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Doing media ethnography: seminar notes

May 12, 2011

Dr John Postill
Doing Media Ethnography
Research seminar to the Doctoral Programme
IN3, Open University of Catalonia
Media-TIC building, nr Glories
Wednesday, 11 May 2011

See abstract


Doing media ethnography. My research background in Malaysia and now in Spain.

Anthropological research, both synchronic (ethnographic) and diachronic (historical).

Key methods: participant observation, semi-structured interviews, archival research

Two golden rules:

  1. “If it matters to my research participants, then it matters to me”
  2. “Follow the locals, but remember that sometimes they may lose their way, too”.

Aim of this talk and subsequent thought experiment.

Media and nation-building in Sarawak (see Postill 2006)

1996-8 PhD research, UCL, 18 months among Iban of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo

Since 1963 Sarawak < Malaysian Federation

Q. To what extent has the M’sian state succeeded in using modern media to Malaysianise the Iban?

A. To a fairly large extent.

Main research methods:

  • Household survey
  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Biographies of things (radio & TV sets)
  • Participant observation
  • School essays
  • Archival research (offline)

Web 1.0 activism in suburban Kuala Lumpur (Postill 2008, in press)

2003-4 Post-post-doc fieldwork, Bremen University, VW funding, 12 months

Comparative research with other social anthros: e-government in multiethnic areas

KL suburb with ethnic Chinese middle-class majority

In the field, topic shift from e-gov to cyberactivism; from ethnicity to residentiality.

Main research methods:

  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Participant observation (online & offline)
  • Non-participant observation, aka lurking (online)
  • Archival research (online)

Web 2.0 activism in Barcelona

2010-11 Research fellow at IN3, UOC, Barcelona, 12 months.

Q. What difference, if any, do social media make to activists?

Main scenes: free culture, Ley Sinde, #nolesvotes, #democraciarealya

Main research methods:

  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Participant observation (online & offline)
  • Non-participant observation, aka lurking (online)
  • Archival research (online)


Importance of carefully choosing right research methods to suit project

… but not easy, as ethnography is exploratory, open-ended and prone to rethinks.

…and hard to delimit object of study around one or two discrete media.

Useful to have both a key question (What d’ya wanna know?) and a theme (e.g. “Social media and activism”).

Above all, avoid rigid frameworks pre-field – best questions usually come out of encounter between (a) prior assumptions, (b) actualities on the ground, and (c) relevant scholarly literatures.

You need diachronic (historical) dimension as well

Q & A, main discussion points (from memory)

  • The pros and cons of not recording interviews
  • The trouble with too much emphasis on reflexive sharing of interview notes with interviewees – what about the crucially important pre-reflexive dimensions?
  • The theoretical underpinning of  your methodology
  • If the internet is so atomised, how can you make sense of it ethnographically/empirically? A. I don’t find it to be atomised, main problem is finding the time to keep up with intensely social, fast-moving environments (facebook, twitter, pirate pad, forums…)
  • Ethnographic theorising is back-to-front (or inductive): it’s only after fieldwork that we assemble a theoretical framework (crazy, I know, but that’s how we like it)
  • We don’t do variables
  • Couldn’t you have studied atheist activism (mentioned in my prez)?. Yes, even though I’m interested in atheists I resisted because other issues seem more urgent right now, e.g. the Sinde bill, pro-democracy protests.
  • Relationship between househould survey and semi-structured interviews (in my Sarawak research)


Postill, J. in press Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Postill, J. 2008 Localising the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431.

Postill, J. 2006. Media and Nation Building: How the Iban Became Malaysian. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. mariamz permalink
    May 16, 2011 9:46 pm

    Thanks for the link John, have subscribed to your blog – look forward to reading more from you

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