Fitting In: Real methods in anthropology

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 20 May 2014

By Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xin Yuan Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Most disciplines have formal methods for collecting data. By contrast the critical issue for ethnography is the task of transforming ourselves into the kind of person we need to be in order to conduct successful fieldwork. Someone people in the area feel comfortable with, would wish to make friends with and have confidence in. Since our method is in essence the cultivation of good relationships with our informants. Each of us has had to learn this sensitivity to the field and often change their appearance and behaviour accordingly.

For example Shriram found that when he started his fieldwork in South India he wore a t shirt and jeans. Practically no one would speak to him. But when he tried to go to the other extreme and conduct fieldwork wearing a formal shirt and trousers, he found that most people thought he was trying to sell them something. In one case after patiently explaining to a school the nature of our project and the research he would like to conduct the school teacher apologised but said firmly that the school was not really interesting in purchasing this `anthropology.’ Eventually he took further measures. He pierced both his ears and started wearing hand spun kurtas and `intellectual wear’ to clearly position himself as an academic. After which the fieldwork went just fine.

Juliano has found his fieldsite to be a split between evangelical Christians and others, and he needed neither to look like a `person of God’ or `person of the world’ so instead of dressing like either of these, he went for a European look that managed to be a neutral ‘gringo’ look that meant he could talk with people from both sides. Jolynna, by contrast had to take off most of her clothes, and adorn Carnival costume before those associated with the creation of Carnival camp that she wanted to study would speak to her. Elisa found that she had to shave her legs and underarms more carefully than usual since even to show a single hair where the legs or arms are not covered could be seen as shameful in this part of Turkey. She also found she had to keep the house immaculately clean.

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Tom suffered from the quantity of strong alcohol he was expected to drink in local ‘feasts’ since that was the basis of male solidarity and commensality in the village where he lived. Danny found that he had to retreat from the more participatory nature of ethnography to more formal interviews since that was what people in England seemed to expect of him. On the other hand when looking at the subsequent interviews he didn’t find that the teenagers he worked with at schools had talked to him any differently as a middle aged man that to his colleague Ciara Green who is young woman, so the assumption that he should, for example, talk to boys and her to girls, turned out to be an unwarranted `strategy’. Nell got censored for drinking straight rum without a mixer, but also suffered considerable sunburn from having to hang out for long periods outside in the North Chile sun. Xin Yuan found that she had to dispense with the clothes she normally wears and adopt the bright patterns preferred by local people. Finally Razvan found he had to shift his behaviour and demeanour between four groups he was encountering: the students, the professionals, the friends and those for him his being a husband seemed most appropriate.

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

The other area of sensitivity which proved very variable was how we managed our own Facebook/QQ profiles. For example Jolynna at first tried to follow Danny’s advice and adopted a very neutral passive profile in Trinidad. She soon found this was entirely inappropriate and had to replace it with a very active one in which she posts frequently in order to make people comfortable, while, by contrast, the same strategy was correct for our English site where we post nothing at all in order to affirm that this sites exists solely for the purpose of research. Xin Yuan in the meantime blinged up her QQ profile with music and colour but also postings about her life in England in order to make herself look more interesting.

All of which confirms a basic premise of anthropology that methods are not things you start with. Rather it is only when you have learnt about the nature and preferences of the particular populations you are now living with that you can also determine what are the most appropriate ways of interacting with them and at least try to conform to their expectations.

Digital public, publics, publicness

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 5 December 2013

todays yoof_davity dave

(image, courtesy of davitydave, Creative Commons)

Doing what is essentially two simultaneous ethnographies is no simple task (‘Simple’ as in ‘straightforward’, not ‘easy’. Conducting ethnography is generally not easy, but analysing the ‘online’ component can be mistaken for being easy. In the last two weeks, doing ethnography entailed sitting on Facebook for a few hours a day, staring at hundreds of posts and actually calling it work). Now that we have all done a considerable amount of fieldwork and have met quite a few people, we will all also be spending more time on Facebook (or QQ, or QZone) looking at streams of what people post. For us, debates and differentiation between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as each area gives us more information and provides more insight and depth of understanding to the societies we are studying. Looking at posts on Facebook involves a mix of images, text, acknowledgements in the form of comments, tags and likes and sharing of content made and modified by others in links to other material, memes and videos. We aren’t just analysing images taken and posted by individuals, we are also analysing shared and mixed content. Just photos, for example, would be more straightforward: photos are inherently reflexive, they are taken by someone of something, and they are a way of pointing out, describing and judging, yet; the image-maker is also visibly absent from what they have captured.

