Category Archives: Homo Academicus

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet


Source: Ethnography Matters February 2013

Editor’s note: In this thoughtful piece for February’s Openness EditionSarah 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… 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

Check out past posts from guest bloggers


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.


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.


Guest post: Academy and / as Activism?

We have a treat for you today: Emma Morgan-Thorp has written a guest post!

(Another HOOK&EYE post)

It seems like February is getting everybody down: technologies are failing, and everyone’s snowed under by both work and weather.  I was feeling tired and grumpy when I arrived at my ‘Indigenous History’ seminar the other week, and wishing I could burrow under my covers with a book instead. This seminar, though, is healing: six women around the table, five first year Masters students and our teacher Paula, talking through Indigenous ethics and methodologies while we tell stories about our families, our work, and the places we come from. And on this particular evening we were graced with a visit by the fabulous Manulani Meyer. As we went around the table introducing ourselves and our projects to her, Manulani challenged us each to explain how our work was making change in the world: What is your academic work giving back to the community you are researching? I was floored – first by the question, and then by the fact that no one had ever asked me that before.
Lately I’ve been struggling with whether I ought to be doing academic work at all: entering an Indigenous Studies department allowed me to sidestep uncomfortable processes of asking permission to learn from Indigenous elders, activists, and communities. I still have no idea how I would even go about making such requests. Working from the sterility of the classroom, no matter how humbly or respectfully, is a far cry from finding ways to educate myself that don’t rely on my membership in an exclusionary colonialist institution.
I’ve been finding myself thinking: I’ll learn about Indigenous Studies – along with my interlocking projects of feminism, performance theory, and theatre studies – this year in the MA, and then take my knowledge out into the world and find ways to work toward substantive change. First theory, then praxis. First I’ll build myself into an educated activist, and then I’ll act. But Manulani and Paula challenged us to do intellectual work that is practical. Academic production that works through ideas and builds strategies for substantive change.
I am blessed with revolutionary friends in activist, artistic, care-giving and food-growing communities who challenge my participation in this academic institution regularly. When I was home this winter, my mom gave me Jessica Yee Danforth’s Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism and told me how relieved she was that I had asked for it. A step, we laughed, toward throwing myself off the ‘great white phallus of the ivory tower’.
What Manulani affirmed is that intellectual work – in or out of the academy – can be practical activist work. That it has to be. That there is value in taking time to arm oneself with the lessons needed to do the best work possible, but that revolutionary work doesn’t wait while that happens.
During our mid-seminar break, my friend Erin and I were talking about how lucky we felt to be in such a warm community of women, talking about making change through peace and healing. The vulnerability and strength with which we were sharing our stories and questioning the work we’ve turned our lives toward shook and stabilized me simultaneously. This is, as Erin said to me, how we decolonize academia.
I’m still figuring out how best to work toward change, and certainly still negotiating the spaces I inhabit within academia and within an Indigenous Studies department.  I’ve been carrying with me the blissful energy and the ethical challenges that Manulani brought into our classroom, and as I work through these ideas, I remember what she said to us: “There is only one conversation happening on the planet: how can we love better?”
-Emma Morgan-Thorp

Conference Paper? Or Conference Presentation?

