Dear dendrites: Quarantine ethnography

Dear dendrites: Quarantine ethnography

Here at Anthro{dendum}, we receive a light stream of correspondence by way of our contact form. Usually they are pitches for guest posts or questions following up on one of our older pieces. But recently we were humbled by a new development, when a student reader turned to us as a place for advice. Here is our attempt at an anthropology advice column, append your own advice in the comments section below. Would anyone care to pose a question to our editors for a future column? Use our contact form and ask away! Your question could be featured in the next installment of Dear Denrites.

Hi there!

I am reaching out to whoever it is that receives these emails or runs Anthrodendum to ask for a possible favour. I was wondering whether or not you would find it worthwhile to write about doing ethnography from home – and by that, I do not mean ‘studying a place you call home’, but literally from our desks.

I, like the 9 other young women in the anthropology honours class at my university, find ourselves at a complete loss for how to restructure our already underway research projects in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. Having been issued a national lockdown for at least a few weeks, we’ve been told to shift our research to an entirely online form. It is unlikely that it will be safe to continue to conduct traditional participant observation even by mid-fall in the urban-centers of our country’s Coronavirus outbreak. While we have been given literature to pour over regarding ‘virtual ethnographies’ and doing anthropology online, I, and my fellow students, would definitely benefit from some pretty basic pointers.

I appreciate your time in advance!

Kind Regards,

Stephanie Cookson
University of Pretoria, South Africa
Bachelor of Social Science Honours


Dick Powis

This is a great question, particularly as you are definitely not alone right now. Nearly every anthropologist I know – student or otherwise – is in the same boat. And like you (and many of them), I have no experience in digital/virtual ethnography, so I’ll try to talk about how my research experience might translate into a digital/virtual world.

The first thing I would determine is the research site. In this context, that could be an actual website, or it might be a bigger community of people that operate across multiple websites, or perhaps it’s a community that occupies a small part of a website. What is it about the site or community that interests you or demands attention? Then, I would approach it the same way I approach my own ethnographic research: move in, live there, get to know people, lurk, make it a part of your daily activities, learn the language (or jargon). Become a community member, get involved, become a fixture. Journal about it!And then from there, you can reach out and interview individuals. See how they feel about the topic of conversation or ask them why they talk about things the way they do or hold certain attitudes.

Anyway, that’s a basic framework of my approach. I know you probably have plenty of literature to read, but I’d like to push Collins and Durington’s “Networked Anthropology” to the top of your stack if you’re not familiar with it. Thanks, good luck, and I think we’d all like to hear from you in a few months and see how everything turned out!


Maia Green

How can social scientists do research when the social assumes unprecedented forms? 

Dispersed communities of concern are emerging in response to the pandemic and using online collaboration platforms designed to allow groups of people to interact and see each other in real time. Established communities of practice — in business, the media, religion and  academia — are making massive efforts to carry out their ordinary activities online. These kinds of communities are probably quite different to the kinds of virtual communities anthropologists have studied, for example Tom Boellstorff’s engaging ethnography of how people make and manage virtual selves in the online environment of  Second Life. New virtual communities brought into being as a response to the pandemic are different. First because of scale and reach, and second in pace of expansion. Established communities which are moving online are different from wholly online communities because the practices they perform are distributed through the internet, but were developed independently of it. 

The differences between these kinds of online communities could suggest different strategies for fieldwork. As you are asking about projects you have already started researching, one option is to do what other established communities are doing and move your practice online. This would entail locating the online spaces where your chosen community now spends its time and exploring with them the  possibilities for some kind of participation (subject of course to having obtained relevant ethical permissions and requesting consent). You could then carry out your fieldwork through the usual steps- networking with key informants and organising interviews through Skype or other apps.  

A second strategy could be to focus on an already existing online community, either one which is engaged in the area you are researching or, perhaps, consider a new topic. Social media are great places to find members of different social worlds and begin to explore them. Once you have made some contacts, you can explore with them the possibilities for more structured interaction, again subject to consent and ethical review.  

Option three is to do something totally new in an emergent social field and explore some of the ways in which the pandemic is creating new forms of behaviour and sociality. You can do  this based on what you learn about how people are responding to the pandemic online, through news, social media and what you hear from friends and colleagues. If you are permitted to leave your home to get essential foods or take exercise you could observe people’s interactions. If staying inside you can reflect on your own changing practices. How are you structuring your days? How do you make boundaries between work and leisure? How are you socialising remotely with others outside the home?  

Responses to coronavirus in all countries raise important questions around inequality, health systems, care, and social solidarity. All aspects of life are affected by it in some way. Research conducted during this uncertain  time can shed light on the multiple creative ways that people in various situations respond to the ongoing changes brought about by the pandemic. 


Ryan Anderson

Most of my research focuses on traditional ethnographic sites: places and communities and the issues they need to deal with. I look at the politics of conservation and tourism development in Baja California Sur, Mexico, and conflicts/challenges of sea level rise adaptation along the California coast. Some of this work has led to an increasing interest in the intersections between these places/communities and media/online communities. I’m really interested in how ideas about places, as expressed through media (and online forums), shape those places. This piece on media depictions (link) is a step in that direction, and the next step is to examine the online component of this media. To give another example, some of my work on sea level rise, has led me to the whole issue of climate change denial/skepticism… which in turn has led to an interest in how mis- and disinformation spreads online. In both cases I am not just interested in studying the online component, but rather how it fits within larger processes and systems.