So who is all this content for? A general public, groups of publics, or certain individuals? A brief review of other studies on visual practices, photo-sharing and circulation included a study from 2011 by Lindtner et al. on how the sharing of digital media is not just about the exchange, but about social and cultural production, maintaining social ties and identity production. They interrogate the idea of ‘publics’ by drawing on the work of Warner (2001, 2002), which distinguishes between a single public and several publics. Media sharing is aimed towards specific publics, for example, when friends see what other friends have posted there is a sense that ‘this is aimed for me to see’, despite their actual relationship (if any) to the individual (Lindtner, 2011: 5.3). An individual could have several of their networks on Facebook and so each network or ‘digital public’ in this sense is also part of the individual’s impression management (in Goffman’s sense). Aspects of the individual that are being shown through what they post are for specific people in those networks to understand the reference and not others. Some posts I came across that exemplify this are status updates like ‘DON’T LIKE ME?? Have a seat with the rest of bitches waiting for me to give a F#@k’ and ‘I hate how after an argument I think about more clever shit I could of said’ and  ‘The most amazing things happen when you really slow down and look at all the wonders around you and you realize God truly does have a plan.’ A quick look at the likes and comments, especially by those informants I’ve met, says that these are distinct messages to people where close friends know the context.

A discussion with the other researchers on the project leads us to think that aspects of managing publics will be common and others will be comparative. By looking at the content of shared images, posts and updates, we can start to gauge what MacDougall describes as ‘the range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual’ (2005: 221). So there will be a lot of time procrastinating, I mean, working on Facebook in the months ahead.



Lindtner, Silvia, et al. “Towards a framework of publics: Re-encountering media sharing and its user.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 18.2 (2011): 5.

MacDougall, David. The corporeal image: Film, ethnography, and the senses. Princeton University Press, 2005

How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook profile

By Daniel Miller, on 29 October 2013

Knife and tomotoes on chopping board

Photo by Iñigo Cañedo (Creative Commons)

‘How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook Profile’
By Chef Daniele Milieu

(This is a version of an old Breton recipe I learnt from my grandmother.)

First catch your QQ/Facebook profile.

I will assume that you have all already landed some nice fresh fat profiles to work with.

The Equipment:
The specific tool I have used for this work is called Evernote. There is a premium paid for version, but as a cheapskate I used the free download, until that was full (now I pay for it). Once it is downloaded then when you go on to Facebook/QQ and use the ‘add to evernote’ function to select images and/or text. I tag them with details of the informant and with keywords.

Thus began a several page case-study in how to analyse postings. This was sent to the team a month back as the start to a group discussion about methodology. The reason was as follows. As a nine-site comparative project we are trying to undertake much of our work in a coordinated fashion. So for most of the time fieldworkers are concentrating on the same topic across the various sites. The plan this month has been to work on the analysis of what we can see online. Which is why we needed an agreed methodology. Obviously for a study of social media we need to engage with the actual things that people post. As qualitative rather than quantitative workers the public are often highly suspicious of our findings as ‘unscientific’ While we may not count many things we often do choose to be quite systematic. We are clear that we don’t just want to give impressionist accounts, that claim our informants post mostly jokes or pose with cars. We want to ensure that we carefully determine what they do post and not just what we think they are posting. So what followed in these ‘gutting’ instructions was several pages about how to work on the last 20 posts of each profile, and how to ‘sample’ photographic materials so that we felt comfortable that we were dealing with what they actually favour and not our guess work. These methods were further developed in conversations around the team. They raised many issues? For example it would be good to know the language terms they use in describing their friends postings, but how can we record this so as to see which postings they are describing at the time?

