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Paper: The anthropology of digital visuality

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Budka, P. (2018). The anthropology of digital visuality: Notes on comparison, context and relationality. Paper at Vienna Anthropology Days 2018 (VANDA2018), Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, 20 September.

Sociocultural anthropology provides theoretical approaches and concepts to comparatively study local life-worlds, to contextualize cultural meaning, and to (re)consider human/non-human and socio-technical relations that have been emerging with digital media technologies (e.g. Horst & Miller 2012, Moore 2012, Whitehead & Wesch 2012). Ethnography and ethnographic fieldwork, as methodological tools, allow for investigating digital practices and processes by considering the above aspects (Pink et al. 2016). For anthropology it is of particular interest how people engage on a day-to-day basis with digital media and technologies, internet-based devices and services, mobile computing as well as software applications and digital platforms.

In this paper, I discuss, from an anthropological perspective and through brief ethnographic examples, digital visuality as a contemporary phenomenon that constitutes emerging patterns of visual communication and culture. In addition, I am briefly discussing digital visuality as a concept to approach and investigate the visual in digital times.

Digital media technologies and mobile networked devices, such as smart phones, have become ubiquitous means of visual production, communication and representation (e.g. Gómez Cruz et al. 2017). Moreover, digital platforms and social media services, such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, are utilized to share and consume visual artefacts. Constituting and changing thus communicative practices and visual culture alike. Consequently, these transformation processes provide new challenges and possibilities for the anthropological and ethnographic study of the visual (e.g. Pink 2011).

Digital visuality

The term or concept “digital visuality” is not new. It has been utilized in the study of digital phenomena in the social and informational sciences as well as a variety of research fields in the humanities particularly in Scandinavian countries. The interdisciplinary Nordic Network for Digital Visuality (2018), for instance, defines “digital visuality” as “the production and consumption of digitally mediated expressions of selfhood and society through visual and audio-visual interfaces” focusing in particular on “the role of digital mediation and multimodality in contemporary social life, the ubiquity of visual recording devices, and the convergence between computer-based and mobile platforms for communication and interaction”.

In this paper, I do not aim for yet another definition of digital visuality. I rather provide short examples of how this phenomenon has been studied and, moreover, how it has been conceptualized, particularly in relation to other concepts that have been applied to understand aspects of social life.

Jari Kupiainen (2016), for instance, analyses visual production and reproduction as well as related digital transformation processes at a Pacific art festival. In doing so, he focuses on “issues of cultural identity construction and aspects of cultural agency” related to these digital visual practices “in the context of the overall modernization of the Solomon Islands society” (ibid.: 131). He concludes that new formations of “digital cultural identities” can best be understood by considering pre-digital forms of identity construction and visual representation (ibid.: 132). As his case shows, contemporary digital identity is not necessarily only about the individual and its digital self, but also about including visual representations of the collective, the community.

By utilizing social representation as theoretical framework, Matteo Stocchetti (2017: 38) investigates the communicative process that constitutes the “visual construction of meaning in the digital age”. With visual examples of 9/11 and the Arab Spring, he demonstrates that digital visuality, as a (new) form of communication, is, at the same time, depending on and effecting the process of visual meaning making (ibid.). Digital visual communication, he argues, is therefore not inherently emancipative or empowering, but can also subvert openness or diversity. He emphasises that “[…] the meaning of images is constructed not independently from, but functionally connected to, the purposes, interests, values, histories, etc. of the most influential among the agents participating in the process” (ibid: 54). And, moreover, that “[…] viewers never see images in a vacuum. The context of the uses of images contains situational clues that perform like interpretative keys for the decoding of the image and disambiguation” (ibid:).

Anthropologist Paula Uimonen (2013) highlights the importance of social media platforms, like Facebook, in the rise of digital visuality. As she exemplifies with the case of students’ profile pictures at a Tanzanian art college, social relationships in Facebook – and of course in other social media platforms, such as Instagram or Snapchat, and smart phone applications like WhatsApp – have been “increasingly communicated through images” (ibid.: 122). People are developing, producing and changing their “ digitally mediated identities” in close connection to and in “interaction with their online social relations” (ibid.). As Uimonen shows, conceptualisations of performativity and (social) aesthetics can be helpful to capture and investigate practices and processes related to the construction of digital identity and selfhood.

