Constructing and consolidating chronotopes

A man dressed in traditional Ukrainian Cossack clothes smokes in a phonebooth during a rally to support EU integration in Kiev

Jan Blommaert

(Discussant’s comments, panel on Mobility, marginality and meaning: A chronotopic approach, convenors Lydia Catedral and Farzad Karimzad. IPrA Conference, Hong Kong, June 2019)

There are several things that I find extraordinarily inspiring about this panel and in what follows, I shall unfortunately have to restrict myself to comments on a small selection of themes only. I will formulate my comments from the position of a participant in an ongoing conversation, and not from that of a critical reviewer. The latter position would presuppose an authority I cannot, and do not wish to claim for myself. Even if many papers in the panel draw on aspects of my work, that work is merely an input in far more productive and sophisticated exercises than the ones I was able to offer. I am deeply grateful to the panel organizers and its presenters for having the opportunity to engage with a wave of very advanced work on topics that are central to my own concerns. My comments, consequently, will reflect things that I have learned from the presentations in this panel – insights I find valuable for my own development.


I must start at the most trivial level, by observing that conceptual work on chronotopes is unfinished but that several important developments can be noted. The fact that work is unfinished is translated in a degree of messiness in the use of chronotope as a notion in the various papers. There are authors who seek refinement to the notion by returning to the canonical formulations of Bakhtin and consequently arrive at a more restricted, somewhat ‘closed’ analytical notion of chronotope referring to invokable historicities (e.g. Rampton & Sankaran, Rowlett & King); there are authors who use it as a more open and flexible heuristic notion, capable of being tested as a tool for enriching existing approaches (e.g. Bhatt); and in need of further conceptual refinement (e.g. Karimzad, Bolonyai). In the latter papers, chronotope is used as a potentially productive and more precise gloss for what Goffman called ‘the situation’ (a thing we tended to neglect, as Goffman explained).

Both directions are useful and compatible – under certain conditions to which I shall turn in a moment. For now, let me briefly refer to what Goffman actually wrote on ‘the situation’.

“A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected.” (Goffman 1964: 134)

Goffman connects two elements here, both of which appear as compelling contextual factors in analysis. First, there is the “physical setting” within which interaction occurs – the actual timespace constellation within which people encounter each other, in other words. This timespace constellation, we can add, is infrastructural and, thus, material – a point often clearly ‘neglected’ (in Goffman’s terms), but inevitable as a feature of online communication where the sociotechnological infrastructures for communication pre-inscribe chronotopic affordances for their users (see the papers by Prochazka and Lyons, Tagg & Hu).

Goffman adds to this a second element: “the social occasion”. The latter is defined (with an oblique reference to Durkheim’s “social fact”) as “a reality sui generis” within any social system, and it stands for the rules of participation and communicative behavior that provide “scripts” (if you wish) ordering concrete communicative events between people who carry “given social attributes”. Both elements – note – are coordinated in actual interactional events. It is this dialectic of mutual influences between settings and social scripts that shapes the “joint social orientation” characterizing social interaction, which enables Goffman (id: 135) to provide his own, interactional, definition of the social situation:

“I would define a social situation as an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are “present” and similarly find them accessible to him.”

As we know, much of Goffman’s work was focused on the precise description of specific social situations – think of the poker game in Encounters (1961) and the lecture in Forms of Talk (1981) In each of these situations, Goffman emphatically pointed to the ways in which situations came with sets of conditions on participation, rules of engagement and forms of communicative action. Concrete and socioculturally recognizable timespace configurations involve nonrandom modes of social action and lead to specific social effects – that is the major insight we can get from Goffman’s oeuvre, and which resonates with the work of scholars inscribed in the same lines of inquiry (think of Garfinkel, Cicourel, the Goodwins and the Scollons). It is this insight for which chronotopes can be a helpful gloss.


So there is a messiness to chronotope in the panel. And that is fine, for it points towards an older problem for which new solutions are being explored. That older problem is the problem of ‘context’; or more precisely, the way in which problems of contexts have tended to be subdivided into issues about ‘what is context’ and issues about ‘what happens in context’. Chronotope, I believe, compels us to merge both issues. And now I must engage with some of the conditions for compatibility to which I hinted earlier.

The conceptual messiness in the panel should not obscure some extremely useful points of agreement across different papers, articulated explicitly in some and implicitly in others.

