This post builds on the research article “The Tragic Denouement of English Sociality,” which was published in the May 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published articles that examine the intersection between new media, digital lives, and culture, including Teri Silvio’s “Remediation and Local Globalizations: How Taiwan’s ‘Digital Video Knights-Errant Puppetry’ Writes the History of the New Media in Chinese” (2007); John L. Jackson Jr.’s “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Isn’t” (2012); Gabriella Lukacs’s “Dreamwork: Cell Phone Novelists, Labor, and Politics in Contemporary Japan” (2013).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles looking at the possibilities of a more publicly engaged anthropology, including Charles Hale’s “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology” (2006); Michal Osterweil’s “Rethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice” (2013); Didier Fassin’s “Why Ethnography Matters: On Anthropology and Its Publics” (2013).
About the Author
Daniel Miller teaches in the department of anthropology at University College London. He is currently a member of a team of nine anthropologists who carried out simultaneous fifteen-month ethnographies on the use and consequences of social media. The project will publish eleven volumes with UCL Press, set for release on February 4, 2016 (nine monographs and two comparative books). All the books will be open access. The group will launch a website with over one hundred films and a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the anthropology of social media the same day the books are released. The website and MOOC will appear in all the languages of team members’ field sites. The project’s blog can be found here. Miller is also a research assistant on a project examining women’s experience of miscarriage in Qatar. He tweets at @DannyAnth.
Other Works by Author
2010. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity (also in Italian and Portuguese).
2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity (also in German).
2012. Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia. With Mirca Madianou. London: Routledge.
2012. Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. With Sophie Woodward. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2012. Consumption and Its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity Press (also in Chinese).
2012. Digital Anthropology. Edited with Heather Horst. Oxford: Berg. (Also in Chinese, Arabic edition forthcoming).
2014. Webcam. With Jolynna Sinanan. Cambridge: Polity.
Erik Timmons: As someone who does fieldwork in a “far away place,” I’m intrigued by ethnographic projects that are carried out by ethnographers working closer to home. Can you describe what led you to choose your field site and what challenges or opportunities accompany doing research in what is essentially your backyard?
Daniel Miller: I still subscribe to the notion that, for anthropology, it is best not initially to study “at home” until you have experience of ethnography in a very different place. Yet having worked in regions such as India and the Caribbean, I have still found it far more difficult to understand and explain English society as compared to any other population with whom I have carried out ethnography. I don’t think I have a good explanation for this, although certainly the intense privacy and protection of the domestic makes carrying out ethnography far more difficult in England compared to ethnography in places with more of a tradition of public sociality. In England, I had to go door to door in order to include people who don’t want to be the subject of research, but without whom our study is clearly incomplete. One reason for working with schools and the hospice was that everyone has to attend school and everyone equally will die.
I originally picked this field site simply as comparable in size with others in our comparative project and for convenience. At that time, I didn’t anticipate it would be quite so homogeneously white English, making it very different from the more cosmopolitan areas I had previously worked in as an ethnographer within London. But in retrospect this then forced me to confront my difficulty in working with English people. As such, the paper published here represents something of a breakthrough for me in a task I admit I have found a struggle.
ET: You have longstanding research interests in social media. Would you please comment on ways that you feel social media is currently shaping anthropology and how you envision future directions that anthropologists may take with social media?
DM: For years now anthropologists have been coming to me with tales of how they have been “friended” by their informants, asking “What should I do?” I always respond that they should probably be grateful that they have developed the kinds of relationships that other people want to maintain. There are obvious ethical issues involved but these are not substantially different from those we have always faced. Given our use of the term “participant observation,” it is hard to see a clearer example of this ideal than having a presence in social media conversations that are not particularly directed to oneself but are simply an integral part of that sociality we seek to understand. So in general we can regard social media as the enhancement and extension of traditional ethnography and perhaps should not look this gift horse in the mouth.
