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Thoughts on anthropology and social media activism

November 14, 2009

A few loose thoughts on how existing anthropological scholarship on the Internet and related phenomena may be recruited to the study of social media activism:

* Around the turn of the millennium a number of anthropological and ethnographic studies of the Internet appeared (e.g. Hakken 1999, Hine 2000, Jankowski 2000, Miller and Slater 2000, see also Postill in press). They were part of a wider societal and scholarly shift in affluent countries towards the normalisation of the Internet away from earlier, hyped-up notions of a futuristic ‘cyberspace’ (see an account of this in Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2003). If in the 1980s and 1990s authors spoke of cyberspace as being apart from everyday life offline, now in the 2000s Internet ethnographers and others increasingly began to write about the Internet as a part of daily life (Miller and Slater 2000). For most of us in the global North the Internet has become quite ordinary, as taken for granted a network as the transport networks and electricity grids.

* Over the past 10 years or so, anthropologists have studied a range of Internet-related topics, including telework, online religion, nation-building, ethnic conflict, free software, virtual materiality, digital fan films, the digital divide, and Internet activism (see Postill in press).

* Within the anthropological study of Internet activism we can distinguish studies that have looked at indigenous activism (Budka forthcoming), anti-globalisation activism (Juris 2008) and local-level activism (Postill 2008). However, to the best of my knowledge little anthropological work has gone to date into the study of social media (blogs, social bookmarking, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) – including for purposes of activism. If Debra Spitulnik found in 1993 that there was still no anthropology of mass media to speak of, I suspect that today (in 2009) we can say that there is still no ‘social media anthropology’ (other than as a recent coinage used in the field of social media consultancy).

* Little is known, even in other disciplines, about social media activism, i.e. those forms of social and political activism that rely heavily on social media technologies for their growth and maintenance. What could an anthropological approach contribute to the study of this emerging phenomenon? Some suggestions (I am adapting here a trichotomy taken from Kelty 2008):

  1. Methodologically – not only an ethnographic and sensory approach (Pink 2009) to social media practices but also historical research on social media activism (activists’ life histories, biographies of social media artefacts, online archives, see Kelty 2008, Postill 2009).
  2. Theoretically – (a) a long social anthropological tradition of grappling with forms of sociality and sociation in ways that don’t reduce the flux and complexity of social life to vague emic ideas of ‘community’ or ‘network’ (Amit 2002, Postill 2008); this is particularly important in the case of contemporary activism with its almost fetishisation of the idea of ‘networks’ as loose, non-hierarchical, futuristic social formations (Riles 2000, Juris 2008, Amit 2007); (b) a more recent turn to the theory of practice among media anthropologists (Braeuchler and Postill in press) – this can help to explore and develop a working notion of ‘social media practices’ in the context of social and political activism.
  3. Empirically – the combination of a diachronic + synchronic research methodology and theoretical sophistication just mentioned would enable anthropologists working on social media activism to study the regularities and contingencies of activists’ struggles to pursue agendas of social and political reform amidst a rapidly changing social media landscape.


For most references, see Postill, J. (in press, due early 2010) ’Researching the Internet’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Draft version available here.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2009 4:21 pm

    This looks very relevant on first inspection:

    Social Media and Politics: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations in Designing a Study of Political Engagement

    Paper presented at Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference‐web‐2‐0‐conference/

    New Political Communication Unit
    Royal Holloway, University of London
    April 17‐18, 2008
    Draft text: Please do not cite without permission

    • November 14, 2009 4:23 pm

      So does this:

      Social groups, social media, and civic participation of high school youth: concepts and methods for design implications


      High school social groups (e.g., “jocks” and “nerds”) and social media (e.g., instant messaging and social network sites) are prominent in the lives of high school students. Social groups affect what high school students find acceptable doing. However, little is known about how social groups affect students’ shaping of civic and political selves, or whether social media bridge social relationships across distant high school social groups and engender positive spill-over effects for civic participation. This socio-technical mixed methods study is positioned at the intersection of high school social groups, uses of social media, and students’ participation in extracurricular activities, with particular interest in civic participation. Design implications will be drawn from analysis of three data sets: a student questionnaire with sociometric questions, interviews, and observations of students’ daily activities. Conceptual and methodological contributions to the HCI literature are discussed.

  2. November 14, 2009 4:26 pm

    And this:

    Global activism and new media: A study of transnational NGOs’ online public relations

    Hyunjin Seoa, Ji Young Kimb and Sung-Un Yanga

    Received 8 January 2009; accepted 17 February 2009. Available online 24 March 2009.


    This study examines how transnational nongovernmental organizations make use of new media tools in their public relation activities and what factors influence their online public relations. A survey of communication representatives at 75 transnational NGOs based in the United States found that promoting the organization’s image and fund-raising were the two most important functions of new media for the NGOs. Organizational capacity and main objective of the organization were significant predictors of NGOs’ new media use in their public relations. However, organizational efficiency and revenue did not significantly predict NGOs’ use of new media.

    Keywords: Online public relations; Nongovernmental organizations; New media; Internet; Global activism

  3. Biella permalink
    November 14, 2009 4:41 pm

    Hi John,

    Here are a few other works coming out or already out on social media: there is a full length ethnography coming out by anthropologist Illana Gershon ( on social networking and dating, complementing the ethnographic work of Horst and boyd, Ito, Lange and quite a few others on social media (these are still not on activism but indeed on social media). Kate Milberry has done ethnographic work on radical tech activism (Indymedia, riseup etc) and has published some on it and I imagine will be publishing more in the near future as well.

    I agree that there is very little on anthropology and digital activism outside of indigenous activism, free software, and some cases of local activism but I bet it will increasingly become integrated not necessarily in ehtnographies simply just on “activism” but larger frames of analysis as well.

    • November 14, 2009 7:55 pm

      Thanks Biella, that’s really useful! I knew about Horst, boyd et al but not Gershon or Milberry – I’ll definitely look them up. Having worked on local-level internet activism I’ve gone in other directions in the past, e.g. community networks/informatics, local e-democracy, etc.

  4. November 14, 2009 8:43 pm

    There are many things in your proposal, John. I want to mention the same question of “social media” definition. In a post in my blog a few months ago, I was wondering if the term “social media” will be useful for scholar research as a more suitable term than the conflictive “new media” and as complementary to “mass media”. Now, I see that the term is being more and more accepted.

    • November 15, 2009 12:18 am

      Thanks, Elisenda. Yes, I also get the impression that the notion of ‘social media’ has gained more currency lately, more so perhaps than the more disputed ‘Web 2.0’? For now I’m using it in an open way to refer to that family of sites that are ‘based on user contributions’ (Agichtein et al 2008, and where the sharing of contents (music, videos, images, texts, bookmarks, etc.) is common, e.g. YouTube,, Facebook, blogs, delicious, etc. I suspect, however, that soon I’ll be running into trouble with this notion! Come to think of it, is a music sharing site a type of medium or rather, more humbly, a type of website?


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