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A Few Challenges of Digital Ethnography

Exploring a few thoughts about anthropological history and ethnographic method

This short article will explore the challenges associated with anthropological fieldwork on digital media and why this work is important. It will focus on digital ethnography and ethical implications. If it is incomplete and at times incorrect feel free to comment with corrections or thoughts.

To understand the current challenges classic anthropological fieldwork is facing let us start with a quick look at the past. Since fieldwork is such a central part of anthropology, both ‘fields’ are politically connected (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997).

Gathering empirical data through ethnographic method and ‘writing up’ anthropological theoretical work occurs in close relation. Therefore before we start discussing anything digi- tal we have to discuss briefly the current legacy or develop- ment within the ethnographic method and some recent changes within an emerging subfield. This will naturally only be skimming the surface of history.

100 years and beyond of research and associated theorising has over the years built the foundations of ethnographic method. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) developed its practice of lengthy participant observation and scientific method establishing the field of anthropology in Britain. The American tradition of Franz Boas (1858- 1942) focused on capturing or salvaging history while rejecting scientific racism and social evolutionism made important contributions to ethnographic method. Ethnographic tradition in most of Europe was based on folklore (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997). While the French tradition influenced by Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) explored theories of gift exchange and reciprocity. The sociologist Robert Park (1865–1944) in Chicago also had an influence arguing that the field was a mental construct of the ethnographer shaped by interests, establishing a different focus towards social change and cities: urban ethnography (Madden, 2010).

These foundational ethnographers shaped the early usage and indeed the first institutions teaching ethnography. Institutions that were set up at the time had micro-political academic practices favouring “real anthropology” or fieldwork in exotic locations. The archetype of the lone, male fieldworker living for a year or more amongst the natives was common. The early funding of anthropology also came from imperialist nations.

During the 20th century new subfields reshaped the focus through conceptions of the field such as economic anthropology, legal anthropology, and psychological anthropology (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997).

One new subfield was particularly interested in the consequences of digital media. Cyber anthropology was one emerging subfield towards the late 20th century. A catalyst for this can be said to have been the book Simians Cyborgs and Women (Harraway, 1991), a collection of essays written in the 80s and 90s by Donna Harraway. Her essay the Cyborg Manifesto, was published as early as in 1985.

In 1973, Xerox PARC developed the Alto personal computer with a desktop or graphical user interface (GUI). Lucy Suchman was an anthropologist who worked with research on human factors, cybercultural anthropology, and femi- nist theory at PARC between 1980–2000 (Balsamo, 2011). Her book Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine interaction (Suchman, 1987) challenges assumptions of human action and how it is constructed or reconstructed in the dynamic social and material worlds. Toget- her with other researchers she provided the intellectual foundations for the field of Human-Computer Interaction, and was undertaking some of the earliest forms of digital ethnography.

Ethnographic approaches to digital media until the end of the 1990s was not in focus (Coleman, 2010). However articles or books on the topic were increasingly published. Gabriella Coleman mapped, survey- ed and divided the ethnographic research on digital media up to 2010 in her article Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media. This article sorted current ethnographic research re- lated to digital media into three categories. One was cultural politics with examination of how cultural identities and imaginaries are shaped or reshaped through engagement with digital technologies. Another was the vernacular cultures with digital genres and groups whose logic is organised significantly around properties of digital media. The last was prosaics of digital media and how it shapes other types of practices like economic exchange, religion or financial markets. Broadly, it can be said her conclusion was: digital media is not universally applicable or expressed, it has a particular cultural expression.

The last was prosaics of digital media and how it shapes other types of practices like economic exchange, religion or financial markets. Broadly, it can be said her conclusion was: digital media is not universally applicable or expressed, it has a particular cultural expression.

In 2000, a book was written on ethnographic approaches on the Internet (Miller & Slate, 2001). The University College London also established a master’s degree in Digital Anthro- pology at UCL in London with its first semester in September 2009. An important year for digital ethnography was the year of 2012. The book Digital Anthropology was released; The Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) was founded in Australia at the RMIT; the first annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association the Digital Anthropology Group convened; and the book Ethnography and virtual worlds, A Handbook of Method was released.

2012 was also the year the international anthropology research project Why We Post was launched, with its objective to look at the global impact of social media. Why We Post was based on ethnographic data collection through 15 months in Brazil, Trinidad, Chile, United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy and China (UCL, 2016). The conclusion from this study released in 2016 echoed Coleman’s previous survey of literature on digital media; thereby stating that social media is expressed and used differently around the world depending on socio- cultural conditions ingrained in local tradition, culture, kinship, history and a variety of other factors. Their findings indicated that social media is more than communication, but a place we now live. In 2016, Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice was released by Sarah Pink and a series of other writers from RMIT and UCL. In late 2018 a definition of digital anthropology was written in the online Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Miller, 2018).

