Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain't

Peer Reviewed


Using a notion of “the digital” as one of its master metaphors, a version of the term reliant on Kara Keeling’s discussion of “digital humanism,” this piece argues that there is something about the non-linearities defining digitality’s difference that might help us to think about recalibrations in the ethnographic project itself. From a discussion of Marlon Riggs’s filmic depiction of his own death (as one way to talk about the non-digital) to a machine that uses digital technology to play with temporality in broadcast television, this essay wants to ask what the changing social relations (and existential realities) predicated on the ubiquity of digital media might mean for ethnographic research and writing today. With the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem as central ethnographic subjects, I argue that taking digitality seriously means redefining some of what ethnography is and ain’t in a post-Writing Culture moment. [Keywords: digitality, diaspora, blackness, ethnography, media anthropology]

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on media.  See, for example: Tomas Matza’s Moscow's Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show; Brian Keith Axel’s Anthropology and the New Technologies of Communication; Sherry Ortner’s Generation X: Anthropology in a Media-Saturated World; Michele D. Dominy’s Photojournalism, Anthropology, and Ethnographic Authority; Alan Howard’s Hypermedia and the Future of Ethnography.

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on ethnography.  See, for example: George Marcus’ "The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology's Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition"; Kirsten Hastrup’s "The Ethnographic Present: A Reinvention"; Nancy Christine Lutkehaus and Dennis O’Rourke’s "Excuse Me, Everything Is Not All Right": On Ethnography, Film, and Representation: An Interview with Filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke; Robert J. Thornton’s The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism"; Fred Myers’ "From Ethnography to Metaphor: Recent Films from David and Judith MacDougall"; Suzanne Kirschner’s "Then What Have I to Do with Thee?": On Identity, Fieldwork, and Ethnographic Knowledge"

Author Bio

John L. Jackson, Jr., is the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to Penn, Jackson taught in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and spent three years as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Jackson received his B.A. in Communications (Radio, TV, Film) from Howard University in Washington D.C. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York City.  As a filmmaker, Jackson has produced a feature-length fiction film, documentaries, and film-shorts that have screened at film festivals internationally. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Harvard University's Milton Fund, and the Lilly Endowment (during a year at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina). He has published three books, Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), and Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (Basic, 2008), released in paperback in 2010. Jackson is currently writing a book on global Black Hebrewism (under contract with Harvard University Press). He is also working on two documentary films, one about contemporary conspiracy theories in urban America, and another examining the history of state violence against Rastafari in Jamaica.

Multimedia Links

What Does Ethnographer and Filmmaker John L. Jackson, Jr. Find Interesting? (June 15, 2010)

John L. Jackson on "Racial Paranoia" (May 18, 2009)

Black Is, Black Ain't

Short documentary on Marlon Riggs' life, with clips from "Black Is, Black Ain't"

Ben Ammi on "Why We Left America"

Ben Ammi on being vegan

C-Span Piece on John L. Jackson's "Racial Paranoia"

Relevant Links

Official Website of African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Author is editor of Public Books (new on-line site linked to Public Culture)

Author's Blog on Chronicle of Higher Education

Scholars Network on Black Masculinity


Marlon Riggs, "Black Is, Black Ain't." November 13, 2012.
"Ben Ammi." November 13, 2012.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. When communities, such as the AHIJ in Jackson's article, take their representation into their own hands by developing sophisticated audio-visual and public relations teams, what considerations do we, as ethnographers, have to take? What happens if our ethnographies tell a different story than the community's PR team?

2. How do we reconcile the immateriality of the digital, especially in relation to analog, with the "immortality" that the digital takes on in the internet?

3. Take Jackson's questions from the conclusion of his article and consider what you will do as you engage on your own projects: how will you negotiate your personal/professional life on the internet (on Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, blogs, etc), given that your subjects can very well follow you online? Will you make any considerations or changes?

4. As more and more of our work goes digital, how do we rethink what we write and produce about the communities we study, given that they will presumably have easy access to our final products, or works in progress, through academic talks?

Further Reading List

Everett, Anna. 2009. Digital Diasporas: A Race for Cyberspace. Buffalo: State University of New York.

Fabian, Johannes.2008. Ethnography as Commentary: Writing From the Virtual Archive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ginsburg, Faye.2008. Rethinking the Digital Age. In The Media and Social Theory. David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee, eds. New York: Routledge.

Grimshaw, Anna. 2011. "The Bellwether Ewe: Recent Developments in Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Anthropological Inquiry." Cultural Anthropology 26(2): 263-286.

Jackson, John L., Jr. 2005. Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keane, Webb. 2002. "Sincerity, "Modernity," and the Protestants." Cultural Anthropology 17: 65-92.

Keeling, Kara. 2005. "Passing for Human: Bamboozled and Digital Humanism." Women and Performance, 29 15(1): 237-250

Image Citations

Marlon Riggs: (

Ben Ammi: (

Barbara Myerhoff: Direct Cinema Limited (

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