That’s one basic approach to doing digital or virtual ethnography that I have found helpful: keep it holistic and examine how something fits within a broader social picture. In your case, you may only be able to look at the online component for now, but even so you can develop some ideas and ask questions about where and how certain things may intersect with offline social behavior. Take notes, gather ideas… and study those offline intersections when it’s possible to do so. In all ethnographic work you have to do your best given the situation you are in.

A second tip is to look for ‘places’ where people come together, where they congregate. Think creatively about what this can look like. For example, in my work it’s useful to look at how people think about and talk about places in the comments sections on travel sites. Keep in mind though that there are ethical issues that you want to think through for anything you’re looking at online. But these kinds of spaces can provide fascinating insight into how people think about and interact with ideas, places, and events.

So overall, keep things holistic, look for connections, and find places where people come together. Be as creative as you can, and don’t forget to attend to ethical issues. Good luck!


Matt Thompson

I am not an academic anthropologist, I work for a city public library, but my professional practice is informed by my training in anthropology and ethnography. At the library our doors are closed to the public, but we are still at work urgently seeking ways to bring our services to the community. A lot of that, by necessity, will be online via mobile devices.

Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by StoryCorps, best known for their short, engaging, personal recordings of everyday people; stories of love and families and obstacles overcome, real make ’em laugh, make ’em cry kinda stuff (link). The webinar was to be about their digital oral history project. I was interested because my library has an already existing, albeit unloved, digital oral history project that’s just sitting there not doing anything. I think, maybe StoryCorps can give me some new ideas or inspire me to revive this moribund project? By the conclusion of the webinar, StoryCorps had not solved all my problems. There was no switch I could flick to make our oral history project vibrant and successful. But they have a very interesting model that you might be able to adapt to ethnography under quarantine.

Program participants download a StoryCorps app to their phones, allow permission to the mic, and create an account. Family members are then encouraged to interview each other using the app to record, there are plenty of tips on their website for recording a successful interview. The recorded interview can stay as a local file on the participant’s phone or it can be uploaded to the StoryCorps archive. Note: these are .wav files and can be quite large, especially if the interview is long. There is a code you can give participants that shares their recording on a community page, which can then be curated and enriched with text and photos.

Not a system without constraints, but take the brand name off of everything and we might find some ideas that could be put to work. A lot of people have phones, many of which can function as digital audio and video recorders. You cannot be in their physical space, but that space is shared with select others. They can interview, record, and photograph their family members and roommates. Essentially, participants use their phones to create digital ethnographic objects and then they share them with you. This has potential as an alternative to virtual or remote ethnography, particularly if pursed with diligence and compassion.

To make this model successful would require testing some thorny technical and ethical considerations, but they are not insurmountable. I would begin by partnering with a community organization and experimenting with the model inside just that group, focus on organizational history for example. Then once the researchers better understood the limits of the data collection method, no doubt incorporating feedback, steps could be taken to address the issues and the project could expand. But I think the basic idea of getting study participants to use their phones to collaborate with the researcher has a lot of potential.


Caio Coelho

Dealing with anthropological fieldwork is always something difficult to teach, it is an apprenticeship that heavily relies in the experience of the ethnographer and the group researched. The basics for fieldwork, in my view, is an exchange of affections, of information, of intelligence, of cultures. But it isn’t exactly implied anywhere that it has to be done physically.

We live in a society where speech became detached from the body when the telephone was invented, some 150 years ago. We live in a society where images can appear to move themselves for some 120 years now. We live in a society where it is possible to see wars, while they are happening from some other corner of the world for the past 60 years. And more recently, we can use computers to practically do anything: from virtually walking the streets of New Delhi on Google Maps, participating in academic events held on Twitter (Hi #ASEH2020tweets, it was great!), to communicate with someone in almost anyplace in the world via videochat through a device that is smaller than a hand. I’m not saying that technology is democratic in this 21st Century, there are problem of access to them, as there are problems of access with almost anything under Capitalist regimes. But I’m saying that there are possibilities.

One of the main dimensions of fieldwork, according to Jeanne Favret-Saada (1990), is to be able to affect and be affected by others [see Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1990. “Être Affecté”. In: Gradhiva: Revue d’Histoire et d’Archives de l’Anthropologie, 8. pp. 3-9]. She vividly describes dewitchment in her fieldwork in the Western French Bocage, in which she only was able to enter the “native” network of conversations around magic when they started to see her as a person who had been bewitched. The question that I pose to you Stephanie and colleagues is: can we only be affected through the body? Through the corporeal experience? Or is affection a phenomenon that relates more to our minds? If it is so, our mind is able to visit places, through our imagination and technology, to get us in touch with others. Including myself in this example, I make part of Anthro{dendum} and am in touch with the conversations we do here, even though I never met anyone of the collective in person (I’m from Brazil). I can participate and observe, as the digital nature of what we do on the blog helps to trespass the geographical contingencies of where we live. I’m not saying every fieldwork is possible to be done at distance, but I’m saying that there are possibilities. I would like to take a moment to let you see another example of this in action, there is a street photographer that has agoraphobia. Her project confronts her own fears, and she found a way to explore the world using one technology to access what she had difficulty to access physically. Hope this helps.