Another Hook and Eye quick-pick

by Aimée Morrison

I laughed my ass off when I read this in the Chronicle. Professor Cebula’s inner monologue so neatly matches my own experience at conferences: early hope and enthusiasm turning to bored dread culminating in surreptitious smartphone tomfoolery and aimless stream of consciousness daydreaming … ending with published rants about crappy conference talks. I have zero tolerance for conference presentations that fail to meet a minimum standard of listenability.
However, where the Cebula and I part company is right here: he hates when people read papers from a prepared script. He prefers a more extemporaneous, a more spontaneous, a more conversational delivery, and like many people offering comments on the article, seems to think a prepared script and an engaging delivery are mutually exclusive.
Many, many, many commenters in fact make this distinction pretty clear, writing versions of this idea: “Stop reading your paper! You should do a presentation instead!”
This is silly. Knock it off.
What is the appropriate or normative format for the delivery of research at a conference varies by discipline. In English, my discipline, the done thing is to write out the whole text and to read it–arguably (that is, I am arguing) that in this field, our main evidence is the very sentences we construct to frame our interpretations of this, that, or the other. In other fields, it is normal to have one Powerpoint slide for every minute of presentation, with bullet pointed text on it. In other fields, the presentation consists of a couple of graphs or tables on Powerpoints, which are described in a more off-the-cuff manner. Other presentation formats include the round-table, or the panel discussion, or a Q and A.
Whether you read from a paper, describe one graph, or elaborate on bullet points on a series of slides is, mostly, a matter of what discipline you work in. It’s not really helpful to say that reading a paper is bad and showing lots of slides and talking from index cards is better. We’ve all seen brilliant presentations where the speaker is obviously working from a prepared text. And we’ve all seen really awful presentations with slides and no script. It’s not the format. It’s the skill.
So this is a defence of the conference paper. Yeah, a 3000 word essay, 10 pages of script that I’m going to print out and then hold somewhere in front of me while I talk to you, all six of you or sixty of you, out there in an audience. I read my papers. And I’m an awesome presenter. Ain’t nothing in the paper format that makes it inherently deadly. I mean, actors work from scripts on stage and on film, and they don’t crush us with boredom, right?
The main problem with papers I believe I have identified in an earlier post. It’s too much content crammed into too little time, which forces rushing or complaining or confusion or running too long.
If you want to craft an effective presentation from a “paper” you need to address three things:

  1. the text needs to be written for a listening rather than reading audience
  2. you will need to perform the written text, using your voice and body to add in the structure and emphasis and pacing marked visually by paragraph markers, bolding, sections, or bullets
  3. you need to practice. In advance. More than once.

A good text should: feature a variety of sentence lengths, employ conversational language, signpost what’s coming, and reiterate what’s passed. Repetition and simplicity is key. Here’s the opening paragraph of a conference paper I gave at Theorizing the Web last year in Maryland:

In asking every user, as it does, “What’s on your mind?” Facebook’s status update feature elicits personal disclosure, short bursts of self-narration that add up to a kind of autobiography. But how, exactly? The ways that compliant subjects answer the question demonstrate how their practices are shaped by the coaxing technologies, both discursive and material, afforded by the moment of interaction between status update interface and human user. Much of the scholarly investigation into “social network sites” focuses on the social and the network aspects: that is, why people interact with one another in these spaces and with what effect. But interpersonal relationships on Facebook are a second order interaction: fundamentally, the user at the computer is interacting with Facebook, first and foremost. This interaction remains to be explored. Employing the theory of “affordance” drawn from visual perception studies, as well as that of “coaxing,” drawn from auto/biography studies this paper offers a modest proposal for how to understand the relationship between social software and human user.

Delivery is key. A good text will get you nowhere unless you can deliver it. Good delivery involves: using gesture to demonstrate structure. Employing vocal tone and volume to indicate emphasis. Slowing down for the important bits. Paying attention to audience reaction, and leaving yourself enough room to work with that, even if just a “I know, right?” or “Wait, I’ll get to where I think you’re getting anxious about, you in the corner!”
Here’s me reading that same paragraph, like I would at the conference, except in my pyjamas in my dining room. Listen for how I perform the structure and emphasis in the text of my script (it’s a little weird to do it for a camera in close up …):


(You also can’t see that I’ve got slides to emphasize key words. That’ll be another post …)
You have to practice to do this well: know the text enough to be able to look up, and importantly, not to read your own sentences incorrectly because you don’t quite know where they’re headed. If you don’t practice–you can screw up the delivery of even a good text, thus:


Omigod, right? And I don’t mean “Omigod, right? I totally shaved 12 seconds off the delivery time, so I can keep those extra 300 words at the end!”
Anyhow. The moral of the story is this: it is possible to craft an effective reserach presentation from a written script, delivered text in hand, by reading. It is. Don’t write off the paper. It’s a matter of skill in authorship, skill in presentation, and the discipline to finish the script in a timely enough manner to allow you to rehearse it.
Thoughts? Gripes? Rebuttals?