A Web Of Meaning


“The Internet has become so interwoven into my life that it’s hard to see things clearly – most of the time I just act on autopilot, scrolling up and down and swiping left and right without taking a step back and asking why I’m doing all these things. This course made me realize that I tend to take my online behavior for granted; Learning about digital anthropology is a great opportunity to reflect on what I do and who I am online,” comments Hoai Linh, Fulbright University Vietnam student.

For work, for fun, to study or stay in touch with friends and far-away family members, digital media have already fundamentally transformed our relationship to technology – and to each other. This is doubly true in a time of social distancing protocols, when the interpersonal is de facto mediated almost entirely online, as the world watches and waits for the COVID-19 crisis to abate.

At Fulbright University Vietnam, academic life continues through a series of online-only courses attempting each in their own way to address the strange times we live in. In this sense, classes also function to alleviate fears or to find answers in our challenging times. And what more thematically relevant subject than the very center of our confined lives, the thread that keeps us connected?

Dr. Ian Kalman’s class ‘Digital Anthropology: An Ethnographic Field Course’ introduces students to an emerging field of social sciences that has proven rife with avenues for research into the contemporary human experience. This course, the first of its kind in Vietnam, offers a general introduction to social scientific and anthropological research methods and theories, with a specific emphasis on cultures of and in new media, such as internet, mobile phones, and more. Over the course of seven weeks, students will develop and conduct a short ethnography of an online community of their choosing.

Dr. Ian Kalman

It made special sense to design the course at this historical moment. This is a great opportunity for students to make sense of the world they find themselves in, and to reflect in positive, healthy and intellectually stimulating ways,” explains Dr. Kalman.

Studying 2.0

By designing a class entirely for distanced learning, Dr. Kalman seeks to harness the very technologies under study to turn a detriment into an opportunity. In fact, he believes this class functions better in an online format, as it opens the door for moments of real experience and playfulness unique to the virtual environment. While discussing the formation of flexible digital identities, Dr. Kalman could switch between the virtual backgrounds available on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, connecting the subject with a direct example. “The experiential nature of the course is what I find truly appealing. We are studying the internet through experiencing the internet and to that effect we must critically examine ourselves and how we interact through those platforms and tools.”

Dr. Kalman’ s teaching philosophy is to foster interactivity and active learning at every turn. This remains true of his online classes, where even reading guides, assignment guidelines, and the syllabus are provided through Google Docs to be collaboratively improved upon. Students can and do add contextually relevant material, make suggestions or comment. Those documents are shared on the Facebook group dedicated to fostering engaging interactions, through thought-provoking questions or more humorous online posts relevant to what was discussed in class. For Dr. Kalman, “Social media groups have probably been one of the most productive discoveries of my experiments with online learning. Using Facebook has been very good for fostering written engagement and will likely remain a part of my teaching practice even when classes return offline.”

Although lectures remain necessary to build the students’ theoretical foundations, Dr. Kalman always looks for ways to minimize what he calls “Teacher Talk Time.” Key concepts are introduced in recorded videos uploaded to YouTube that students can watch at their own pace, pause, or subtitle when concerned with language. Students write comments, respond to each other, ask questions, and even made suggestions to improve recording quality. “I have improved my recording style based on feedback. In the first lecture, I wasn’t looking at the camera enough. But I have become more comfortable since. I was also told hand motions are a big part of how I communicate, and so I put the camera further out,” relates Dr. Kalman.

Giving students time to watch the lectures individually means classroom time can be entirely dedicated to student-led discussions. Dr. Kalman functions as the facilitator, creating a framework for debate or activities based on the reading, concept or research method introduced. One session saw students divided into groups to present the inherent differences in access to internet infrastructure and its implications. Students deliberated to choose the subject of their presentations, ranging from Zoom to e-commerce, e-banking and even YouTube. For another activity, students practiced ‘thick descriptions’, a qualitative research method that seeks to explicate the dense layers of cultural meaning in a given media.

“Imagery from Lunar New Year portraits, or photos taken at a karaoke parlor hold an innate familiarity for our students, but an unreflective one, thick with the culturally implicit. Part of teaching them anthropology is breaking that reflex that stops you from thinking beyond “I know this” and into “How do I know this? What does it mean?” Training them to do that with aspects of Vietnamese culture helps prime them for also thinking through aspects of online culture,” explains Dr. Kalman.

A key aspect of the course, then, is to help the students build perspective and reflexivity. To this effect, students are encouraged to make connections between the classical thinkers seen in class, their own immediate cultural context and familiar references, and guest lectures by international researchers at the edge of the field. But most importantly, this is a chance for them to share in the larger world of academia.