In another study, Uimonen (2015) analyses the role of digital visuality in the mourning of Nelson Mandela. The memorial service for Mandela was not only a globally broadcasted media event, it also included different local events in South Africa and in many parts of the world. The Grand Parade in Cape Town, as Uimonen vividly describes, was of distinct ritualised and mediatised nature, including the use of digital visual technologies to mediate “ a sense of global communitas, thus momentarily overcoming historical frictions between the global north and the global south, while expanding the fame of Madiba” (ibid.: 1 ). Moreover, different forms of digital visuality, in particular “visual memory objects”, contributed to the linking of the past and the present, the living and the dead (ibid.: 10). Digital visual objects that carry Mandela’s words or images are thus adding to his fame, also in the future.

I myself investigated the social life and cultural history of the indigenous website environment, which was developed and is still maintained by the First Nations internet organization KO-KNET in Northwestern Ontario, Canada (e.g. Budka 2015, 2018). can be conceptualized as a field of practices that include and interconnect several digital practices and activities that co-constitutive of this social environment. The production, displaying and sharing of images, website layouts, videos or artwork, for example, can be connected to “social rewards” that again are related to social status as well as symbolic and cultural capital in this social field (e.g. Bourdieu 1977, 1993, Warde 2005). In, people were “extrinsically rewarded” for providing and sharing visual material by an increase of website traffic and hits and thus an increase of social status. By connecting the practice of sharing visual material with the practice of measuring and displaying hits, website producers, moreover, were also co-creating a digital “economy of recognition” (Stern 2008: 109). On the other hand, people were rewarded “intrinsically” for creating visual content for their websites by utilising this content for self-reflection, catharsis and self-documentation. Creating digital artwork, for instance, also allows for self-documenting personal growth and self-evolution, in respect to software skills as well as in respect to personal development.

As these examples indicate, digital visuality has been studied in a variety of contexts and by focussing on different aspects of sociocultural life in the digital age: from cultural identity formation and the visual construction of meaning, to visual mediation, ritualisation and sociality as well as the relationality of visual practices. In the second part of my paper, I am going to briefly discuss three key constitutive features of sociocultural anthropology and, as I suggest, of the anthropological study of digital visuality: comparison, contextualisation and relationality.


Put very simply, comparison can be understood as a method to look for sociocultural similarities and differences to develop general insights into the nature of society and human existence.

Richard Fox and Andre Gingrich (2002) remind us that comparison is everywhere and not only essential for anthropology. They identify a plurality of qualitative comparative methodologies (ibid.: 12) in contemporary anthropology that is connected to three general dimensions of comparison:
1. the cognitive dimension, comparison as essential element of human life and cognition;
2. the implicit/methodological dimension, comparison as part and parcel of anthropological work in comparing different local and historical contexts;
3. the explicit/epistemological dimension, comparison as specific anthropological research project which can be accomplished by the study of regional, temporal or macro variations (ibid.: 20-21).

For future anthropology, they suggest problem-oriented, theory-inspired approaches to pluralist methods of comparison that take fluid, historical, differentiated “units” as their starting point (ibid.: 20). Through a process of extensive abstraction that includes the self-reflexive theorising of contexts, explicit comparison in anthropology holds the potential of creating results that may yield additional, more extensive, yet complementary insights (ibid.: 21).

A prominent example of such an explicitly comparative project is the ERC funded Why We Post project (2011-2015) led by Daniel Miller (Miller et al. 2016, 2017). Through different ethnographic case studies this project shows that “social media represents a significant acceleration in the possibility that communication itself can become more visual, in the sense that it is now possible to hold something very close to a conversation that is almost entirely without voice or text” (Miller et al. 2016: 177). Project results indicate culturally different ways of utilising social media platforms and when dealing with visual material: “people use social media to reinvent their own understanding of tradition, conformity and normativity” (ibid.: 178). To consider and understand the context of visual practices is therefore essential.

Context and ethnographic research

According to Marilyn Strathern (2002) context can be understood as an aid to interpretation, which should contribute to a deeper understanding of a phenomenon. Context, particularly in the social sciences, is thus closely connected to ethnography and ethnographic fieldwork. Both methodological approaches that aim to deepen our understanding of the sociocultural.