  1. A first, and major point of agreement I observe is: chronotopes are not just there as a priori ‘structures’ which one can walk into and out; they are made by participants in concrete social action. Karimzad used ‘chronotopization’ as a term reflecting this action-centered perspective. In order to illustrate it, we can go back to one of Garfinkel’s (2002) classic examples: the queue. A queue is (and few would dispute this) a chronotope. Garfinkel describes the ways in which people form queues in a seemingly unprompted way as congregational work (social work done collectively, for no reason other than the fact that there is a collective present or in formation) in which recognizable forms of social order are constructed – a ‘format’ as he calls it, with ‘autochtonous order properties’ i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (2002: 245). Converted into the vocabulary of ‘context’, we see how Garfinkel (like many others) views contexts as evolving out of social action. But he does not stop there. As soon as a queue has been formed, it becomes an extremely normative and policed timespace configuration. The ‘personnel’ in the queue have a very strong awareness of the order it embodies, and will react strongly whenever people attempt to violate that order (e.g. by jumping the queue or abusing the physical proximity in the queue for transgressive talk or conduct). The queue generates a temporary (but quite robust) community tied together by the ‘authochtonous order properties’ of the queue. Returning now to the main point here, what we see is that contexts are evolving out of action, and consolidated through action as well. What context is and what happens in context can no longer be separated – they have merged. (We see excellent examples of this dynamic of context construction and consolidation in Prochazka’s paper.)
  2. If we adopt this action perspective, let’s look more closely at the kinds of actions people perform. In the data shown in all the papers (Lyons, Tagg & Hu; Prochazka; Rowlett & King; Karimzad; Choi & Lo; Djuraeva & Catedral; Bolonyai; Bhatt; Rampton & Sankaran) we see that chronotopic congregational work is argumentative, it is done by people in order to make a point. It is, when seen from these examples, a resource for constructing ‘facts’, telling ‘the truth’ and convincing others of this truth. The how of such argumentative usage depends on what specific chronotopes afford – it is part of the work of consolidation, we can say. The what of such usages are specific forms and bits of invokable historicities deployed in specific discursive-argumentative actions. I think there might be an area here of particular interest for further and more detailed research, and my final two points will offer some suggestions for that.
  3. It is entirely possible that these specific forms of argumentative usage explain, at least partly, some other things about which several presenters in this panel appear to agree. There is such agreement, for instance, on the non-unified nature of chronotopes – their scaled character; on their unstable, unfinished and porous character observable through cross-chronotopic shifts and connections and through the occurrence of ‘chronotopes within chronotopes’; on the particular ways in which ‘big’ chronotopes such as those of Modernity and colonialism (or of contemporary globalization and nationalism) pervade and organize ‘small’ situational chronotopes of semiotic deployment (much in the way of Goffman’s frames, I would suggest); and how narrative voices from the margins inevitably orient towards polycentric and scaled chronotopes; and so forth. I used the term ‘synchronization’ as a way to capture how such complexly layered forms of semiosis collapsed into (chronotopically) situated moments of performance and uptake. I would now add the suggestion that we see such phenomena as part of particular forms of argumentation.
  4. Another dimension might evolve more clearly from such an exercise. And here too, I can refer to something that struck me in almost all the papers when I was reviewing the data used. They were replete with moralizations. Now, of course we know that there is something inherently moral about ‘knowledge’, ‘facts’ and ‘the truth’ (the Goodwins never stopped reminding us of that fact). But what we can see now, is how the argumentative work done in the construction and consolidation of chronotopes strongly revolves around making legitimate points – references to war and genocide, of displacement, traditions, the general gender, race and class relations prevailing in specific social environments, are offered as the moral truth that others should be persuaded by. We find ourselves here in a different metalinguistic realm: one in which the deployment of specific semiotic resources indexes fundamental moral stances blended with epistemic and affective ones and with identity projections. Here, too, I anticipate very stimulating areas for further inquiry.


Which takes me to my conclusion. The comments I have made are testimony to the exceptionally creative and inspiring work done in this panel. I do believe that the work presented here takes our field forward, and that it does so in a way which is increasingly disfavored in science: by exploring, unthinking, reimagining, testing and toying – the fundamental work of coming up with ideas which all of us need so badly in order to re-search, to search again for what we think we already know. To the panel organizers and presenters: mes hommages.


Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (ed. Anne Warfield Rawls). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, Erving (1964) The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/6 (part 2): 133-136.

Goffman, Erving (1981), Forms of Talk, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press


Sociolinguistic scales in retrospect

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Jan Blommaert

Productive ambivalence

The idea of sociolinguistic scales points towards the non-unified nature of sociolinguistic phenomena, and it contains a productive ambivalence. It refers to what we could call scope of communicability, which is, if you wish, a horizontal image of spread, dimension, degree; but it refers simultaneously to value, distinction, quality in the sociolinguistic field, which is a vertical image of stratification. This is the ambivalence. What ‘scale’ does, is to express an intersection of scope and value, and this is why the ambivalence is productive. It generates a heuristic in which we interrogate sociolinguistic facts as simultaneously scoped and valued, subject to forces and effects that have to do with issues of resource distribution, availability and access, as well as with issues of sociocultural and political uptake – of size and importance, of quantity and quality, one can say. And distinctions observable along those two axes explain the dynamics of sociolinguistic life and the main features of concrete sociolinguistic economies. Every difference in scope is likely to be accompanied by a difference in value, and this essential non-neutrality of sociolinguistic resources (in the broadest sense of the term) is at the heart of concrete meaning-making practices.

Scales have become a topic of considerable interest in the last decade among scholars of language-in-society. It is a conceptual cornerstone of any sociolinguistics of globalization, and it has helped scholars reimagine crucial notions such as ‘context’. The present collection of essays is testimony to the ongoing productivity of the concept and to the many ways in which it enables creative analysis, precisely articulating the ambivalence I sketched above: analysis of scope of communicability, of the ‘reach’ of resources, technologies and infrastructures, joined with analysis of metalinguistic – sociocultural and political – valuation and its effects on the attribution of meaning and identity in interaction. Many scholars (and I include myself) currently view scales as an indispensable concept, but articulate an uneasiness about it – it is precise and clumsy at the same time, it creates useful lines of argument but instantly complicates such arguments, and while it has an immediate resonance of transparency (we know what it indicates), it also is hard to define with some precision.

In what follows, I will suggest that we need a concept of sociolinguistic scales, but we also need more than that; and I will suggest that we need scales as an imaginative concept, a loosely descriptive one that generates a number of other issues, to be addressed with more precise tools. I shall do so by reviewing my own motives for using sociolinguistic scales.