Past and present, here and there

Dr. Kalman worked with Hoai Linh, his student and research assistant, as it was essential to supplement the course with content that is meaningful to the students and relevant to their lives. Co-designed units of the class include a study of social influencers in Singapore, and the feminine tropes employed by female social influencers across South-East Asia. Another involved a debate about eSports and its transformative impact on society, whether positive or negative. As Dr. Kalman elaborates, “Vietnam is heavily digital, and Vietnamese online culture is a window into its youth culture. Helping students find connections that are relevant to them is the most effective way to apply and integrate new knowledge.”

Student Dang Thi Hoai Linh

Those themes and materials come to supplement and reinforce the denser readings introduced in lectures, which provide a baseline knowledge of the dominant theories and approaches, from Durkheim to Geertz, McLuhan, Goffman, Latour, or Butler. For Dr. Kalman, “these thinkers are just as important in digital anthropology as they would be in political sciences, history or economics. Connecting them to the Vietnamese context is how we demonstrate to students that they are not outsiders looking in, but that they are insiders, part of a long intellectual history. They are not separate from it, but its newest moment.”

“I think classic anthropological methods, however old they are, remain highly relevant to digital anthropology. For example, part of doing digital ethnography is looking for underlying meanings. It was useful for us to write “thick descriptions”, and this method was already advocated by Clifford Geertz since 1973 before the internet we know today. In reverse, there was also an anthropologist who conducted research in a popular virtual world using traditional anthropological methods,” emphasizes Hoai Linh.

Students are also connected internationally: Dr. Kalman frequently enriched the course with guest talks featuring a wide range of scholars. The professionals invited to share their thoughts in class all come with backgrounds in digital anthropology and enrich the course with their variety of careers and interests. Andrew Kornhaber, an anthropologist and online video content director for such organizations as MTV, Riot Games, and PBS, spoke about integrating anthropological thinking and the creation of new media, as well as the significance of fandoms and other online communities. Dr. Steven Sych specializes in AI and emergent storytelling in video games. Another speaker wrote a thesis on the blogosphere for Canadian childcare and parenting. “This is an incredible opportunity for students to see the vast possibilities for research and professional life, to nurture their curiosity and forge their own path” comments Dr. Kalman. In a time of confinement, connecting with others over long distances to exchange ideas has also never been more relevant.

The online Zoom session with Dr. Steven Sych

As students become comfortable with theory, thinking through their culture and online communities, and begin to envision possibilities for research, Dr. Kalman slowly guides them towards their final assignment: their very own research paper.

Researching the future

By the end of the class, students will produce their own ethnographic research. The evaluation will take into consideration the correct use of a literature review section, whether the student understands core concepts of (digital) anthropology, the secondary sources that were selected, read, and synthesized based on the focus of their individual research, and of course, how deftly they applied qualitative anthropological methods to reflect upon their own online experiences and the digital community of their choice. This is good practice both for critical thinking skills and for methodology in the social sciences, but also a chance for students to contribute real, potentially valuable insights through their individual experiences and embody the Fulbright principles of “learning by doing”.

As an emerging field, digital anthropology is ripe for experimentation and discoveries, a propitious environment for experiential learners and the thinkers of tomorrow. As a subject, its relevance will not fade any time soon. Technology will continue to proliferate, with ever increasing human digital engagement and ever more nuanced and sophisticated behaviors.

“The more prominent the role of the Internet and technology becomes; the more relevant and important digital anthropology is to understand human behavior and the nature of our societies. This is a discipline that will provide key insights into our evolving online practices and their implications for different stakeholders. This is true during COVID-19 where internet becomes our lifeline, but it also serves to solidify the place online spaces have come to occupy for everyone.” says Hoai Linh.

This can be seen in the incredible variety of platforms and/or communities students have set their social scientist eyes on for the final project. Some will study virtual museums, others analyze K-pop fandoms through the lens of female agency. Even on a single platform, Facebook, students find highly differentiated groups to explore, from catholic communities and their digital worship service, to the cultural peculiarities of sexual health education groups in Vietnam, or even online performativity and belonging in the mysterious group titled “A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony”. Students were fully encouraged to select their own focus of research, demonstrating the wild possibilities of online societies, and hopefully serving to question their place in all of it.

Students, but also the world at large is spending most of their lives online right now, and so it makes sense to open that box and peer into the way it all works. There is a lot of interesting research that has been done and that will be done. But in my class, I find it very important to bring the students into that conversation. I think at Fulbright we all agree that the point is not for students to understand digital culture and digital worlds as something external to them that others can explain. It is a big facet of their own lives and something they can elucidate for themselves,” reflects Dr. Kalman.

Antoine Touch

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