MESA Banner
On Digital Ethnography & MENA Landscapes

Session X-01, sponsored by Association for Middle East Anthropology (AMEA), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
The Association for Middle East Anthropology (AMEA) is committed to the advancement of ethnographic methods through continuous reflection on ways to adapt to our changing world. This roundtable builds on last year’s discussion on the importance of ethnographic methods and ethics in our region and the world. The proposed roundtable is especially useful to MENA scholars as many of us work under precarious political conditions, including conflict, war, and authoritarianism, which make in person research challenging and even in some cases life threatening. In addition, the COVID19 pandemic furthered the risk of in person research, especially with the spatial proximity and longevity of participant observation necessary for an academically sound and rigorous ethnography. Therefore, digital ethnography presents itself as a productive solution to many of the challenges of doing ethnography in the MENA region and understanding its powers and limitations is an urgent task. Ronald Hallett and Kristen Barber (2014) stated that it is no longer imaginable to conduct ethnography without considering online spaces. It is not a coincidence that, in the last few years, many styles of digital ethnography have been developed, such as virtual ethnography (Hine2008), Internet ethnography (D. Miller and Slater 2001), cyber- ethnography (Escobar 1994), digital ethnography (Murthy 2008), expanded ethnography (Beneito-Montagut 2011), ethnography of the virtual worlds (Boellstorff et al. 2012), among others. All these digital approaches demonstrate how ethnography is a flexible research method continuously adapting to technological developments and needs to remain that way (Caliandro 2018). This roundtable aims at exploring the different kinds and the methodological and ethical potentials and challenges digital ethnography invoke.
  • Having conducted research in the same low-income neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt for almost 30 years, I have used different methods to help me understand urban space, identity, embodiment, and social inequalities. In addition to interviews, participant-observation, and life stories, during the 1990s and early 2000s, I found media (TV, magazines, and newspapers) to be useful in understanding hegemonic discourses about modernity, citizenship, nationalism, and gender. Since the early 2000s, my attention has shifted to different forms of social media, especially Facebook, and, more recently, Instagram and TikTok, which are important tools used in the daily life of the residents of my research site. While the phone was important in connecting me with my close interlocutors in the 1990s and early 2000s, over the past few years, messenger has become particularly important in keeping me connected with them and updated on their news. This method of communication became even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it placed on travel. I would like to explore in what ways these media help us thicken our description (in Geertz’s sense) and strengthen our analysis and the challenges that they pose for our ability to do ethnographies that capture the daily struggles, aspirations, and identifications of our interlocutors. Some of the questions I would like to consider include: What is the meaning of thickness in the age of social media? What does the use of these media allow us to capture? What would we miss if we only study social media?
  • Miller and Horst (2012) mapped out the frontiers of the emerging subdiscipline of digital anthropology as not only to understand new technological developments but more importantly a highly effective way to reflect on what it means to be human. They define the term "digital" as all that can be reduced to a binary code, which provides a level of abstraction that produces a proliferation of variations and differences. Therefore, digital anthropology can be a new way to engage with older anthropological questions like the relationship between the universality of digital media and the cultural particularities of its use and the meanings it produces across the globe. To be able to that we need a careful adaptation of traditional ethnographic techniques to the digital domain, therefore somewhat virtualizing them (virtual surveys, video interviews, interviews via chat, interviews by email, etc.), and mixing digital techniques with analogical techniques (e.g., participant observation online and offline). Virtualizing ethnographies poses many questions related to authenticity and self-representation among others (Caliandro 2018). This discussion will explore the ethical and methodological challenges and potentialities invoked by the process of virtualizing ethnographic techniques.
  • Ascertaining Digital Infrastructure in Situ My post-revolution dissertation research sought to discover the terms of digital infrastructure in the largest grouping of low-income, cha’bi (popular) neighborhoods in Tunis, Tunisia, within a peripheral area commonly referred to as Hay Ettadhamon (Solidarity District). I found that digital infrastructure was emergent in this area at the time of my research, both in terms of the construction of signal towers and a rapid embrace of smart phones and telecom charge cards in support of regular internet access. In this round table, I will make the case for emplaced conceptions of digital infrastructure. I would like to explore how an emplaced approach potentially impacts visibility politics within a range of contexts in North Africa and the Middle East, both in the sense of making digital infrastructure visible as well as rendering digital mediation visible along lines of difference, such as those of gender and social class. I am also interested to understand what happens to “digital infrastructure” as lay term and category of scholarship when it is reimagined in local and regional, socio-cultural terms.
  • How to tell a sonic story of Egypt behind bars—about the disappeared, the absent and the forgotten political bodies. How to pay attention to sonic memories, exploring the lingering affective power sound might still have for how, for example, memories are preserved and communicated if not by ethnographies? In this era of extraordinary danger and vast political instability and suspicion and the precarious security situation for political activists and (former) prisoners in Cairo and in the diaspora, it is ethically problematic to present detailed ethnographic findings, as well as employing classical anthropological methods. Shifting or combining theoretical approaches, however, entails new methodologies, challenges and inquiries. Phones, Facebook or Messenger are only possible tools if not too political topics are covered. The Cairenes I know have turned to apps like encrypted versions of Signal, WhatsApp (for text) or Zoom. To further protect my interlocutors, I have, in my current project, chosen prisoners’ letters already published by the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture in Cairo, founded in 1993, to treat the effects of torture in Egypt as well as political activists’ poems, notes, and lyrics. How can we understand the pros and cons of digital ethnography, and what are their consequences?
  • In this roundtable contribution, I reflect on field research that I have conducted with Egyptian football fans, coaches, players and journalists over the last ten years. The world of football is saturated with all kinds of traditional and social media, and a methodology that combines media analyses and ethnography is hence indispensable. In particular Egypt’s young and radical Ultras fans – central interlocutors in my research – inhabit a social and political landscape where smartphones are ubiquitous and fault lines between social media, television, the stadium and the street are fuzzy at best and not always relevant to attend to. What does it mean to conduct long-term ethnographic research in a setting where distinctions between the digital and the analogue collapse? How to weave together an ethnographic text in which the voices of individual fans, Twitter activist, Facebook accounts and media pundits comingle in an often cacophonous dialogue? What challenges does such fieldwork pose for anthropological ideals of closeness to the people with whom we work?
  • Opportunities and Challenges of Digital Ethnography in the Middle East and North Africa Classical anthropology as a discipline is defined by its method of ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, face-to face interviews, and archives. Over the last two decades, the nature of conducting such fieldwork has expanded due to the rise of information and communication technologies such as the internet, the mobile phone, and social media platforms. During uncertain times and in uncertain environments, anthropologists, especially in MENA, increasingly are looking at the use of innovative digital ethnographic methods to conduct ethnographic fieldwork and augment traditional face-to-face methods. What are some of the avenues and what are some of the challenges/opportunities for an emerging digital ethnography in MENA? What form does anthropological research take in MENA with these digital methods? What digital skills should current students be equipped with to prepare them for doing fieldwork in uncertain times and places as well as in virtual spaces?