Three problems

In the early 2000s, the topic that consumed most of my energy was that of voice and globalization. I was intensively working on problems of communication in asylum applications, mainly by asylum seekers from Africa in Western Europe. Gradually, I began to identify the core issue as one of resources and mobility. African asylum seekers brought sociolinguistic resources to the procedural interviews in Europe; and while such resources – think of African varieties of English or French – were perfectly adequate in Africa, they were very often dismissed as inadequate in Europe and their users remained voiceless in the asylum procedure. It appeared that in globalization contexts such as those of asylum, some resources afforded mobile voice, in the sense that they were valued as meaningful across entirely different timespaces, while others didn’t – something that could be reformulated in terms of different scale affordances, differences at the intersection of scope and value.

This insight – the scaled character of sociolinguistic phenomena in contexts of globalization – enabled me to start addressing three substantive problems:

  1. The problem of meaning: what goes on in actual meaning-making processes?
  2. The problem of situatedness, or more broadly formulated, of context.
  3. The problem of indexicality: a logical extension of the two first problems given the locus of indexicality in text-context relationships.

Let me turn to these problems now and indicate how sociolinguistic scales, as an imaginative concept, enabled me to come up with solutions for these problems.

The problem of meaning

The work on asylum seekers became the empirical basis for a book called Discourse (2005). The book offered a theory of sociolinguistic inequality related to voice and globalization, the core of which was a view of meaning as layered and composed of different historically loaded elements (from slow-and-big things such as ‘English’ to infinitely small aspects of interactional deployment), synchronized in interaction.

I glossed this view as ‘layered simultaneity’ and it merits some explanation. The point to it is that whenever we communicate, we deploy a variety of intertextual resources, such as topics, interlocutors, language, accent, technologies, registers and so forth. While all of these resources will be simultaneously deployed, we must realize that they are of a different order – here comes scale. English, for instance, is of a different order in interactions than the actual interlocutor with whom we interact in English or the topic we address with that interlocutor in English (English transcends the specificity of interlocutor and topic). And these different orders will generate different effects in communication: shifting from English into Swahili, for instance, will exclude more interlocutors than switching from a Cockney into an RP accent in English. So scope and value walk hand in hand: the value of resources in interaction is often tied to their scope of deployment, to their affordance to include or exclude interlocutors, topics and communication practices. I elaborated the latter issue in Grassroots Literacy (2008).

The concept of scales enabled me here to imagine meaning as non-unified and stratified, as an object the different layers of which could not be imagined as equivalent, even if they co-occurred in moments of synchronization. Such synchronizations had to be seen as complex processes in which very different forces co-occur, and in which the differences between such forces mattered very much in view of the outcome of communication. But this was merely one step in a longer argument, just one of several problems solved, and more was needed.

The problem of situatedness

Meaning emerges in contexts – actual, concretely situated contexts. And context, as we know, is a notoriously elusive notion in analysis. I was deeply influenced by Aaron Cicourel’s views of context (1967; 1992) as multiple, layered and stacked, and access to contexts as unevenly distributed – a medical doctor has access to contextual resources not accessible for the patient, very much like security services having access to contexts not open to inspection by their suspects. Scale once more provided a useful prism through which we could contemplate such non-unified contexts.

The fundamental given of non-unified contexts, of course, called into question what we mean by the notion of ‘the local’ in the analysis of interaction. ‘The local’ (as in ‘locally performed’) is often used as an equivalent for the qualification of ‘situated’ when we decode communicative events: a synchronized here-and-now that operates as a self-contained and self-sufficient reservoir of inferential meaning (codified, for instance, in Conversation Analysis in the Schegloffian tradition, see Blommaert 2001). From the work on asylum seekers, I had understood that these self-contained and self-sufficient dimensions of situatedness made no sense, for we were continually confronted with an interplay of ‘local’ and ‘translocal’ features of contexts of globalized mobility, and with uniquely relevant and situationally contingent inferences operating alongside generic inferences. Narrative patterns performed by African asylum seekers clashed with institutional expectations about narrativity in a European bureaucratic and forensic tradition; they did so situationally of course, an each time in partly unique ways; but the uniqueness of such cases was overrun by generic differences in production and uptake of narratives (something also documented with respect to written stories in Blommaert 2008). So we encounter two kinds of situatedness synchronically operating in concrete events: unique situatedness as well as generic situatedness – the latter containing actualizations of the genres, frames, formats that generate the moralized behavioral scripts for meaning-making we usually qualify as ‘cultural’ (cf. Blommaert 2018). It is useful to underscore that both dimensions of situatedness are of a different order.

Which is why a further step was needed at this point. The layering of contexts-for-inferencing entailed, in actual moments of deployment, the layering of norms. Norms, too, are non-unified and scaled phenomena in communication, and we must assume that (given the layering) that at any moment of communication, different sets of norms are present in the situation, and all of them can be invoked by participants. I called this layered-normative dimension of communication ‘polycentricity’, and this concept became, along with scales, one of the key terms in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010). And norms take us straight into the third problem.

The problem of indexicality

Given the treatment of the two previous problems, the third one is relatively simple. Indexicality stands for the meaning effects generated from text-context relationships, and if texts as well as contexts are non-unified, we need to make similar distinctions in the field of indexicality. In a polycentric situation, thus, various differently scoped and valued orders of indexicality are simultaneously at play, as emic regulators of meaning-making. Orders of indexicality – a concept obviously influenced by Foucault’s ‘orders of discourse’ – was the notion that completed the conceptual triad of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, alongside scales and polycentricity. What I intended to express through that notion were general forms of ‘normalcy’ in social interaction, the available (but not evenly accessible) scripts for ‘normal’ meaning-making in situated communicative events.

