ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Communities in cyberspace

Virtually there: fieldwork in cyberspace

Denise Carter, University of Hull

This paper investigates how technology and culture interact to produce communities in cyberspace, and how their study has led to the opening up of new anthropological fieldsites that do not occupy geographical spaces. Building on the experiences of Markham (1998), Schaap (2002) and Miller & Slater (2000) , I combine original ethnographic research in Cybertown [http://www.cybertown.com], a Virtual Community, with face-to-face meetings to illustrate how ethnography in cyberspace destabilises the ‘traditional idea that the experience of reality is grounded in the physical, embodied world' (Markham, 1998:20). On the contrary, people ‘live in’ and ‘construct’ these new spaces in such a way as to suggest that the Internet is not a placeless cyberspace that is distinct and separate from the real world.

Cyberethnography placed me in a rather strange position, compared with other Anthropologists whose fieldwork excursions to ‘exotic’ places caused them to forever appear and disappear, whilst I was still here. Or rather, I was there, without needing to leave here, and if Turkle is right when she says that ‘…decountrifying oneself is one of the most powerful elements of fieldwork’, then I had to wonder if I missed out on that experience (1995:218). I had no problems with passports, visas, language, maleria, sunstroke or cravings for baked beans, in fact I was always home in time for bed. Yet as this paper explains, fieldwork in cyberspace has its own set of problems. Going online does not simply mean switching the computer on and typing out words on a keypad. Like Markham I had to learn how to ‘move, see and talk’ because ‘to be present in cyberspace is to learn how to be embodied there’ (1998:23). However, engaging in fieldwork in cyberspace does not only involve being there, and participating as an embodied and social being. Continuing Marcus’ explanation of how the identity of the anthropologist is ‘profoundly related’ to the particular world they are studying (1998:69), Markham’s (1998) struggle with her changing sense of self, and Barry’s (2000) later account of the relationship between her shifting identities and fieldwork - I make arguments about the ways in which the challenges of fieldwork in cyberspace informs contemporary ethnographic practice. By addressing these questions, this paper has the secondary aim of illustrating how my research succeeds in both pushing the boundaries of traditional ethnography further, and in confirming this new environment of cyberspace as an authentic fieldsite for anthropological and sociological research.

Works Cited

  • Barry, Christine (2002) ‘Identity/Identities and Fieldwork: Studying Homeopathy and Tai Chi 'at home' in South London’, in, Anthropology Matters Journal, May 2002, available at, http://www.anthropologymatters.com/onlinejournal/ChristineBarry.htm
  • Marcus, George (1998) Ethnography Through Thick and Thin. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
  • Markham, A (1998) Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space. AltaMira Press.
  • Miller, D and Slater, D (2000)The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford and New York. Berg
  • Schaap, Frank (2002)The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality. Amsterdam. Askant Academic Publishers.
  • Turkle, Sherry (1995) Life On The Screen: Identity In The Age Of The Internet. London. Phoenix.

National homeland, queer community, virtual diaspora: fieldwork at the crossroads

Adi Kuntsman, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

This paper is based on my current multi-cited fieldwork in a process that takes place on- and off-line and focuses on the community of Russian speaking gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants in Israel. My field location is simultaneously national and transnational, local and located yet virtual and deterritorialized.

Online community provides new opportunities for diasporic and migrant subjects. “Cyborg-Diaspora” is a space for creating community through technology that can help disrupt dominant discourses of nation, ethnicity and culture. It could also be a space where immigrants can resist the hegemony of language of their host society. But the idea of cyborg diaspora as empowering should be accessed critically: instead of assuming empowerment one should ask who, how and when is empowered and who is excluded in this process.

For Russian gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders the online community provides an opportunity to resist the dominant ideas of sexuality and the homophobia of their migrant community. But while opening up some borders and boundaries, such as those of sexuality and ethnicity, the Russian queer online community reinforces and reassures others- those of class and nation. The very process of challenging some boundaries while reinforcing others is of course not unique to the studied community or to this particular website. However, cyberspace differs from an off-line community in that it offers additional opportunities to perform and destabilize national, ethnic, class and sexual identities.

The main aim of this paper therefore is to challenge the perception of cyberspace as a liberatory site of unlimited imagination and freedom for both the anthropologist and her subjects. By looking at the ways nation, sexuality and immigration intersect in cyberspace and shape my own experience of fieldwork “at home yet far away from home”, I hope to suggest a critical way of examining cyber-cultures that takes into account both the freedoms and the limitations, the opportunities and the constraints. What kind of research does cyberspace allow, and what kind of relations between the ethnographer and the ‘ethnographic subjects’? Last but not least, I wish to ask- is this anthropology of- and at- home?