One might think that analysing online content is something we could do once we go home. It’s a waste of valuable ethnographic time to do this while we are still in the field. But our reasoning is that looking systematically at actual posting will lead to further questions that we will want to discuss directly with the informants themselves. So this seems a sensible thing to do as we move towards our half-way mark of fieldwork. It’s too late to gain these insights once we have finished. We need to look closely and carefully at actual postings now, so that we are forced into a more honest acknowledgment of their content and can use these to engage in further and hopefully deeper discussions with our informants. At present I have worked on a selection of profiles from The Glades and also from our Trinidad fieldwork. The differences are highly instructive and seem to reinforce our hope that material posted online can complement traditional ethnography as means of trying to characterise comparative society and the values and forms that we try to account for in our analysis.

Anthropology of social media within the city and the Gezi Park protests

By Elisabetta Costa, on 16 June 2013


Photo: Elisabetta Costa

Our seven ethnographies on the impact of social media are all going to be carried out in seven different towns, in seven different countries. These have different sizes and characteristics, but as written in the research proposal they are all towns with links with bigger and cosmopolitan cities, and at the same time with surrounding rural villages and areas. Furthermore, in order to have more comparable data we decided to carry on the core of our analysis in an area of the town around 25000 inhabitants.

What I would like to stress more in this blog post is the internal cultural heterogeneity that I am coming across in my field-site. In the first two months spent in the field what has drawn my attention more has been the heterogeneity of the people living here. I am trying to meet new people every week and I am finding out that the distinctiveness of their cultural traits is quite relevant. Differences in religion, politics, social class, level of education, gender, ethnicity and age contribute to the shaping of different internet related social and cultural practices. My field-site is also inhabited by teachers, civil servants, university students, engineers, architects, NGO workers, medical doctors, nurses, polices men that came to work here from other parts of West and East Turkey. These persons actively contribute to the life of the city and to the shaping of different processes of social and cultural change. At this point of the research heterogeneity in the cultural traits of this small city’s inhabitants is definitely more visible than any sort of imaginable homogeneity. And what is even more interesting is that different forms of appropriation of the internet and social media seem to be perpetuating cultural differences instead of reducing them. It seems that any generalization about the appropriation of the internet in this small city can be built up only on the assumptions of great diversity. Following the anthropological methodology we know that through the comparisons of these different internet-related habits we will find out why and how dissimilarities emerge. But how can we compare these diversified and heterogeneous practices?

When I started to consider the different locals’ reactions to the Gezi Park protests that have been going on in the last two weeks in many cities of Turkey, my first feeling was to think in terms of the different national and transnational networks my informants were part of. However I believe that categories of networks used to describe communication processes and internet usage brings scholars – and journalists – to think more and more in terms of connection and to not see the rest. As Marilyn Strathern (2002) pointed out “Its epistemological effect (making connections) makes thinkers lazy.” She also reminds us that the more we talk about connection the more divisions become visible. For this reason I believe that a comparison between different practices emerging in the field should be linked first of all to the work of political ideologies at a “micro-level” and only secondly to networks. Ideology and the articulation of hegemonic (and counter-hegemonic) positions within the nation are important. I believe that it is through the intersection between these two different perspectives (network/ ideologies and hegemony) that we can understand more in depth why, and how, distinct and contradictory internet-related practices emerge.


Strathern Marilyn. 2002. “Not giving the game away”  In: Gingrich A. and Richard F. (eds.) Anthropology by comparison. London: Routledge

Algorithms and homogenization

By Elisabetta Costa, on 8 November 2012


The general goal of our project is to investigate on the social effects of Facebook in seven different countries. We want to understand how Facebook, as a global phenomenon, is locally appropriated in seven different small towns. It’s comparative research, so we are interested in finding out differences and similarities emerging from these places. The argument that Facebook is always an invention and creation of its users (Miller) does not imply that the social network does not have its own infrastructure or architecture that produces some sort of homogenization.