As I said, such orders of indexicality are deployed as emic regulators of meaning-making; in less convoluted terms, they are the patterns of communicative conduct that generate recognizability in interaction: particular actions are recognizable as something specific, as, for instance, a joke, a lecture, flirting, a friendly response, the purchase of a railway ticket, and so forth. As in the discussions of the previous problems, we must assume that orders of indexicality are – literally – of a different order and regulate, at once, the aspects of meaning that are given and those that are new, the generic ones as well as the uniquely creative ones. The same imagery of scales applies here, and as before, it enables us to make more specific distinctions.

Always important, never by itself

In reviewing the line of argument I applied in solving the problems of meaning, situatedness and indexicality, I hope that one things has become clear. Scale was always a starting point, because it was the imagination of scaled phenomena that transformed them into objects that could be differently addressed. In my (admittedly idiosyncratic) development, scale has been extraordinarily productive as an imaginative concept, an instrument enabling a fundamental revision of what we believe certain facts to be – a tool for the creation of ideas, one could say.

Once these ideas were there, however, the scaled characteristics of sociolinguistic phenomena demanded more fine-tuned and accurate conceptual instruments and analytic strategies. The idea of sociolinguistic scales inevitably leads to a sociolinguistic phenomenology in which instability, plurality, indeterminacy and low presupposability feature – it leads to a sociolinguistics of complexity, in sum (Blommaert 2016). And for addressing complexity, notions such as scales carry too much of a suggestion of stable, static and clear-cut distinctions (as when we speak of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ in relation to scales) and risk being too blunt an object for making the microsurgical distinctions we need to be able to make in actual analysis.

This was certainly how I experienced working with sociolinguistic scales: they were always indispensable in preparing the canvass and sketching the outlines of analysis; but once the analysis itself had to be done, scales were merely the parameters within which I operated, and the operation itself demanded a more elaborate, systematic and complex set of conceptual and methodological tools.



Blommaert, Jan (2001) Context is/as critique. Critique of Anthropology 21/1: 13-32.

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2016) From mobility to complexity in sociolinguistic theory and method. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.) Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates: 242-259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

See also this video.


When your field goes online


When your field goes online:

Ethnographic fieldwork in the online-offline nexus

Jan Blommaert & Dong Jie

(Draft postscript to Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide. Second and enlarged edition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, in press)

When we wrote the first edition of Ethnographic Fieldwork in 2008-2010, social life was still very much seen as an offline affair. People used to refer to the digital world as the virtual one, implying that it was in some way not part of the real world. As for new media, Facebook was an infant and the iPhone was a toddler when we wrote the book, and social media activities were widely seen as a relatively irrelevant add-on of ‘real’ (read: offline) social life.

The online-offline nexus

A decade later, this can obviously no longer be maintained. The online world is now fully integrated with the offline one, in the sense that very few of our ordinary, everyday activities proceed without being in some way affected by online infrastructures; and very many of such activities can only proceed due to the existence of such online dimensions of life. From making photographs with our smartphones to checking the weather app, the traffic app, or our daily fitness routine app, and from online shopping, travel booking, banking and reading to quick searches (aptly called, in many places, “Googling”), to TV-on-demand binging, vloggers and influencers, livestreamed events and commercial as well as political campaigns waged on social media – our social, cultural, economic and political lives have changed dramatically. The widespread use of social media has transformed the media and popular culture landscapes globally and has shifted the boundaries between the private and the public spheres. And each action we perform online, however minute, generates data that are aggregated into new systems of surveillance and control and affect our lives in mostly invisible ways. Note that while such developments are spread unevenly across the globe, there are few places in the world where they are not experienced to some degree.

These phenomena are by now well documented, so we don’t think that a full survey of them is warranted here. The fundamental fact we have to take on board is: we live our lives largely in an online-offline nexus, in which both dimensions are equally vital and indispensable. Yet, when it comes to social theory and method, we still very much continue to approach these lives from within frameworks developed to describe and analyze an offline world – and ethnography is no exception to this (Kaur-Gill & Dutta 2017; Blommaert 2018; Varis & Hou 2019). This is not unusual: theory is always slow to catch up with changing realities, and theories that incorporate change as a fundamental given are few and far between. The same goes for method: scholars are usually reluctant to surrender tools of investigation of which they believe that they worked adequately in the past.

When it comes to ethnographic fieldwork, however, we cannot avoid issues of theoretical and methodical adequacy, for a very simple reason: in the online-offline nexus, the field where we do our fieldwork has gone online, and we need to follow that route if we wish to adequately address what it is we observe and analyze.

In what follows, we will offer three reflections on this new field and show how they complicate matters for ethnographers (and others). To be sure, things were complicated enough in an offline field; when we incorporate the online field, however, several new things require focused attention. We need to add some question marks to three seemingly unproblematic things: what do we see? Who is there? And where are we in an online-offline fieldwork site.

What do we see? The compelling bubble

The first complication is caused by what is known as the ‘bubble effect’: whenever we go online, we find ourselves in a space the structure and composition of which has been configured algorithmically, on the basis of data profiles for specific users, machines and software tools. And this is an absolute given: there is no actual PC or smartphone in the world that offers its user an unrestricted view of the online world. Not to put too fine a point of it: whenever you go online on any device, anywhere and anytime, you will encounter bias, and there is simply no neutral and unbiased position of observation possible in the online world. This is worth remembering: using the PC of, say, your local public library to do online research doesn’t remove the bubble effect. It merely (largely) removes your own particular bubble effect, the one affecting actions on your usual devices due to your particular history of use of these devices; but it replaces it with the bubble of the other specific computer, network and community of users who worked on it before you logged on.

