Face to Face Legwork and Facebook Ethnography

Face to Face Legwork and Facebook Ethnography: How to Find Informants and Delineate Field Sites in a Zuckerbergian World

Juliana Friend



By both indigenous and anthropological accounts, Facebook has brought into interaction diverse peoples and cultures like few other digital platforms have. This perceived global all-inclusiveness provides a promising opportunity to anthropologists of ethnicity. However, given media anthropologists’ call for studies to examine the interplay between online and offline sociality — and problematize the dichotomy between the two — it also poses a methodological challenge. Facebook’s geographic reach makes studying its everyday embeddedness difficult. This paper describes my response to this methodological challenge. Through anecdotal tales from the field, I aim to contribute to the nascent dialogue about methodological approaches in the anthropology of Facebook. Inspired by Matei Candea’s defense of the bounded field site (Candea 2007), I launched my research about the role of Facebook in ethnic identity formation within the Senegalese diaspora from a highly localized, face-to-face entry point. I made Facebook friends through face-to-face contacts, rather than the other way around. This strategy presented several benefits. First, it was easier to build a network of participants and gain their trust. Second, immersion in the everyday, material circumstances of participants’ lives proved pivotal to understanding their attraction to Facebook in the first place. Third, I witnessed Facebook friendships turn face-to-face, and purportedly limitless networks get “cut” along ethnic lines. For even as informants idealized Facebook as encompassing the world and its diverse peoples, Facebook often reinscribed the parochialism and isolation of immigrants “sans papiers” Methodological roadblocks to digital friendships thus foreshadowed boundaries in social interactions, just as face-to-face fieldwork provided the best window into Facebook worlds.

Keywords: Facebook, Materiality, Ethnicity, Network, Field Theory

Download Full Text – Friend 2013


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