Winks and twitches, likes and comments: discussing digital ethnography

Renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz once used the work of Gilbert Ryle to describe how one action (a wink) that seems to mean one thing can in fact have multiple meanings depending on the intentions and social cues of the person who performs it and the person (or people) interpreting and receiving it. When two boys are “rapidly contracting the right eyelids of their right eyes” is it a wink or a twitch? Is it a socially significant communication or a inconsequential bio-physical reaction? It takes an ethnographer’s “thick description” to tease out meaning of such subtle signs.

facebook_like-300x282What does “thick description” look like in studying online communities? Is it even possible? Are there parallels between winks and twitches an
d “likes” and “comments” on Facebook?

Sometimes the boundaries between social media and the world around us are blurred, uncontrollable, and bridged by instantaneous interaction. For some, it is evidence of the cumbersome character of social media and perhaps the inability to navigate its intricate interactional lattice. For others, it is a situation replete with opportunity and intimating more opportunities for rich ethnographic research.

Thus, it is vital that ethnographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists, seeking to apperceive the interplay and flow of meanings in various social spaces — online and off — appreciate social media as a viable field of study, recognize the theory at work in social-media based ethnographies, and also construct a viable approach that takes into consideration the various idiosyncrasies and mixed curses/blessings that each form of social media provides.

The studies of “virtual ethnographies” and social-media based ethnographies are emerging subfields. Since the publication of Christine Hine’s Virtual Ethnography fourteen years ago (a virtual lifetime in the digital age) the field has undergone various revisions and updates as the digital world continues to shift and advance, presenting new opportunities and challenges for researchers’ method and theory.

This session will discuss the viability and best-practices for “internet related ethnography” as participants discuss their own experiences and share fresh perspectives on what it looks like to do “internet-based ethnography” well. The hope is that the discussion will touch on theoretical foundations and a confab on several social-media portals that can provide launching off points and areas for further research.

Categories: Research Methods, Session Proposals, Session: Talk, Social Media | Tags: , , , , |

About Ken Chitwood

Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar, PhD student & teaching assistant fellow at University of Florida studying Religion in the Americas and Global Islam (with the Center for Global Islamic Studies) with interests including Islam in the Americas, glocalization, transnationalism, intersections of religion & culture, Christian-Muslim relations, global Christianity, Islamic minorities, and theories of religion, & ethnographic methods (including digital ethnography) in a global age. He is also fascinated by the intersection of religion & popular culture and writes & speaks on this topic as both an academic and a journalist covering 'the god beat.’ (see his blog Faith Goes Pop or visit

2 Responses to Winks and twitches, likes and comments: discussing digital ethnography

  1. I’m also interested to know more about privacy issues with online ethnographies. How do we know what is fair game? How can we share it in publication? What role for visual ethnography online?

  2. Ken Chitwood says:

    All great stuff Sophia! I am hoping this will be an open conversation to discuss various issues — including your questions — and for participants to share their own experiences, best practices, and concerns.

Comments are closed.