The history of ethnography is naturally vastly more colourful and diverse than described above, however there is a wish to partly understand the historical underpinnings of ethnographic research on digital media before we proceed. From the legacy of the ethnographers of the 19th century to the more recent development in the late 20th century with the invention of the desktop or graphic user interface at Xerox Parc, and onwards into the beginning of the 21st century.

Fieldwork with Digital Ethnography

“… if ethnography wants to remain relevant in the future it must find ways to understand how contemporary local identities are networked in a global system, and it must strive to understand the place of technology-mediated sociality in today’s social and cultural systems. If ethnography’s strength has been its ability to appreciate the soci- al and cultural particulars of human existence, it now needs to also appreciate these particulars as part of a global human complex.” (Madden, 2010, p.2)

Although we build on great legacy with participant observation, interviewing, reflexivity, and field notes (Madden, 2010) there is still much to learn. New forms of digital mediations bring great expectations of ethical elaborations and frustrations related to platforms as well as new forms of ethnographic expressions. Simultaneously we are still humans in society, and existing fields and knowledge within anthropology is no less important — perhaps even more important than ever.

Digital media is not everything; let us note straight away that digital ethnography often also relates to economics, policy and a variety of other topics. It is another aspect to understand that is integrated into parts of our global society with its implications for the local way of life in particular locations. On the other hand these digital media have become: “…central to the articulation of cherished beliefs, ritual practices, and modes of being in the world.” (Coleman, 2010). Coming to grips with society, the complex subject matter we study, may at times require an understanding of technology in depth and how it is defined differently.

Definitions in mind, Madden calls it Cyber-ethnography (Mad- den, 2010), however as history shows this term does not seem to have become the most commonly used term. If we go by Gabriella Coleman’s definition of digital media, what we can study: “…encompasses a wide range of non-analogue technologies, including cell phones, the Internet, and software applications that power and run on the Internet. […] Furthermore, to assess more richly the cultural and political life of digital media, we must attend to the role of cellphone towers, underwater cables, video sharing sites, conventions for chatting) that enable and constrain the use of social media…” (Coleman, 2010).

Materiality: the situated experience of material life, the object world, and its shaping of human experience is therefore important in this context. This brings into mind the important notion of the digital not necessarily as something metaphysical or ‘disembodied’, but an embodied experience made possible by several physical objects constituting a digital infrastructure. Looking back at anthropological history and the home versus away debate (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997) we could argue that there are some similarities with the current oppositional pair of embodied and disembodied related to studies of digital media. This reactionary dichotomy is constructive to discuss, however it can be questioned whether it leads to further micro-political academic practices as to what constitutes “real anthropology” and decisions regarding those who get to teach or research.

Disembodied fieldwork so to speak, is also important. We could argue Tom Boellstorff and his virtual ethnography of Second Life is excellent work well deserving of its place in anthropological history. One of his current research projects is “Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self.” The title suggest that the embodied self can extend to the virtual or digital. Medical anthropology and digital anthropology could see interesting combinations going ahead (Miller, 2018). Boellstorff raises this issue of real versus virtual in an article he wrote called For whom the ontology turns: Theorising the digital real (Boellstorff, 2016). Indeed, anthropology has already been struggling to accept previous developments in ways of conceptualising or enriching ethnographic material such as the field of visual anthropology or ethnographic films (MacDougall, 1999), which means it could be even harder coming to term with the idea of virtual ethnographic work.

Reflexivity is charting the issue of subjectivity as a component of ethnographic research, since the researcher is the tool. George Marcus describes four forms: null form, or self-critique; sociological, how you were or are shaped by society; anthropological, dealing ideas of anthropology as its subject matter; while feminist reflexivity argues for partial truths that more faithfully represent the real world (Madden, 2010). The last two dealing with positionality: the practice of explaining your own position in relation to the study and the implications of this influence for data collection or interpretation (Harraway, 1988).

Are some classical anthropologists evaluating technological cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of their own cultures? In ethnography this is termed ‘being ethnocentric’, judging another culture based on preconceptions could just as much relate to behaviour associated with new technology, which may sometimes be far away from the culture of an experienced professor. We could question if there is a lack of cultural relativism: the idea that a person’s values, practices and beliefs should be understood based on that person’s own culture. It is important to be reminded again of the indication that online is more than communication, space is online — it is a place we now live (UCL, 2016).

