Accepted paper:

Can Social Media Photography Constitute an Ethnography?


Daniel Miller (University College London (UCL))
Jolynna Sinanan (University of Sydney)

Paper short abstract:

The contrast between genres of social media photography in Trinidad and England strengthen the argument for the integrity of this material as the basis for ethnography.

Paper long abstract:

Social media has provided a huge point of entry for ethnographers into a welter of communication that was not originally intended for ethnographic inspection. This gives it considerable authenticity as participant observation. So can we use this material in a manner corresponding to traditional offline ethnography? We have begun research on what we hope will be a book called `What They Post` contrasting postings on social media in England and Trinidad. For which purpose we developed a technique using Evernote that makes this analysis more systematic. If we compare Sinanan's work on current social media photographs in Trinidad with Miller's previous ethnography of Trinidad we find that to a surprising degree this corresponds to the previous analysis with its dualism of `transience' and `transcendence', though with some significant changes in the intervening period. Similarly the English material is remarkably useful in illustrating core English values that emerge from Miller's wider study of his village fieldsite and an associated hospice which form part of a larger anthropology of `Englishness'. The claim to ethnography is strengthened by the contrast between these sites. While there are common genres such as celebrations and baby photos, Trinidadian postings are dominated by topics such as religion and moral homilies on the one hand, and an almost aggressive sexuality on the other. Neither are found in the English postings which are dominated by characteristics such as self-deprecation, which would be equally rare in Trinidad.

panel P04
Comparative studies in social media photography