Now, we did spent quite a good amount of time in the previous chapters explaining that bias is a normal and altogether not too problematic feature of any ethnographic fieldwork, and that the response to it must be awareness of bias. Remember: ethnographic knowledge is inter-subjective knowledge, co-constructed by all participants in the Seen from that perspective, the bubble effects are mere extensions of the inevitable bias inscribed in our fieldwork practices. But let’s remove the word ‘mere’ from the previous sentence, for the extension we see is an extension in another direction – a shift, in other words. And the shift has to do with the meaning of inter-subjective in what preceded. When you interact with an online device, you’re not interacting with a particular person whose subjectivity (and, of course, bias) can be to some extent explained and understood in terms of one’s social, cultural, personal backgrounds – the ‘context’ as we know it from the literature. You’re interacting with a machine that incorporates and creates contexts that require very different modes of interpretation.

In a moment, we shall be more specific – and constructive – about this problem of online contexts. But for the moment, let’s take this on board: going online takes your field in a direction which is not in any way a direct reflection of the offline contexts you, as an ethnographic fieldworker, got accustomed to through intense interactions with the people you work with; it sends you into a different sociocultural realm and confronts you with modes of bias that are sometimes impossible to understand, let alone anticipate or predict in research. The social facts we can observe online are mediated and curated by technologies in complex synergies with their users. Overlooking this point (and it is compelling) can cause you some trouble in making sense of what goes on in the lives of the people you work with in fieldwork.

But there is more.

Who is there?

In the tradition of social research, one thing used to be quite straightforward: the identity of the people one did research with or about – the ‘population’ in one’s research. People’s identities were known, and researchers could believe that they knew them well. So well, in fact, that we could anonymize them in our research outcomes, and that we felt compelled to do so because our research had actually revealed so much about them that they could be construed as identifiable individuals. Anthropological ‘informants’ were only useful, so to speak, when a measure of intimacy had been established between the anthropologist and the ‘informant’ allowing more than mere superficial knowledge to be exchanged.

This knowledge of the population was grounded, as Michel Foucault (2008) described, in some of the great structures of modernity: nation-state bureaucracy and its elaborate inventories of people residing on the state’s territory. From birth certificates through school reports, hospital records, police files and intelligence reports, passports, tax returns, occupational, demographic and income data and the cyclical census: one of the purposes (indeed, needs) of the modern state was comprehensive knowledge of its population. An elaborate bureaucratic infrastructure served that purpose and statistics emerged as the science that could answer questions evolving from all that. As the name itself reveals, statistics was the science of the state. And statistics came up with methodologically refined tools such as the sample to turn knowledge of the population into measurable, user-friendly units with almost infinite opportunities for application.

All of this was achieved in an offline world; the present online-offline nexus offers some serious problems. The first one is infrastructural. Whereas states used to be unchallenged when it came to gathering and elaborating knowledge at a very high scale-level – that of the entire population, this monopoly has vanished. The state now competes with (and often relies upon) private corporate actors when it comes to such high-scale level knowledge. It is the likes of Google, Microsoft, Huawei, Facebook, Weibo who are the great data collectors and analysts presently: companies who collaborate with the state but who are formally independent from it, and who have the capacity to independently develop (as well as own and sell for profit) big data handling and machine learning tools and products. Knowledge of populations nowadays is distributed over more actors, many of which fall outside the raison d’état which Foucault saw as the engine behind modern population studies.

Such private actors can and do impose rules of their own – the scale level we used to define as ‘public’ is now governed by a range of different and sometimes conflicting modes of governance. And such new modes of governance deeply affect this self-evident part of social studies: knowledge about who is involved in social action.

As all of us know, the online world is populated by people operating through an alias. Trolls and members of obscure debating groups in the darker corners of the Web instantly come to mind; we also know that some online platforms are very vulnerable to interventions by automated bots and hired clickfarm operators sending out updates and responding to them; but in many cases there are also strong social and political incentives to remain anonymous when engaging in online activities. One’s employer may not be amused when an employee regularly posts social media updates criticizing the company or articulating views that can be perceived as damaging to the company’s interests; security forces may be alerted by strong political criticism voiced by people online; or one’s spouse would not appreciate one’s active presence on dating sites. In online environments where people are aware of surveillance and censorship, one’s mere presence on a forum can be experienced as risky, and participants will adjust their behavior accordingly – primarily by hiding identity features that might lead to easy identification (cf. Du 2016). The effect is: billions of online ‘profiles’ about whom interlocutors cannot assume any identity feature with any degree of certainty: the exciting 24-year old woman with whom one flirts on a dating site might actually be a 55-year old, married and quite boring man. And the revolutionary activist who eagerly invites and endorses your politically inflammatory updates might actually be a state security agent.

At the frontstage of the online world, identity uncertainty rules. The real identities of online actors are, as a rule, only known backstage by institutional actors: by internet and platform providers, the authorities and the security services. But hackers prove on a daily basis that even that level of certainty about who is online is not entirely bulletproof.