On a theoretical level, this paper brings together the growing field of cyber-ethnography and contemporary theories of nation(alism), diaspora and queer sexuality.

Internet and Inter-notes: virtual communities as a local form of writing social reality

Ian James, University of St. Andrews

The ethnographic study of electronic communities, or virtual worlds, represents something of a paradigm shift in anthropological practice while computer-mediated communication perhaps calls on ethnographers to break with existing disciplinary identities. Procuring information from virtual sites and participating in on-line discussions, if privately practiced, is not yet fully conventionalised in the discipline, with some notable exceptions. This paper suggests that electronic communication is gaining in importance as fieldwork increasingly ‘goes virtual’ – like fieldnotes, electronic discourse must be recognised as a form of writing that does not necessitate the anthropologist leaving the field, adopting a different persona, but furthers his or her involvement in local affairs. This was indeed my experience when, returning from anthropological fieldwork in London, I discovered a chatroom on the Internet based in the town where I carried out research. Some analyses of communication, based on face-to-face interactions, suggest that it is only ever the exchange of partial perspectives, and that there is never an exchange of the fullness of speakers’ original intentions in fleeting ‘real life’ conversation. Among interlocuters in ordinary speech, it has been argued, there is a sense of frustration that their words can never fully do justice to the complexity of meaning which such words display in their ‘native’ context. By eliminating turn-taking as a common conversational feature of speech, asynchronous electronic chatrooms, of the kind I came across relating to my fieldwork site, mean that ‘speakers’ are able to put across their view without doing too much damage to its integrity. In this sense, internet chatrooms are closer to the idea of Gemeinschaft, which, in its classic ethnographic portrayal by researchers Michael Young and Peter Willmott, is a type of arrangement that promotes knowledge of its individual members as multifarious personalities. For Young and Willmott it was complex society, emblematised by the suburb and the housing estate, that reduced individuals to a singular and superficial identity. I argue then that despite the newness of the medium, the Internet can be a place where old anthropological and sociological ideas maintain some purchase.

Key terms: virtuality, communication, society and community, East London (England).

Desiring culture: understanding the place of internet search terms in contemporary culture

Gordon Fletcher, Information Systems Institute, University of Salford

This paper critically examines the shifting popularity of individual Internet search terms and how this reflects mainstream attitudes and desires in contemporary cultural practice. The paper focuses on the shifting interest in the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the relationship of this event to searches relating to the ‘illicit’ Web. The paper argues that there is a cultural interrelationship between these quite distinct aspects of culture which can be identified from weekly lists of the most popular search terms.

The paper draws on weekly lists of popular Web-based search terms that were gathered over a 15-month period from the early September 2001 to February 2003. Two lists were collected each week. The popular ‘surge’ terms offers a list of the 300 most popular searches conducted at meta-search engines, such as webcrawler.com, over the previous 24 hours. The ‘consistent performers’ list shows the 200 most popular search terms over the past 4 weeks. Individual search terms only appear in this second list if they are of consistent interest to users of Web search engines throughout this period. Individual terms where then grouped together by the broad areas of interest that they represented. This classification was undertaken with the Universal Decimal Classification scheme in order to cover the full range of human action and endeavour.

This relationship between 9/11 terrorist oriented searches and generally pornographic terms reveals the way in which the Web blurs conventional dichotomies, but particularly distinction of public and private practice, in a ways that cannot readily be identified through conventional observation-based fieldwork techniques. The consistent interest in terms such as ‘incest’ and ‘beastiality’ [sic] as well as the cultural knowledges that are revealed by searches for specific pornographic Web sites all reveal a prevalent but private set of cultural knowledges. These private knowledges are revealed only as a consequence of the presumed anonymity of Web users conducting these searches.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the anniversary of the attack and other actions associated with this original act were public, well-documented popular media intense events. Despite the public outpouring of horror and the fear that was generated by these events are represented in search engine activity as momentary ‘surges’ of interest. During these surges the interest in pornography – in the various guises it assumes online - declined markedly only to reappear one or two weeks with equal intensity. This activity suggests that there is a continuous, persistent and private milieu of cultural practices within mainstream contemporary culture that are momentarily punctuated and partially effaced by events of large scale public significance.

