Special Events


Ethnography in/of the Global South: Critical Reflections

May 20, 10 a.m. PST, 1 p.m. EST (note the earlier time!)

https://bostonu.zoom.us/j/96991657826 Passcode: 289577

A half century ago, Manuel Castells posed an existential question for urban sociologists: does the subfield constitute sociology in the city, or does urban space play a defining role, producing a sociology of the city? This panel poses a comparable question to ethnographers carrying out fieldwork in the global South: do they study sociological phenomena that just happen to occur beyond Euro-America, or is there something distinctive about the majority of the world’s surface that we call “the global South,” home to more than 85 percent of the global population? Scholars working on Africa, Asia, and Latin America discuss the meaning and limits of the concept and its significance for their work. Should southern ethnography be considered a distinct enterprise, or does this contribute to self-marginalization within an already notoriously parochial discipline?

Moderator: Zachary Levenson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Levenson studies the politics of eviction in postapartheid South Africa. His work is based on a decade of fieldwork in land occupations and informal settlements in Cape Town, and his book Delivery as Dispossession was released in April 2022 on Oxford University Press.

Presenter: Elena Shih, Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies, Brown University

Trained as a sociologist, Shih studies the transnational social movement to combat human trafficking in China, Thailand, and the US. She works at the intersection of ethnography and critical humanitarianism studies. Her book Manufacturing Freedom is under contract with UC Press.

Presenter: Oluwakemi Balogun, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Oregon

Balogun’s research focuses on gender, globalization, and nationalism in the context of the Nigerian beauty pageant industry. Based on years of fieldwork, her book Beauty Diplomacy was released by Stanford University Press in 2020.

Presenter: Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Professor of Individualized Studies and Sociology, New York University

Baiocchi is interested in questions of politics and culture, critical social theory, and cities. He has cultivated a distinctly political ethnography, which he has deployed in his fieldwork in Brazil, the US, and elsewhere. He is the author of numerous books, the most recent of which, co-authored with Jake Carlson, is Housing Is a Social Good, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.


Doing Digital Ethnography

April 8, 10 am PT / 1 pm ET

(co-hosted with Rutgers Digital Ethnography Working Group)

Watch the video of the event here

The significance of the digital world and online technologies have come into focus in the wake of the pandemic. As they transform many facets of social life—work, play, finance, relationships—online spaces also invite a rethinking of social science methodologies and theories. This panel examines the craft of digital ethnography, or participant observation of online social spaces. We consider the promises and challenges of fieldwork in online social life, hybrid combinations of data in-real-life and online, and the future and limitations of participant observation in an increasingly digitized world.

Moderated by Melissa Aronczyk (Rutgers University); co-founder of Rutgers Digital Ethnography Working Group

Melissa Aronczyk is Associate Professor of Media Studies in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University.

She is interested in how ideas, things and practices become valuable; and the technologies that render them that way. Her latest book is A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of Environmentalism (co-authored with Maria I. Espinoza), with Oxford University Press, a critical look at the intertwined history of environmental inaction in the United States and the rise of the PR industry in the twentieth century.

***Click here to see Melissa Aronczyk's recommended readings

Blok, A., Nakazora, M., & Winthereik, B. R. (2016). Infrastructuring Environments. Science as Culture 25(1): 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/09505431.2015.1081500

How can we use ethnography to apprehend human and non-human relations in (so-called) natural environments? It involves, as the authors write, “attending to how ‘the environment’ is managed and known, through what material and conceptual means, and to what effects” (3). This article, an introduction to a special issue, describes how conceptual resources from a number of overlapping research traditions (STS, sociology, anthropology, human geography, organizational studies, and human ecology, among others) can be mobilized toward ethnographic sensibilities around global environments. I especially like the article’s reminder to think of infrastructures and networks as dynamic and fluid (though not frictionless) and how ethnographic methods are therefore well suited to highlighting the “contextual dynamics of situated practices and agencies” (11).

Jaffrennou, M., Coduys, T. (2005). Mission Impossible: Giving Flesh to the Phantom Public. Pp. 218-223 in Latour, B. & Weibel, P., eds. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. ZKM. here

This essay describes an art project designed by the authors for the exhibit Making Things Public, curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel in 2005 in Berlin. The art project is in fact an immersive installation that builds on the concerns expressed by Walter Lippmann for the future of communication in a democracy in his book, The Phantom Public (1925). The essay describes how visitors move through the installation as bodies and as data selves, captured by digital technologies such as RFID codes and sensors. While the essay is not about digital ethnography per se, I love how it invites us to consider what and how to capture a “public” or “public opinion” in a digitally mediated context.

Sophie Bishop, is a Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries at the Management School of Sheffield University.

Bishop researches promotional culture and creative work on platforms. A feminist scholar, she examines the labor of beauty and fashion influencers, as well as algorithms as they are understood by users. She has published in Social Media + Society, New Media & Society, Feminist Media Studies and more. She is currently the Specialist Advisor on the UK’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Influencer Culture.