As said before, the online world provides entirely new contexts for all of us. The effects for fieldwork are momentous. While, in offline fieldwork, you can ask friends and neighbors, or colleagues and bystanders for information about particular individuals, your opportunities for doing so in online research are extremely limited – you can never be sure that the neighbor you invite to offer background information about someone is not, in effect, a neighbor at all. So as a rule, you can only observe what you see people do in online fieldwork sites. Getting feedback about who did what, however, is terribly difficult and – to add to the mess – not very reliable. For the online sources you’d approach for such feedback are almost by definition as elusive as the target of your inquiry with them. The fieldworker, consequently, is often reduced to the role of witness rather than that of investigator, and left with very few tools for upgrading one’s role from witness to investigator. So take this as a given: in online fieldwork it is immensely difficult to establish the intimate knowledge one can construct about offline respondents.

But there is more, and we need to return to the bubble effects we discussed earlier. Recall what we said there: the bubble shapes a context for social action on the basis of ‘profiles’ created by data aggregations. So here is yet another level of backstage identity construction: one not directly performed by ourselves but imposed on us by machines and influencing what we can do and effectively do online. Obviously, this also affects what a fieldworker can observe online.

Let us make this a bit clearer. The bubble brings people into your orbit whose profiles have been constructed by algorithms. These people are, also in official parlance, ‘data subjects’ constructed out of hypothetically common features based on aggregations of users’ data. As we said before, the criteria by means of which people are connected to aggregations of data are very difficult to get access to – it is safe to assume that we cannot know the grounds on which algorithms judge that certain people are similar to us, share interests, behavioral or character traits sensed to be compatible with ours, and could be brought into some kind of community alongside us. We can provide educated guesses, no more. But since bubble effects are inevitable, the upshot of all of this is that we observe very peculiar, curated social facts, full of uncertainties about who is involved in their performance. And note that the uncertainty about who is there in your online fieldwork site is individual as well as collective; it applies to the actual interlocutors whose online actions you observe, as well as to the communities that fill the bubble in which you roam.

Imagine now that you’d wish to run a survey online, using a platform such as Twitter. How will you construct a reliable sample in which sociological diacritics such as gender, age, location, education background and religion are adequately spread – when none of this can be established with certainty? How can you reach ‘everyone’ whenever you attempt to speak about a population – when you are mindful of the bubble effect? How can you even identify individual actors when the same person can have eight different Twitter accounts? And how can you be sure that ‘@EddieJones1991’ is not the 28-year old Welsh accountant he claims to be, living in Liverpool with his wife and two young kids and enthusiastically endorsing the Tories, but in fact an automated bot or a clickfarm account operated from Bangalore, India?

All of these issues about who is who online dislodge the certainties used as baseline assumptions in more than a decade of social research, and they render forms of research still hanging on to such assumptions very doubtful indeed. In a moment, we shall offer some hope for ethnographically inclined researchers. But first we need to address a third major complication of the online-offline nexus.

Where are we? Invisible lines

Let us briefly recapitulate. We have seen that the online-offline nexus seriously complicates two things we used to consider rather unproblematic in offline fieldwork: what we (can) observe, and who is involved in what we observe. The bubble effect and the uncertainty about participants in social action online render both highly problematic now, and they must serve as a critical check on the kinds of claims we believe we can make in our research. There is a third obvious dimension of social action which is profoundly distorted by the online-offline nexus: the site where we perform our research.

For evident reasons, the site of fieldwork used to be perhaps its least problematic aspect. As outlined in the previous chapters, we used to choose a place for our research based on prior knowledge and a round of thorough preparatory study. Next, we would pack our gear and head off to that place. Yes, we emphasized, the actual meaning of that place would change during fieldwork as a result of accumulated knowledge – the school we chose as our site would gradually transform into a more complex habitat for those involved in the activities in that school, including the fieldworker. But in many ways, our choice of fieldwork site would define and constrict our assumptions about participants and the actions they engage in. We knew that, to stick to the example of a school, some transcontextual analysis was required, for many of the actions performed locally (and offline) by teachers, pupils and other local stakeholders would be inflected by things such as education policy, management principles and other forms of external pressure and influence. In the online-offline nexus, however, the meaning of ‘transcontextual’ has changed quite profoundly.

Two dimensions of this change need to be identified. In both instances, the guiding question is: how can we understand what goes on in our chosen fieldwork site?

The first dimension has to do with the nature of the activities we observe locally. Let us start with an anecdote. A little while ago, one of us was required to check attendances at the start of a class. The usual signup form started moving slowly through the lecture theater, and after a few minutes, suddenly two students came hurrying into the hall – alerted by their colleagues’ hastily written smartphone messages telling them that their presence was mandatory. A local action – taking attendances – was ‘exported’, so to speak, to different places elsewhere by means of online connections, and resulted in a reconfiguration of the local activity – two students joining the class.

This anecdote shows us that in the online-offline nexus, there are invisible lines connecting offline spaces with translocal ones; and that local activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by translocal ones. Converted into the vocabulary we used above, we see how offline activities are almost invariably influenced and shaped by online ones. Such influences can be material, as in our anecdote in which a material space as well as its population get reconfigured due to online signals given by students. But even more frequent are immaterial effects of online activities on offline ones: knowledge effects, as when we cook a curry after having read several online recipes and watched some YouTube tutorials, or as when our car’s GPS system directs us to take another route due to dense traffic on the normal one. The internet is primarily a learning environment from which we extract (and on which we upload) tons of bits of information, instructions and normative judgments about how certain things should best be done (Blommaert & Varis 2015). In a formal sense also, the online world is a learning environment. Try to imagine studying without access to online resources these days, from online downloadable research publications over Wikipedia to simple Google searches – the contemporary world of learning is an online-offline one.