Non-human ethnography with artificial intelligence in mind could be worth studying, after all neural networks are being built for these different machines. If we can study mushrooms as anthropologists to understand our relationship with nature (Tsing, 2013), then surely it could be possible to explore our relationship to algorithms (Seaver, 2018). As an example we do increasingly talk to chatbots and wear or implant technology. How will the systematic eye (Madden, 2010) enhanced with cognitive artificial intelligence or just with a normal cell phone operate? What are the social implications of sense technology and deep learning or mapping feelings online with emojis? Anthropologists have often had to learn new languages, so why not some of the programming languages we use to communicate with machines. If not this, then at least the implications of instagramming your informant might be relevant enough. Our body is no longer the only tool the anthropologist uses.

Since anthropology increasingly has become a mediated practice do we, when reflecting on our work, need to introduce cyber or digital reflexivity as the fifth element?

There are strengths and weaknesses to ethnographic fieldwork. Small, focused sample sizes compared with large surveys or big data analysis, is a blessing and a curse. With great complexity comes a great need for collaboration with other disciplines. Both qualitative methods, such as ethnography, and quantitative data gathering, such as surveys or big data analysis, could be working together to give a more nuanced understanding of society. Perhaps it would be beneficial with less border policing of disciplines alongside an increased focus on interdisciplinary university modules and collaborative research?

Digital ethnography, although in its infancy, is recognised as an important development within anthropology. However, there is a critical push against this new form of fieldwork by classical anthropologists which provides a very real challenge. As described in the previous section of legacy, there is increasingly new material written both mapping new methodology as well as ethnographic fieldwork undertaken within or in connection with digital media. It is also important to come to the realisation that digital media is physical and we need to study its infrastructure and lived realities. However, virtual ethnography, visual ethnography, and non-human ethnography are also important to consider as “real anthropology” despite how it differs from the shape of anthropology that we are used to. In practice these new ways of researching can be exciting, and on the other hand it does require us to understand potential issues as well as limitations arising with the use or study of digital media.

Being ethical in 4.0

From the initial mechanisation; mass production; computer and automation; to connected physical cyber systems, ethnographic work in practice raises various ethical questions.

Consent is an important part of conducting research on social media and assessments must still be made on a case-by-case basis. There are several situations that requires consent: research exposing participants to potential risk of discomfort or pain; when maintaining the participants autonomy; and if the study undermines the premise for communication participants have given explicit approval to (Elgsem, 2015).

Entry-points of consent has been described as hard with different forums when you declare that you are a researcher, howe- ver the counter-argument is that you have to build rapport with the community in question first (Elgsem, 2015). To complicate matters this rapport or conception of privacy may mean different things to different communities depending on where you grew up on the planet (Ess, 2015). For further complications imagine some or all of these different perceptions of privacy gathered in one community: certainly challenging for an ethnographic researcher. Imagine a group with American notions of privacy rights as squarely individual versus the relational notion of a Thai society or the extended circle of privacy as an intimate sphere in Norway (Ess, 2015) all mixed together. In another scenario if a student living with other students buys an Alexa from Amazon in a shared flat, and it has an active microphone, does it breach the privacy of co-tenants?

Both closed and open communities may not have intended you as a researcher to gather their data, yet if it is public and oriented towards a large sample size — as an example towards 100’000 participants of a hashtag on Twitter, you may be able to waiver the consent. Quoting a text from an individual you have found online however is almost out of the question, because it could be searchable online and as such is not anonymous (Elgsem, 2015). Consent in digital media constructs a fine line between appropriate or violation in recent privacy declarations both international or local (GDPR, 2018; NESH, 2016), and it will likely be redrawn soon.

Privacy settings vary within different social media and each platform tends to have an extensive set of terms & conditions. There are also unique properties related to ethics that relate to the Internet: “Persistence, postings on the Internet are automatically generated and stored; replicability, content in digital form can be duplicated without cost; invisible audiences: we do not know who sees our postings; and searchability, content in the networked public sphere is very easily accessible by conducting a search,” (Boyd, 2008). This may be especially challenging for some classical anthropologists that could have a different level of understanding of certain platforms and how they function. Children also being social beings in their own right (James, 1999) increasingly use social media from a very young age (Livingstone, 2002) and for intimacy, privacy and self-expression in their teenage years (Livingstone, 2008). This challenges our notions of privacy when online identities are changed, swapped, bought, negotiated and constructed (Nakamura, 2013). Thus raising notions of intersubjectivity explored in classical anthropology (Jackson, 1998) and how this can apply to novel forms of interactions within mediated sociality online.

