Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Knowledge 2020 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Ethnography on Instagram, By Kaylee Tang (Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Producing Ethnographic Knowledge.”

This semester was my first experience with graduate studies, and I was excited to enroll in a course where I could finally practice ethnography for myself. The pandemic meant that the scope of my research was automatically limited to the online world. Luckily, I had already developed an interest in this world over the summer as I watched my peers engage with the world of online social activism on Instagram.

During the four months I spent conducting my ethnographic study of Instagram activism, I found myself using Instagram the same way I would for personal reasons. It was simple to pick up my phone, scroll for a while, and then put the research back into my pocket until the mood struck me again to continue. I experienced ethnography in the same effervescent way I constantly use social media throughout my day, and it created very little change for me, only that instead of jotting down my thoughts in my head, I wrote them down in a little field journal folder in my phone notes.

Something I carried with me from my undergraduate studies in Linguistics and Anthropology was the difficulty of ethnographic authority as an outside observer to the community being studied. The unique aspect of studying an online movement is that most communities on Instagram have fluid boundaries, and have a focus on reaching beyond as well as within. In addition, using the internet and social media as a medium for communication is something that is native to me. As a Gen Z/Millennial, using social media is one of the tools I use regularly to communicate with my peers. In studying an online community, I was able to draw on my own experience as many of the scripts of interaction used by social activism social media accounts are also used by other popular Instagram accounts of different genre.

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