By Cæcilie Svop Jensen
Methodological nationalism is often mentioned as one of the pitfalls in research on diasporas and although it has been amply problematized in recent years, it continues to pose a challenge to diaspora research. Schrooten notes how moving towards methodological transnationalism opens up possibilities of research and generates new spaces in which to investigate diaspora behavior (Schrooten 2012, p. 1796). She uses the notion of methodological transnationalism to refer to an approach to diaspora research rooted in transnationalism and while this is not a new approach, Schrooten emphasizes how this involves the study of online communities. Often, ethnographic research on diasporas is situated in the context of offline activities. While understanding the offline activities of diaspora communities is vital, a disregard for online ethnography means leaving out important aspects of diaspora behavior.
Diasporas are multi-sited, deterritorialized and operate in multiple spaces and arenas simultaneously. Bearing this in mind, researching diasporas through on-the-ground fieldwork alone seems insufficient. Multi-sited ethnography should include the study of online activity, especially in the context of researching diasporas and their relation to homeland conflicts as that relationship has the potential to be situated as much online as offline.
Digital ethnography adapts conventional ethnographic methods to the study of communities created through computer-mediated social interaction. This refers to, for instance, the study of online social media, such as Facebook and Twitter as well as websites representing communities in other ways, such as blogs and opinion pieces and visual data, such as video and pictures. As already mentioned, ethnographic research on diaspora activity online is scarce. Turner (2008) argues that the online activity of Burundian diasporas takes on a life on its own, freed from the constraints of time and space, and removed from the reality on-the-ground in Burundi (p. 1176). Turner’s argument, however, presents online diaspora behavior as somewhat removed from reality which undermines the very real influence on our lives that communicating online has. Brinkerhoff (2009) investigates diaspora-websites and ‘cybercommunities’ and how the internet helps shape identities and behavior in diasporas. Other studies show the importance of diaspora media in contributing (positively and negatively) to conflicts ‘back home’ (Ogunyemi 2017). The existing digital ethnography studies on diasporas demonstrate their potential for data collection and analysis.
I am currently studying online communities of Kurdish and Turkish diasporas in Denmark and have been both prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic. In these communities, it seems online activity did not greatly increase in the phases of lock-down but was very much present and flourishing before as well. This includes posting on Facebook pages of organizations; sharing videos of demonstrations held in different parts of Denmark; sharing events from associated organizations and hosting online events; sharing news of relevance to the communities; informing of events happening in the countries of origin; and calls for online action, such as donations and information sharing. In addition to Facebook activity, there are online news platforms by diaspora members which include blog posts and opinion pieces and pictures from events. Using digital ethnography, you can locate and map out networks of organizations by looking at how they interact on social media and websites. Backtracking online activity provides the opportunity to locate important events and examine peaks of mobilization, and through comparing blogs, websites of organizations, social media and diasporas-led news channels it is possible to identify key actors or ‘political entrepreneurs’ in the communities. Using the available textual material on websites of diaspora organizations or posts on Facebook it is possible to analyze discourses, narratives and framings of for instance conflicts in the homeland. Visuals such as pictures and symbols figuring on websites, in discussion forums and blogs makes semiotic analysis possible. Murthy (2008) mentions more interactive kinds of digital ethnography such as Facebook pages created by researchers for online focus groups (p. 845).
While the visual and textual data is plentiful there are important considerations to point out when conducting online fieldwork. One of the issues worth mentioning is its lack of locality, the exploration of the unspecified space that constitutes the internet. When conducting digital ethnography, you are accessing communities not limited to a physical space. People are in contact with and access people across cities, borders, regions, create new constellations and connections that transcend offline settings. With this in mind, when studying diasporas online, what parts of a diaspora are you really looking at? How do you define or delimit the communities in question? Contrarily, with the weight of online communication in our everyday lives, how do we conduct ethnographic research without taking this into account? Conventional ethnography focuses on the ‘direct and sustained contact with human agents in the context of their daily lives’ (O’Reilly 2004, p. 3) and digital ethnography does exactly this, only mediated through online channels of communication. Digital ethnography requires a reimagination of traditional perceptions of ‘the field’ that properly embraces online activity as useful spaces or sites of research. Another thing to consider is of course the ethical considerations associated with conducting online research, particularly the concept of ‘lurking’ on online communities and consent when using material that is shared online.
In a previous blogpost Élise Féron, Anna Quattrone and I discussed the challenges and opportunities of researching diasporas in times of Covid-19. The current pandemic is a chance to reflect not only on the potential of researching online diaspora activity, but also on the necessity of this to properly understand the intricate workings of diaspora communities. Of course, digital ethnography cannot, nor should it, substitute traditional on-the-ground ethnography, but it does offer insights into diaspora communities not graspable from a conventional approach. In addition, a focus on digital ethnography in the study of diasporas inevitably brings with it a transnational approach and unlocks a universe of diaspora activity worth complementing offline ethnography.
Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. In Digital Diasporas. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511805158
Murthy, D. (2008). Digital Ethnography. Sociology (Oxford), 42(5), 837–855. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038508094565
Schrooten, M. (2012). Moving ethnography online: researching Brazilian migrants’ online togetherness. Ethnic and Racial Studies: Methodologies on the Move: The Transnational Turn in Empirical Migration Research, 35(10), 1794–1809. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2012.659271
Turner, S. (2008). Cyberwars of Words: Expressing the Unspeakable in Burundi’s Diaspora. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: Diasporic Tensions: The Dilemmas and Conflicts of Transnational Engagement, 34(7), 1161–1180. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691830802230455
Ogunyemi, O. (2017). Media, Diaspora and Conflict. In Media, Diaspora and Conflict. Springer International Publishing AG. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56642-9
O’Reilly, K. (2004). Ethnographic Methods. In Ethnographic Methods. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203320068