ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Social media and inequality
Location Room 10
Date and Start Time 15 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 3


  • Elisabetta Costa (British Institute at Ankara (BIAA)) email
  • Razvan Nicolescu (University College London) email

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Discussant Stefana Broadbent (NESTA)

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographies in both online and offline worlds, this panel explores the relationship between the everyday use of social media and the concept of inequality. We aim at discussing how conventional questions regarding social hierarchies are transformed with the advent of digital media.

Long Abstract

This panel discusses the results of 9 ethnographies of the Global Social Media Impact Study (, a project based on comparative and collaborative anthropology, and invites new contributions that explore the relationship between social media and inequality. Social networking sites have too often been approached through categories such as 'network,' 'connectedness,' or 'individualism.' We argue that in many cases these rather abstract categories have paid too much attention to the different agencies of individual actors while neglecting the work of social and economic forces. Our results contradict most of the mainstream discourses which portray social media as 'democratic' and 'liberating' tools. Instead, some papers in this panel report that social media actually work towards reinforcing traditional systems of power, social hierarchy, social and economic inequality and exacerbating political conflicts. The discussion covers a few topics that are central to the conference: how can anthropological research results be engaged with established debates often based on entrenched agendas concerning issues such as the impact of social media on education, politics and gender relations? How can we include these more conventional agendas while also hoping to contribute to core anthropological concerns about the very nature of humanity and human experience?

Papers are invited that engage with how the different online environments represent and articulate social change but also conformity and conventions. Possible themes include: intimacy and domesticity on social media, relation between macro-politics and micro-politics in the online environment, poverty, welfare, and morality.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Breaking the code of learning in a working class neighbourhood in Bahia

Author: Juliano Spyer (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper shows why the internet has been more useful that public schools as sources for learning for locals in a working class neighbourhood in the Northern coast of Bahia to embrace work opportunities brought by the tourism industry, as the internet resembles local modes of learning.

Long Abstract

In the Northern coast of Bahia, the influence of slavery is still strong in terms of family and work relations, even after 120 years of its official abolition. At the same time of abolition, Bahia faced a period of drastic economic decadence that opened opportunities for self-sufficient black fishermen communities to form by the coast. In the past four decades, this same region has experienced drastic transformation as it became an international touristic destination; yet locals rejects formal work and formal education, a situation that creates tensions as work migrants arrive to take these opportunities and prosper, while locals remain poor.

The logic of the slave-based caste system is still alive among the people of Balduino, a fishermen village that is now also a working class neighbourhood for the tourism industry. There are three public schools in the village, which are relatively new in terms of infrastructure, but are not attractive to students. This paper will draw on a 15 month ethnographic study conducted there. It will first present how local modes of learning happen in practices such as coded communication. Then it will contemplate the complaints of school principals, which accuse social media of extrapolating the online domain and taking over the space of schools, as now students use schools for socializing and reject education. This paper will finally argue that the internet has become a better source of learning as it fits the local modes of non-hierarchical learning while schools fail because they represent the slave caste system.

"Is social media good for my child's education?"- perceptions across social classes

Author: Shriram Venkatraman (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that the perceptions of parents of school going children about Social Media aren't uniform across social classes. It also discusses how perspectives of parents change based on the type of school their children attend and the opportunities that the school creates for them.

Long Abstract

Social media is generally considered as an enemy to education by parents of school going children in India. However, what emerges is a very different view if one dives deeper and splits this perspective into various demographic groups based on social class categories. This perceived enmity towards social media is not uniform across class groups and what emerges is a distinctly opposing view based on the social class one belongs to. Several variables of socio-economic-political nature influence such perceptions.

This paper arising out of 15 months of ethnography of a field site named Panchagrami next to the city of Chennai in South India discusses how social media is viewed by parents belonging to the higher income, middle class and lower income groups. While the higher income/middle classes might view it as a threat to their children's education, it is seen as a sign of intelligence and that of inter-generational attainment by the low income parents. Further, this paper also discusses how perspectives of parents (even belonging to higher income/middle class) on social media change based on the type of school that their children attend and the opportunities that the school creates for them.

Turkish State's engagement with social media and the reproduction of political inequality

Author: Elisabetta Costa (British Institute at Ankara (BIAA))  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the political usages of social media in Mardin, a medium-sized town in south-east Turkey. It argues that social media, far from having created a democratic public space, have rather reproduced and reinforced existing inequalities and exclusions of political and ethnic minorities.

