlight a range of practices, technologies, and assumptions that were deployed in cyberspace. Building on such research, this panel focuses on the means by which research participants, as well as researchers, have strategically constructed disjunctures and connections between their online and offline experiences. At a moment when digital commitments are expanding far beyond email and websites, this panel critically considers how online ethnographic work resituates the anthropological project.
The panel includes four presenters and two discussants who have conducted ethnographic research online among diverse populations. Four of these contributors approached online communities as an explicit component of research; three were originally interested in other questions but realized digital connections and disconnections were of fundamental importance. This range of research design enables us to examine how online lives might be fundamentally impacting anthropological research, whether it explicitly concerns the internet or not. The focus on strategic connections and disconnections also allows us to reflect on anthropologists’ commitments to engage multiple publics. For instance, what are the ethical demands of referencing writing posted online, when research participants’ aspirations and reflexive practices explicitly counter anthropological commitments to assuring confidentiality? Should such writing be represented as the pseudonymous words of an informant, or as the credited writing of another expert?
The panelists highlight the diversity and the politics of online commitments. For Americans who travel to China to seek experimental medical care, online health discussion forums have enabled new forms of sociality and tactics of mobilization that both transcend and reinforce lines of social cleavage. In France, romantic partners of software activists have created their own online platforms, in which their personal accounts redefine activist identities and terms of engagement by foregrounding gender and sexuality. For Japanese Americans who return-migrate to Japan, online communities have produced and strengthened networks in Japan, creating new formations of diaspora and ethnicity. In Japan, divorce support groups are coded explicitly as “online” communities, even if many meetings occur in person. In all of these situations, being online matters deeply to the people involved. We discuss how anthropological approaches can account for such strategic commitments to the virtual, the possibilities offered by ethnographic fieldwork to trace such online mediations, and the implications of pursuing them.
Our panel is scheduled for Wednesday, December 2, 2009, starting at 8 p.m. in the Room 413 at the Downtown Philadelphia Marriott. We are planning a special journal issue on this topic and would love some provocative questions from the audience!