These learning environments have immediate effects on locally performed actions, as we have seen in the anecdote above. And these effects are inflected by the features we discussed earlier; bubble effects and algorithmically configured profiles creating peculiar forms of ‘truth’ and norms within often elusive online communities and with immediate feedback effects. To illustrate the latter: if you want to cook a Thai dish and choose, out of dozens of options, an online recipe using dried red chili rather than fresh one, this preference will be recorded in your algorithm and have an effect on your bubble. Later searches might show you more recipes using dried chili and let you interact with people who show the same preferences (unless the algorithm decides you’ve made the wrong choice and will try to rectify you in the future). In that sense, online knowledge effects may be qualitatively different from the more traditional ones. Yes, reading a book or having a conversation in a pub may have similar effects on what we think and do, but such effects were usually slower and perhaps less pervasive than the ones we currently notice in the online-offline nexus.

This is the first dimension we had to address: online resources infusing local actions and changing them due to immediate translocal involvement. The second dimension extends this somewhat and raises the question: who is involved in local actions – who belongs to the ‘personnel’ of things we observe in online life. And here, too, an anecdote can be useful as a point of departure.

Oud-Berchem is an inner-city working class and immigrant district in Antwerp, Belgium. One of the remarkable features of the neighborhood is the density of new evangelical churches, usually of the charismatic branch of protestant Christianity and run by pastors from Africa, Asia and Latin America (see Blommaert 2013). The churches are what is known as ‘storefront churches’, renting relatively cheap vacant commercial premises in an old shopping street and usually displaying a health and safety permit for 49 people. Local congregations can be slightly larger though, but some of the churches also cater for smaller congregations. Churches often change premises, denominations and constituencies – a reflex of the rapidly shifting demographics of the neighborhood.

One of the most recent arrivals in this religious industry in Oud-Berchem is a church run by a Nigerian pastor. Let us nickname the church the ‘True Religion Church of Christ’. The church rented what is probably the grottiest location in the neighborhood: a former interior decoration shop closed down a handful of years back, quite badly affected by years of vacancy and exposure to the elements. The church has a permit for 49 attendants, and this is about the size of the congregation attending Saturday and Sunday services there. It’s a small, hardly remarkable and even less prestigious enterprise.

Our initial research on the neighborhood and its churches was based on traditional – read: offline – ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis. From that perspective, indeed, the True Religion Church of Christ is a small local phenomenon, eclipsed by other churches with more attractive premises and a larger congregation. At a given moment, however, we started paying more attention to an often overlooked feature of the linguistic landscape: website addresses and social media signs of the ‘Follow us on Facebook’ type (Blommaert & Maly 2019). When we followed such pointers for the True Religion Church of Christ, we bumped into a few surprises. Its pastor turns out to be a modest global celebrity in the domain of charismatic protestant religion. He runs a YouTube channel with over 125,000 subscribers; the main feature video there is one in which the pastor brings a dead boy back to life during a service in Nigeria, attended by many hundreds of faithful. This video was watched over 85,000 times. The pastor also runs a website in which he announces services all over the world – North America, Europe and Africa – and through which items and services can be booked and ordered using standard e-payment methods such as Paypal.

Suddenly, the grotty premises in which the local congregation gathers on Saturdays and Sundays appear in a different light: as a mere node in a global network of religious activities connected by advanced online infrastructures. This global network is big and prestigious, and stands in sharp contrast to the smallness and shabbiness of what goes on in Oud-Berchem. Many more people, places and resources are involved in what goes on in Oud-Berchem than those that can be locally observed. And we can reasonably assume that what goes on locally in the True Religion Church of Christ derives a lot of its meaning and impact from the translocal, prestigious and well-resourced network in which it is one local node and to which it is permanently connected by online infrastructures. In fact, what happens locally is probably possible only because of the existence of this larger network and its online resources. And so, when we observe the local activities of the church’s congregation, we need to be aware of the fact we see just a very small part of the total social fact we need to understand, and which we can engage with by following the pointers that take us online.

So here are the two dimensions we needed to bring up: the fact that offline practices are almost invariably influenced, formatted and enabled by online ones; and the fact that locally performed social actions can involve far more people than those actually present locally – the effective personnel of lots of current social actions can only be gauged by connecting the offline local phenomena with the online translocal ones. Our field has effectively become an online-offline field; doing fieldwork requires presence in and attention to both, and the blissful simplicity of ‘the local’ has been traded for a far more complex reality of connected fieldwork sites. The notion of ‘participant observation’ needs to be literally in the online-offline nexus: ethnographers are participating in exactly the same contextualized processes they are studying, and there is no privileged vantage point that gives us and edge over other, ‘ordinary’ participants.

More complexity? More ethnography please!

All of this is bad news of course. In the online-offline nexus, we are forced to surrender some of the things we long thought were relatively simply: the things our field had to offer in the way of observable facts and information, the people with whom we engaged in fieldwork, and the actual sites of fieldwork. In other words: we need to reconsider the what, how and where of fieldwork. The online-offline nexus, we can see, is quite a bit more complex than the good old traditional offline fieldwork arena.

