The Case for Letting Anthropology Be Quarantined: COVID and the End of Ethnographic Presence

Is this the end of the physical field? Over the past several months, there have been hundreds of semi-panicked social media posts: if I can’t go into the field, perhaps I can go into the digital field? Well – there have been several, thoughtful posts from digital anthropologists on this sentiment, including a recent one in GeekAnthropologist. Reading through Twitter, though, we can’t help but notice that these would-be digital anthropologists don’t really want to be digital at all. And they’re not really proposing digital anthropology. If you’re studying the lives of people in their (physical) communities, can you really do digital anthropology? In other words, if people are undertaking online/ offline lives (whether under quarantine or not), are those lives best understood through digital anthropology? Or, are you talking about what we have called ‘networked anthropology’ (Collins and Durington 2014)?

In networked anthropology, we acknowledge the skein of digital and physical connections in people’s lives, and we try to recognize and enable the capacities of people to represent those lives through networked, media platforms that make sense to them. Networked anthropology starts from the assumption that life extends through real and virtual platforms simultaneously—that it can’t be easily parsed (as people believed it could be in the 1990s) into a “physical” life and an “online” life. When we shift from individuals to the neighborhoods and communities where they live and work, the same logic applies. Communities exist as physical places, and embodied social relations. But communities also exist through countless digital communication tools and social media platforms. In reality, these are mutually constitutive, and it makes little sense to divide one from the other in any ontologically decisive way. 

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