***Click here to see Sophie Bishop's recommended readings

Skeggs, B. (1994). Situating the production of feminist ethnography. Researching women’s lives from a feminist perspective, 72-92. http://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/13699

I’m trained in the field of Cultural Studies, which is actually very methodologically rich, although it’s not always viewed that way. In this piece, Bev Skeggs reflects on some of her experiences researching working class women in the UK with refreshing honesty. She discusses how messy research can actually be, and how many of the boundaries that we draw within the research process can be quite arbitrary. Although this is not a piece on ‘digital ethnography’, yet it deals with many of the issues that I experienced when researching young women online.

Bishop, S. (2019). Managing visibility on YouTube through algorithmic gossip. New media & society, 21(11-12), 2589-2606. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819854731

As part of my research, I wanted to find out how theories about what the YouTube algorithm ‘wanted’ shaped beauty influencers’ cultural production.. I found it useful to conceptualize influencers as ‘professional users’, who were running tests on social media platforms every day, and documenting the results of these tests in Facebook groups, Twitter and Instagram pages. I am a huge fan of gossip and I wanted to discuss the casual musings, theories and forms of strategic talk that I found in these online spaces as an important record of the link between perceptions around algorithmic visibility. These theories may not be right, but they end up influencing culture that is visible and available to us on platforms (which are probably less likely to be YouTube now!).

André Brock, Associate Professor of Black Digital Studies in the Department of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology

Trained in Library and Information Sciences, Brock is a leading scholar of race and social media with groundbreaking work on Black Twitter. His research in digital humanities and media studies documents racial representations online. His book, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures (2020, NYU Press) received the 2021 Nancy Baym Book Award in Internet Studies, among other recognitions.

***Click here to see André Brock's recommended readings

Bonilla, Y and Rosa, J. “#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States”. American Ethnologist 42, 1. P. 4-17 https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12112

An important clarification on the complexities of studying hashtags as “discursive communities”

Brock, A. (2018). Critical technocultural discourse analysis. New Media & Society, 20(3), 1012–1030. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816677532

Although I’d been writing about CTDA for nearly a decade before this article, this is the first full-fat treatment of the method. For the first time i was able to articulate why my positionality as a Black male academic helped to inform this approach to meaning making, race, and community in online spaces, apps, and commenting sections.

Jeff Lane, Associate Professor of Communication at Rutgers University

Lane studies how living in poor neighborhoods is being transformed via social media. His work combines digital and in-person ethnography to rethink sociological notions of neighborhood crime, violence, policing, and gentrification. His book, The Digital Street (Oxford University Press, 2019), has received awards from the American Sociological Association and Association of Internet Researchers.

***Click here to see Jeff Lane's recommended readings

Christin, A. “The Ethnographer and the Algorithm: Beyond the Black Box.” Theory & Society, 1-22. here

I love this piece because it shows how an algorithmic system can be a way into the field and an opportunity to initiate or build on ethnographic relationships.

Lane, J. (2020). A smartphone case method: Reimagining social relationships with smartphone data in the U.S. context of Harlem. Journal of Children and Media, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/17482798.2019.1710718

This piece is about experimenting with how to integrate a smartphone and its traces into the traditional method of shadowing someone. It’s also a reflection on the boundaries of a relationship.

Nick Seaver, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University

Seaver is an anthropologist at Tufts, where he also teaches in the Program on Science, Technology, and Society. His ethnographic research on the developers of algorithmic music recommendation has appeared in Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Big Data & Society. He is co-editor of Towards an Anthropology of Data (2021) and author of the forthcoming Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation. His current research explores the use of attention as a value and virtue in machine learning worlds.

***Click here to see Nick Seaver's recommended readings

Beaulieu, A. 2010. “Research Note: From Co-Location to Co-Presence: Shifts in the Use of Ethnography for the Study of Knowledge.”Social Studies of Science 40 (3): 453–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709359219.

Anne Beaulieu is an outstanding methodologist, and the basic argument of this article is one I’ve really internalized: When doing fieldwork with digitally mediated groups, it just isn’t that useful to worry about physical co-location as the sine qua non of ethnographic research! There are many ways people are present with each other, and the ethnographer’s task is to trace these out and experience them.

Seaver, Nick. 2017. “Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems.” Big Data & Society 4 (2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717738104.

I recommend my own piece not because I think it’s particularly novel (it’s not!), but because this article was my effort to pull together a variety of sources that proved useful to me in composing an ethnographic study of algorithmic systems. In general, these sources are not distinctly digital: many tips and tricks from ethnographers who study elites, distributed phenomena, and organizations prove useful for “digital” ethnography. I often hear from graduate students who find the collection of resources I gathered together here useful for convincing themselves (or their committees) that they are indeed doing “real” ethnography, despite what it might feel like at times.