I also find that the dynamics of new communications is helpful in forcing us to confront foundational issues. For example, working on our book Webcam led us to re-think what it means to be simply co-present in domestic space. Working on Instagram and Snapchat has forced me to consider what a visual as opposed to a textual communication might mean for understanding communication more generally. Working on WhatsApp has helped me appreciate just how quickly things become normative. Most social media points us back to classic issues in anthropology. When our eleven books are published as part of the Global Social Media Impact Study, it will be clear how much of our project includes the sociality of kinship, or caste (in India), or tribe (in Turkey), rather than representing something novel or distinct.
In the future, I suspect most other disciplines will concentrate on the more publicly available material such as Twitter, but central to our project is the way people balance public and more private communication such as WhatsApp. To understand the latter we will continue to need the levels of trust and intimacy that anthropology and no other discipline can provide. Without anthropology studies of social media therefore, social media research is likely to become ever more partial and misleading.
ET: In this article you advocate for an anthropology that does a better job of bringing together theoretical concerns with their applied consequences. Can you elaborate on this and speak to the possibilities and challenges of a more publicly engaged anthropology?
DM: Both in my training and in advice from senior colleagues, I feel I was led to believe that applied anthropology was somehow less worthwhile and certainly less prestigious. It has taken me quite a while to repudiate these influences and recognize that many colleagues had been less gullible than myself. I now find that having to demonstrate that one’s insights and theory can lead to concrete recommendations is quite likely to be also more intellectually difficult and stimulating. Our increasingly abstract semantics has in some ways made autonomous theory rather less exciting or enticing. The aim then is not to pitch the theoretical as against the practical and applied, but show how each informs the other.
My recent work in theory has all come from this reorientation to the applied. Our theory of polymedia was developed from trying to understand how Filipina mothers working as domestics in London could act as mothers to children on the other side of the world. Our recent theory of attainment, with its challenge to what anthropology means by the term “human,” came from appreciating how webcams helped families to repair the breaches created by the contemporary international division of labor. But it is only recently working with the hospice and on “cyberbullying” in schools that I have forced myself to write with clear practical recommendations in mind and this turns out to be something that makes me really think through my ideas and clarify their meaning and consequences. I do find this more intellectually challenging and stimulating than theory alone.
A separate, but to my mind equally valid point; I would rather that in the future anthropologists demonstrated the discipline’s commitment to other people’s welfare more often through practice rather than merely by claiming a stance in one’s writing. I have found this leaves me open to the criticism of self-interest masquerading as compassion. What I am also starting to realize, however, is that getting public and other bodies to actually read and pay attention to our attempts to make an applied contribution is probably a bigger problem. I naively thought that the world was somehow waiting for us to become engaged. It isn’t.
ET: Your current project is clearly unusual in its scope and aims. Would you please discuss what lessons may have arisen for anthropology more generally?
DM: When I started this project, my first idea was to challenge the word “anthropology.” We have always claimed to be a comparative discipline. I think that was a genuine aspiration, yet one rarely realized in practice. The reason may be that our discipline has been created as much by its constraints as by its ambitions. We have usually only had enough money to fund single researchers, so by default that is what anthropology became. At the same time, our institutional structures of employment fostered competition over collaboration and together with our journals’ emphasis on cross citation makes the individual author the unit of value in anthropology, which could almost be seen as a definition of the term neoliberal.
With this in mind, we decided that with funding for nine anthropologists we would commit to a thoroughly comparative and collaborative project to a possibly unprecedented degree. During the fifteen-month ethnography, we all worked each month on the same topic and exchanged our findings at that time. On our return, we each wrote a book with the same chapter headings (apart from each book’s fifth chapter, which are individual projects). We often cannot say which idea belongs to whom. To be honest, we feel elated by the result, which seems to us so much closer to an envisaged “social” anthropology than the normative, highly individualized approach. So far from losing the sense of specificity, we found at every moment the realization that in the other field sites the meaning of privacy, or friendship, or a selfie was entirely different helped us maintain our sense of wonder and appreciation of our own individual field sites. This has led, in turn, to our commitment to publish in a popular format, as open access and in all the languages of our field sites.