Anonymity needs to be handled ever more carefully. Considering the anonymity of your informant is of the highest priority, and has already been found to be a great challenge within classical anthropology. If your ethnographic work becomes popular it may reach outside of the academic circles, possibly to the community you wrote about. This was the case with an ethnographer’s famo- us work exploring mental illness in Ireland, her book won the prestigious Margaret Mead award. However, when a cyclist from the Irish Times made his way around a few villages he quickly discovered the area that was written about and the study ceased to be as anonymous as was hoped. When the anthropologist returned she was not welcome, due to the local society feeling misrepresented (Scheper-Hughes, 2000). Another example could be the fieldwork on a black community, amongst unemployed young men in West Philadelphia with a critical view of the mass incarceration in America (Goffman, 2014). The book made its way to the list of top selling books in the United State, and its location; where the fieldwork took place was also found by an unknown critique who sent out a list of corrections to the book as well as several journalists, who went around the neighbourhood with pictures of the author. Our responsibility is not to leave informants or communities we study worse off. So let us consider two aspects: accessibility and security.

“Participants in ethnographic research should not come out of it in a worse position than they went in with regard to their safety, welfare, economic position and health.” (Madden, 2010)

Accessibility, considering your research subjects might want to read your research or be able to critique it. This naturally de- pends on the subject matter studied and certainly not everyone has access to digital media (Coleman, 2010). However if you make it available in each local language such as was the case with the Why We Post (UCL, 2016), the results included eleven Open Access books. Additionally, a website with key discoveries; a five-week e-course (MOOC) and over 100 films that were available in most languages of the populations studied. For some accessibility may no longer be optional, a recent initiative for open-access science publishing called Plan S require that from 2020 state-funded researchers must publish in compliant open access journals or platforms (Coalition S, 2018). This was in December 2018 supported by several European institutions and the Ministry of Science and Technology in China (Schiermeier, 2018). We can in most cases make our studies available to the societies we learn from, yet as ethnographers we also want to protect our informants.

Security on digital media, encrypting digital information, is not necessarily a part of the practice that anthropologists are used to or even understand how to do properly. Do we give training in using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to protect your sensitive data, or teach the consequences of increased computing power as well as the move to further encryption through blockchain?

Who owns the cloud? Your storage policy is an important question, without getting too paranoid or wearing tin-foil hats, there are politics involved here. Whether it is a local server in Norway; servers in mainland China; servers owned by Google or Amazon; or in Indonesia — you need to question your storage. Do you even know where your data is? Your digitised field-notes or e-mails could easily be swiped from your online storage should you be hacked or suspected by an entity controlling digital infrastructure. With sufficient training, fieldwork with a digital proponent could provide a safer alternative — without any training it could be outright dangerous. The problem is: we are told we need to be careful with digital media and not necessarily how. Let us also raise the question of when.

Time is another ethical issue: we need to be critical regarding historicity, knowledge claims about the past, because the past is dynamic with constant redefinitions often expressed in museums — at times also with notions of a potential future (Harvey, 2005). So how is the past used as an instrument to define the present, the ethnographic present a construction of timelessness to be critiqued (Hastrup, 1995), and who prescribes the future? This temporal battle is constantly being negotiated by people, companies, organisations and governments. This provides even more of a challenge to classical anthropology with manufactured reality, yes of what we choose to crop or capture (MacDougall, 1999), but also digital creations of a possible past. Manufactu- ring the past with Deep Fakes, using hours of video material of a person to mimic a real person (Chesney & Citron, 2018). Who controls the current version of reality, who has access to the newest version of history and lastly who benefits from these future narratives?

Ethics in digital ethnography raises many questions. The constant (re)negotiation of privacy and consent with fluid identities; searchable informants in communities that may read your open access research; security in digital media with assumed responsibility and lacking training; within temporal battles of entities prescribing futures, a dynamic past and of our ever questionable present.


Challenges facing classic anthropological fieldwork as described in this article can be summed up in acceptance, acquisition and accessibility. Firstly, widely accepting digital ethnography in its variety of forms as “real anthropology” with academic merit. Secondly, the acquisition of experience and skills within digital ethnography from these early-adopters and from other fields with technical or other forms of knowledge that can be taught to stu- dents is vital; programming languages, history, cryptography, infrastructure, applications and much more. Thirdly, accessibility for informants as well as communities studied; developments in increased access to digital media with all ethical considerations that follow; with increased skills understanding the challenges developing in connection with the classical anthropology to build upon; contributing to the further understanding and critique of humanity in these challenging times.


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