The problem here is that contexts, while generating new data, at the same time point to yet more possibilities for contextualization. But more contextualisation, as Markus Schlecker and Eric Hirsch (2001: 78) emphasis, does not necessarily equal more knowledge. The multiplication of contexts, the problem of too many contexts, contributes rather to an increase of complexity. So to understand context as being including or encompassing is not helpful at all, as Strathern argues (2002).

Instead, she proposes that anthropological and ethnographic research should not focus on the similarities or differences of contexts, but rather on people, social practices or narratives while they are traversing different contexts. Ethnography, Strathern (2002) continues, tolerates disconnections and loose ends. It throws up the unplanned, the counter-intuitive, the unpredictable. And this is done by ethnography’s ability to detect people’s activities and narratives as they cross domains and by that unpacking the heterogeneous social worlds people pile up for themselves (ibid.: 309).

Together with comparison and contextualisation, ethnography is part of what has been termed the “anthropological triangle” (Sanjek 1998: 193): “the operational system by which anthropologists acquire and use ethnographic data in writing ethnographies”. In anthropology, ethnography refers to the research process during which empirical data – usually to describe sociocultural phenomena – is collected in the field and analysed. This process not only has a methodological aspect in deploying different research techniques, such as participant observation, but also an epistemological one, as theories and theoretical concepts shape ethnography and ethnographic approaches to the field (e.g. Sanjek 1998).


As Gregory Bateson (1972/2000: 478) has argued, human beings are all about patterns of relationship, where we stand in love, hate, respect, dependency, trust and similar abstractions, vis-à-vis somebody else. He holds that it is not distinct entities that should be in the focus of research, but the relation between them.

For others, the human being itself, as a person, is conceived as an assemblage of social relations. Strathern (1996), for example, suggests that persons are made up by networks of relations that include both humans and non-humans. This relational connection between human and non-human actors in networked form has become central for conceptualisations of the social, as for Actor-Network Theory (e.g. Latour 2005). Relations also draw attention to the differences between social actors, practices, biographies or narratives (Strathern 2004). Differences that are frequently overemphasised by uneven power relations and by neglecting human commonality (Eckert 2016). Relationality is key for a better understanding not only of differences but of similarities. Concentrating on relationality allows further to focus on the emerging, the becoming.

For a deeper understanding of the digital it is not only necessary to consider the technical dimension, but also the social, the cultural and the historical dimension of technology innovation, development and appropriation. The social, the cultural and the technical are therefore increasingly conceptualised in relation to each other (e.g. Bijker & Law 1992). Robots and digital devices, for instance, are designed to interact with humans, to operate in human environments. And digital avatars can be conceptualised as metaphors for the human body that demonstrate the emotional relations humans establish with non-human objects (Moore 2012).

As researchers like Susan Leigh Star (1999), Brian Larkin (2013) and myself (Budka 2015) have demonstrated, digital technologies and networks build on infrastructures which also include changing social relationships between people, institutions, organizations and non-humans. Considering the material and infrastructural dimension of socio-technical relations contributes to an even more comprehensive understanding of digital phenomena and related affordances (Miller & Horst 2012).


As I have argued, an anthropology of digital visuality is well advised to consider anthropology’s key constitutive features and tools such as comparison, context/contextualisation and relationality. Moreover, an additional focus on practices allows to concentrate not on the use and consumption of digital technologies, but on digital activities which are integrating these technologies in everyday life (Budka 2018). Thus, such a practice approach avoids a media- or technology-centric understanding of media technologies (e.g. Christensen & Røpke 2010).

To accomplish that, ethnographic fieldwork, as empirical and epistemological strategy, is necessary. Such an approach not only adapts to changing fields and practices of social agents and their shifting relations, but also considers the physical materiality of digital technologies through which social relationships can be established (Star 1999).

While anthropology’s methodological and conceptual toolbox seems flexible enough to adapt to new sociocultural phenomena related to different forms of media technology practices and processes in our increasingly digital world (e.g. Pink et al. 2016), it is still necessary to critically and continuously reassess these methodological tools and theoretical conceptualizations in the light of contemporary digital transformations and entanglements.


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