Time, place and cyberspace: locating the field in an E.U. project

Dr Julie Scott, London Metropolitan University

Whilst anthropologists are turning to multi-locational research as a means of capturing the interpenetration of local and global relations in ‘the field’, the European Union has long built a multi-sited focus into its programmes, which have the aim of contributing to E.U policy objectives at a regional or community-wide level through funding ‘consortia’ or networks of institutional partners. Participation in such projects raises not only thorny project management issues, but also problems of theoretical and methodological complexity. Are anthropological research objectives and concepts of ‘the field’ compatible with the categories of culture, time and place implicit in E.U. policy and practice? What is the epistemological status of ethnographic research conducted through dispersed networks of researchers? Can such collaborations produce more than a series of fragmented ethnographic accounts of spatially discrete field sites?

This paper explores a current experience of participating in an E.U. programme in order to tease out some of these issues. Euromed Heritage II is a programme of output-based interventions aimed at (1) promoting awareness of a shared Mediterranean cultural heritage that transcends national boundaries, and (2) strengthening regional stakeholder networks. The project Mediterranean Voices: Oral History and Cultural Practice in Mediterranean Cities brings together a consortium of 14 partner institutions in 13 ‘Mediterranean’ cities, which include both parts of the divided city of Nicosia, as well as London and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Working with multi-disciplinary teams in each city, the main objectives of the project are the creation of a database of the intangible heritage of these ‘Mediterranean’ cities; the ethnographic analysis of Mediterranean urban spaces, their representation, the ways in which they are inhabited, and the connections between them; and identification of/collaboration with local groups to generate applications for the material and the networks of relationships created through the project. The paper traces the shifting location of the field as it emerges from the project’s engagement with the ‘Mediterranean’ of contradictory E.U. policy objectives, the anthropological, historical and literary imagination, and tourism related simulacra; the agency of individual consortium members and their autobiographical associations with the cities and neighbourhoods of the project; the spaces created through the processes of the project, which include meeting places in both physical and cyberspace; and the field of institutional relationships and the negotiation of E.U. institutional and political culture in local settings. The paper concludes that ‘the field’ remains a powerful spatial metaphor for the ways in which both researchers and informants order their experience, and ends by suggesting that concepts of ‘the field’ need to be routinely extended to incorporate research funding regimes and the increasingly diverse institutional contexts in which anthropology is practised.

The Internet, cybercafes and the new social spaces of Bangalorean youth

Nicholas Nisbett, School of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex

Based upon participant observation in a cybercafe in Bangalore, India, this paper examines the role that cybercafes, the internet and other new social spaces such as coffee shops and pubs are playing in the development of gendered identities for Bangalore's middle class youth. Discarding a dichotomous distinction between 'online' and 'offline' space, the paper argues the need for an understanding of space within a context of rapidly changing socio-cultural, political and economic environments where new spaces are being appropriated, created and shaped by Bangalorean youth, which in turn create and shape Bangalorean youth identities.

I argue that the cybercafe served as a social nexus for the group of young male friends who chose to inhabit this space; acting as a connection between the different life worlds, cultural styles, knowledges and social relations which these actors were bringing into that space; as a focal point for their friendships, peer-group activities and the performance of their masculinity; and as a causal link enabling these activities to come into being where they are being constrained or denied elsewhere. I have attempted to show this nexus at work in this particular space at particular times, to suggest that the performance of a young, male, lower-middle-class, Indian identity can take on different forms according to the social relations that are brought into that space, creating varying and contested forms of place (Massey 1994).

The internet and internet chat in particular have enabled another new kind of social space to appear in which young Bangaloreans, of both sexes, can meet, interact, express emotions and fall in love. Whilst identity play is engaged in both online and offline, online identities are rooted in the everyday ‘offline’ performance of self and hierarchies of place and culture often come into operation to restrict this identity play. Older norms of interaction have continued to operate in these new spaces but new norms, where established, have enabled the rapid development of relationships which in many cases proceed to occur as much in offline as in online space, utilising the new elite spaces of the urban landscape, such as ‘British style’ pubs and Starbucks style coffee shops. Sharing anthropological perspectives which treat the internet as embedded and real (not 'virtual') in everyday lives (e.g. Miller & Slater 2000) it is argued that there is little difference in a Bangalorean young male's performance in an online chatroom and in a new coffee-bar, especially in cases where the overall objective – for example courtship - remains the same across both spaces.