Long Abstract

This paper investigates the political usages of social media in Mardin, a medium-sized town in south-east Turkey, inhabited mostly by Kurds and Arabs. The Arabs have extensively used social media to share videos, memes and news to support the ruling political party AKP and the Prime Minister Erdogan during events such as the Gezi Park protests and the local elections in 2014. Most of this material was produced and firstly shared by institutional sources. On the other side the Kurds, supporters of the Kurdish nationalist movement and the political party BDP, were little active online as a consequence of State control and social surveillance: BDP supporters were concerned both with the watching by the government and by the other members of their social network. Social media in Mardin were populated more by visual and textual materials supporting the government than opposing it. This leads us to consider that social networking sites have been effectively used by the State in two different ways: for the production and distribution of social media outputs for propaganda purposes, and for authoritarian control and surveillance of political opponents. Finally the paper claims that social media, far from having created a democratic public space, have rather reproduced and reinforced existing inequalities and exclusions of political and ethnic minorities.

Algorithms and football communities: are you really friends or just on Facebook?

Author: John McManus (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper adumbrates the constraints on internet-mediated interaction through an ethnography of Turkish diaspora football fans. Whilst foregrounding fans' limitations, it argues that their interaction is best categorised as an ephemeral process of play within the constraints and potentiality of social media.

Long Abstract

This paper argues that the impact of internet-mediated communication on globalised communities leads to provincialism more often than cosmopolitan liberalisation. Its ethnographic focus is diaspora football fans in Europe for the Turkish team Beşiktaş. The paper explores who amongst the global Beşiktaş community have the power to shape interaction in internet-informed publics, and why they cast experience in a particularly parochial or global fashion.

The paper charts the movement of various Beşiktaş people and paraphernalia: a fan group from London, a flare display, anti-police graffiti, a chant in a stadium. It follows these things in their movements across time and space, online and off, from their creation to their circulation and reception. In doing so, it shows the instigation of parochial interaction - being portioned off in a particular linguistic or software-generated "walled garden" - to be as much the aim of multinational internet businesses, the software they design and the algorithms they deploy, as it is the wishes of the fans.

Yet in correcting the bias overemphasising the "democratic" or "liberating" function of social media, it is important not to lose sight of the playful spirit and experimentation that often sits behind the will to connect. I conclude by suggesting that Beşiktaş fans' interaction with the paraphernalia of global football is best characterised as a short-lived process of play. Enjoyment is provoked by the contingency and ephemerality of publics, through being reminded when, why and how fans are constrained by certain platforms or people, and liberated by others.

Between visibility / hyper-visibility and the virtual discriminations

Author: Maica Gugolati (EHESS)  email

Short Abstract

I will propose in this article the social pressure increased by social media during the contemporary carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. In specific, I will question the status position of participants in carnival and their globalized virtual discriminations.

Long Abstract

The visibility in social media images during the contemporary carnival of Trinidad and Tobago becomes one of the main masqueraders preoccupation.

Beyond the apparent democratization of social media, people trigger a parallel fictional world that reflects the expectations of an imaginary social status. I consider the social-virtual pressure of carnival masquerades, who want to accede and to play in a specific carnival's bands based on popularity. Each band is divided in "sections" that allow economical, aesthetical and often phenotypical discriminations. The front-line sections in the carnival parade have more media visibility and give the propagandistic image of the band.

The possibility to participate at these specific sections gives to players the recognition and the visual proof of belonging not just locally but even globally to an elitist context.

Yet, playing in a "front-line" means not just having a visual local recognition but even an exposure to global critics because of Diaspora worldwide relations.

These players are inventing or assuming a "front-line image" and behavior instrumentalizing the media hyper-visibility as a reaction to a social invisibility. This need of affirmation is represented in the formation of a new category of VeryVeryImportantPeople that wishes to get distinct from the already confirmed VIPeople. Social media erotizes and fetishizes the visibility that reproduces fictional meanings and affirms social categorizations. The exclusive economical and aesthetic possibility of belonging to and being seen in a front-line section is exhibited in a virtual world, in which the social media acts as an handles of the structural discriminations.

Why is poverty so abstract on social media?

Author: Razvan Nicolescu (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses how the clash between the visibility of social media and the sensitiveness of economic shortages in South Italy lead to a strange impersonalization of poverty and inequality.

Long Abstract

We start off by looking at the striking uniformity in using social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, in a middle-sized town in the southernmost region of Apulia. This is true especially for teenagers and young adults. In particular, young people coming from impoverished economic backgrounds use social media in a way that aims at levelling off the social differences with their peers. This is related to their constant endeavour to strive out of poverty.

The paper then shows how people struggling with economic difficulties almost never refer to poverty and different everyday injustices on public social media. Rather, it is the relatively better-off people, with higher cultural capital, who mention these sensitive issues. However, they do so in an indirect way. Poverty and inequality are usually presented as distant and impersonal, without any explicit reference to the local community: they could be located in different remote parts of the world, in particular places in Italy, tolerated by distant politicians, or driven by high-level economic mechanisms.

Finally, the paper suggests that social media use in South Italy is a result of the continuous clash between, on the one hand, the creativity and openness of social media itself, and, on the other hand, the continued power of local normativity. It is particularly difficult to contradict, even online, the order and predictability of local social life, especially as it has a strong emphasis on the performative. In this setting, there is really no place for tangible poverty and inequality to be displayed.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.