In the field of Internet studies some scholars aim to find out how technologies shape and constitute the everyday life of people through the understanding of algorithms and codes that constitute the way the technology works. This kind of research might be very intriguing. For example yesterday I posted something on my Facebook page. Apparently it was not so appealing to my Facebook friends and for this reason I did not receive any feedback. After almost thirty minutes I published a second post more provocative and (apparently) more attractive as in few minutes I received a lot of comments. At the same time Facebook kept visualizing the first post in my friends’ news feed section, the uninteresting one. I thought: “Facebook is so sweet! It doesn’t want me to think that nobody is interested in what I write. It tries to convince my friends to make some comments or at least say ‘I like’”

Facebook is built to prompt people to write comments and give feedback to their friends. If I post something Facebook will help me to receive comments. Facebook has been designed to build networks and create social relationships. The more we connect the more profits Facebook makes.

Facebook does lead people to act in certain ways and not in others. If algorithms and codes are the central mechanism of social network sites, it is surely very interesting to investigate on the intentions of computer scientists and designers. Technologies, material objects and digital platforms always embed the intentions of their producers. However Facebook is presumably appropriated in a way that wasn’t intended and expected by its designers. This has been the case of every artifact, material object and technology in the course of the history.

I am very thrilled in finding out about infrastructures and architectures, such as Facebook’s algorithms. But infrastructures are always used differently in different contests. For this reason I believe that being aware of the way the algorithms work does not give us much information about the social impact of Facebook. Rather a comparative research project about the use of social network sites can give us much more insights about the regularities and the cultural homogenization brought by Facebook in different social contests.


This is not a user study

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 October 2012

Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.

Questions matter, and the way you ask them matters too

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 15 October 2012

Man walking infront of question mark

Photo: An untrained eye (Creative commons)

I always think that it is the strong and inherent curiosity about people that has lead me down the academic path of anthropology. In the past five weeks, working with a group of passionate, intelligent, and curious people has been such an enjoyable experience for me. I can not tell exactly how many potential research questions we have posed, but it feels like a huge amount, much more than we can hope to answer for the moment. However, even this makes the project more exciting and worth studying.

The current eight week intensive discussion tends to build up collective “common sense” for every researcher on the project before they go off to their individual field sites. This should help to make sure that we will all come back with comparable data, which will help to constitute a ‘big picture’ of the global appropriation of social media. To that extent, we decided to have a “to-do” list of questions that everybody is supposed to work on whilst carrying out their fieldwork.

This list comprised, first of all, of basic questions, such as “How many SNS accounts do you have?”; “What phone do you have and what plan?” or “How many SNS friends do you have?” These questions are short and concrete, making sure that ethnographers will collect basic statistics.

“Clever question” comprise the second level of questions, which means addressing a particular research question in a clever way. The way a question is presented to the participant will significantly affect the answer that they give. To put it in a simple way, the questions you want to ask matter, and the way you ask them matters just as much. For example, instead of asking people vaguely ‘what do you think of online privacy?’ a more specific but ‘purpose-hidden’ way of asking might be ‘what kind of information you will never post online?’ or ‘do you want your mother to be your Facebook/QQ friend?’. These questions are more likely to reveal a more nuanced truth. Clever questions can be very open ended, which are likely to lead to more detailed inquiries and in-depth discussions.

Built on ‘clever questions’, the third level of questions is even more profound and comprehensive given the possible situation that there will be several key informants with whom the ethnographer spends a huge amount of time and has abundant opportunities to conduct participant observation whilst in their company. In which case, these questions will not be confined to the previous structure and go deep into either specific issues, or develop into more portrait-like stories of the informant.

We have been amazed at the diversity and richness of the three-level questions everyone in the group has been contributing, which not only inspires each other but also guarantee the depth and width of our collective thinking. Generally speaking, anthropologists don’t have much reputation in ‘team work’. A lonely wanderer in an alien place is more like to exemplify an archetypal anthropologist. Also, some would argue that participant-observation of anthropology does not necessarily require any question. However, given the scale of this ambitious project we feel it would be useful to apply a well-organized framework and think about questions seriously to guarantee a comparative structure, whilst still retaining a degree of individual autonomy for each fieldworker.