From Records to Lively Communities: Seeing Virtual Southeast Asian Urban Farming Groups in a New Light
From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies
From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies
Analysis of social media has recently become a common method in food studies.1 For my research on alternative food movements in Southeast Asia, I analyze Instagram and Facebook accounts. At the beginning of this research project, my approach was to treat social media as “records” or “archives” of stored information ready to be unlocked by a systematic discourse analysis. While I was aware that human bodies represent virtual identities, I treated them as conveyors of narratives and objects of analysis. Such conceptions changed dramatically when my collaborators and I pursued a research project to examine the cultural politics of urban agriculture in Southeast Asia in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to do field research due to lockdowns, our only means of observing everyday encounters in the urban commons was to adopt virtual ethnography—a form of ethnography that explores social interactions on the internet (see Hine 2015, 2016)—by following online communities on social media. My exposure to virtual ethnography allowed me to see social media groups as lively communities and realize the possibilities of conducting connected ethnography even in a time of isolation and immobility.
In early 2020, I was granted the opportunity to begin a funded research project on the emergence of urban agriculture in Manila, Thailand, and Singapore. The grant was substantial enough to support a pilot-scale research involving ethnography on the ground. My initial plan was to collaborate with scholars, students, and practitioners who would be involved in fieldwork, but this changed when the pandemic hit the region. While it was still possible to do remote interviews, my collaborators and I took advantage of research that could be done online. Inspired by a growing number of ethnographic studies on social media (for example, Dalsgaard 2016 and Horst and Miller 2012), we turned to virtual ethnography and reframed our inquiry on urban farming groups on Facebook from objects of discourse analysis to sites of virtual participant observation.
We imagined urban farming groups on Facebook as promising “ethnographic sites” for several reasons. First, these groups have proliferated in many cities, rapidly increasing in numbers and membership across a wide spectrum of socio-economic classes. Second, these groups are vibrant communities where members interact by responding to posts via comments and sharing posts published by other members. In some ways, the interactions parallel the relations that take place in farming communities on the ground, such as when members seek farming advice or occasionally engage in heated political discussions with others. On the other hand, interactions on Facebook groups are also distinct, as users engage in complex identity constructions and are able to control which aspects of their profiles they reveal to the public (Wilson et al. 2012). It is then possible for users to hide behind a veil of anonymity, allowing them (including researchers) to observe covertly without being noticed.
Wearing a virtual ethnographer’s hat, my team found itself immersed in the complex social interactions that took place in the urban farming Facebook groups we observed. During the process, I became more cognizant of the emotions, vulnerabilities, hopes, and dreams of the persons behind virtual identities. In one instance, when our team was obtaining consent from the administrators of a Facebook group to conduct participant observation on their virtual community space, we realized that group members had fears and anxieties of being exposed to the risks associated with rising authoritarianism in their own countries. At the height of the pandemic, there was also a deluge of frustrations and anxieties associated with not just the personal troubles that members encounter, but also the perceived inability of state institutions in addressing the crisis.
Furthermore, as intense emotions pervaded online exchanges, we also encountered numerous acts of solidarity and expressions of sympathy and empathy. These acts offered not just emotional support, but also forms of assistance that result in tangible benefits. For instance, sharing of knowledge and even material assets (such as offering free seeds and farm inputs for any takers) became ubiquitous when more and more members appealed for support. The Facebook groups then were no longer just sites of discursive exchange; they had become spaces of social relations that enabled families to feed themselves and for the urban agriculture movement to thrive in a time of crisis. I realized then how vibrant (and even crucial) connections can be between the virtual and the physical (see also essays by Langah and by Kadfak et al. in this series).
Virtual ethnography is nothing new, but the COVID-19 crisis could introduce many scholars, like me—who have a narrow understanding of online research—to the promises of the method. Engaging in virtual ethnography now could also open up new understandings of socialities. Ever since my collaborators and I have experimented with this method, I have become more attentive to the affective experience and responses of individuals in online communities. I am also finding myself becoming more immersed in Facebook communities by engaging in conversations and even taking the effort to connect more intimately with individuals in the hope of meeting them in person in the future someday. As I become more “connected,” it becomes harder for me to just hide behind the veil of anonymity that Facebook offers.
While experience with virtual ethnography was enlightening for me, I do acknowledge the challenges associated with the method. For instance, individuals can have differing personas online and offline (Boellstorff 2012). Notwithstanding these complexities, I believe that we need to recognize that online and offline worlds bleed into each other and both should be seen as important facets of contemporary everyday life. Ethnography as a method can adapt to multiple ontologies, and thus we do need to learn to navigate the virtual world, too (Hine 2015). The practice of learning to conduct connected ethnography in a time of isolation and immobility is to understand the unique social connections and interactions mediated through and taking place in virtual sites—that is, spaces that have become crucial in this time and will most likely endure in a post-pandemic world.
1. See for example Walsh and Baker (2020) on their analysis of Instagram and Singer (2018) and Montefrio (2020) on their analysis of Facebook. I also direct readers to the upcoming edited volume by Contois and Kish (forthcoming), which focuses on food Instagram, and Leer and Krograger (2021) on research methods in digital food studies.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, 39-60. New York: Routledge.
Contois, Emily, and Zenia Kish, eds. Forthcoming. Food Instagram: Identity, Influence, and Negotiation. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Dalsgaard, Steffen. 2016. “The Ethnographic Use of Facebook in Everyday Life.” Anthropological Forum 26, no. 1: 96-114.
Hine, Christine. 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. New York: Routledge.
———. 2016. “From Virtual Ethnography to the Embedded, Embodied, Everyday Internet.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography, edited by Larissa Hjorth, Heather Horst, Anne Galloway, and Genevieve Bell, 21-28. New York: Routledge.
Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller, eds. 2012. Digital Anthropology. New York: Routledge.
Leer, Jonatan, and Stinne Gunder Strøm Krogager. 2021. Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. London: Routledge.
Montefrio, Marvin Joseph F. 2020. “Interrogating the “Productive” Home Gardener in a Time of Pandemic Lockdown in the Philippines.” Food and Foodways 28, no. 3: 216-225.
Singer, Amy E. 2018. “Rescaling Terroir through Virtual Identity Work and Impression Management.” Food, Culture & Society 21, no. 5: 698-715.
Walsh, Michael James, and Stephanie Alice Baker. 2020. “Clean Eating and Instagram: Purity, Defilement, and the Idealization of Food.” Food, Culture & Society 23, no. 5: 570-588.
Wilson, Robert E., Samuel D. Gosling, and Lindsay T. Graham. 2012. “A Review of Facebook Research in the Social Sciences.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 3: 203-20.