The bad news, however, is mainly for those branches of science that rely heavily on the assumptions we questioned above. And there are several reasons why ethnography, while needing to be cautious and more than just aware of these changes, is best equipped to deal with them. In chapter 2, we explained that ethnography is a scholarly approach which, in contrast to many other approaches, does not attempt to simplify and reduce complexity; it takes complexity as a point of departure and tries to provide a full and detailed account of it. Ethnography is not about removing the chaotic nature of social practices performed in real, concrete contexts – it is about making sense of that chaos. The fact that the chaos appears to become denser in the online-offline nexus should not deter us: it’s still just chaos, and we must make sense of it.

And we have inroads into it. Even if the what, who and where of fieldwork are getting more complicated, there are things we can reliably observe. We can still observe what people do, the social actions they perform. In fact – and we emphasized that as well in the opening chapters of the book – ethnography is focused on making sense of social action, of concrete social action performed in concrete contexts, and it belongs to that broad tradition in social research captured under the umbrella of the ‘action perspective’ (cf. Blumer 1969; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Strauss 1993; Rawls 2002). So we can observe people watching online stuff, doing online searches, asking and responding to questions, telling stories, making an argument, insulting or responding to insults, expressing joy, appreciation and gratefulness, grief, anger, uneasiness, concern, irony and humor, thanking others; we can observe them liking, sharing and reposting, commenting and endorsing or distancing themselves; we can observe them incorporating online material produced by others in their own online interventions; we can see them logging on and logging off; subscribing to channels and profiles and blocking or ignoring others. And we can observe the (largely visual, literate) resources they deploy in doing all that: different forms of language, jargon and slang, different forms of writing, emojis, memes, GIFs, selfies, profile and banner images, video chats and livestreams on a variety of apps – name it. All of this, we know, is done in interaction with others, frontstage as well as backstage – one is never alone on the Web – and mediated by the specifics of the online contexts we laid out above.

That’s a lot. In fact, it’s exactly the stuff needed for ethnographic work, as we explained in chapter 2 of the book. And it is by looking at the intricate interplay between actions and resources that we are able – in ethnographic analysis – to see how people navigate the contextual opacity and the identity uncertainties that characterize online interactions and make sense of that chaotic reality (cf. Szabla & Blommaert 2017), how they engage in the learning processes for which the online world offers such infinite opportunities, and construct identities and communities within their bubbles, and often beyond them (Varis & Blommaert 2015; Prochazka & Blommaert 2019).

So it is not because we cannot observe everything in online contexts that we can observe nothing. We cannot observe the algorithms and surveillance systems that create bubbles and profiles, true. But we can observe the ways in which people engage with them and operate within their confines – how they adjust their social conduct to the complex and largely invisible contexts within which they interact with others. This is an eminently adequate ethnographic object of inquiry.

But we need to address it carefully. Whenever the phrase ‘participant observation’ was used in discussions of fieldwork, the focus used to be on ‘observation’, and it carried the suggestion that, while participating in social processes, ethnographers did something special and did that from a privileged position – they ‘observed’. We believe that fieldwork in the online-offline nexus shifts that focus towards ‘participant’, and that we must forget the possibility of a privileged position of observation. Whatever we observe is observed as a participant in a new field in which breaking out of the contexts of ordinary participation is near-impossible, for important aspects of such contexts are impossible to inspect – the backstage aspects we discussed above. Perhaps this was never possible, even in traditional offline fieldwork, and perhaps it was just (in Johannes Fabian’s (1983) famous view) the conventional arrogance of academia that created the claim towards privileged knowledge positions. In that case, the online-offline nexus confronts us with an unpleasant truth – one which renders our work more complex but equally more interesting.



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Ergoic framing in New Right online groups: Q, the MAGA kid, and the Deep State theory


Ondřej Procházka & Jan Blommaert

(working draft)

1. Introduction

Conspiracy theories have had a long life in social research (e.g. Hofstadter 1967), and they have more recently become conspicuous as a topic of research on online social and political action.[1] The relationship between the online world and conspiracy theories is often described as synergetic:

Conspiracy theories, defined as allegations that powerful people or organizations are plotting together in secret to achieve sinister ends through deception of the public (…), have long been an important element of popular discourse. With the advent of the Internet, they have become more visible than ever. (Wood & Douglas 2013)

The Internet is also seen as influential: it is the place where conspiracy theories emerge and grow, before being moved into mainstream media:

However, as the Internet developed into a major form of communication, its function as a medium for the spread of conspiracy theories began to exhibit some important characteristics. Most obviously, ideas that in the past would only have reached the small audiences of conspiracy publications and late night talk radio now could potentially reach many more. Less obviously, it became clear that once fringe ideas appeared on the Net, they could eventually migrate into mainstream media (Barkun 2016: 3).

Conspiracy theories themselves are often left undefined, and remain caught in moralizing – usually dismissive – but analytically superficial discourse:

In Conspiracy Theories and the Internet – Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development (Clarke, 2007) he argues that many contemporary conspiracy theories suffer from vagueness. Looking at the development of conspiracy theories on the Internet, he argues that such theories have fared badly, since it does not take long for them to be analysed and subsequently shown to rely upon shaky or shakily interpreted evidence. As such, conspiracy theories online are now phrased in vague and less precise ways in order to avoid being easily falsified” (Dentith 2014:162)

In what follows, we into to engage with conspiracy theories in a way that does justice to their complexity as a social fact in the online-offline nexus characterizing contemporary social life (cf. Blommaert 2018). Examining a recent case of online group activism, we will focus on (a) how a particular form of reasoning is consistently developed and maintained, a form we shall call Ergoic (after Latin ergo, “therefore”), and (b) how such a form of reasoning generates and sustains a particular type of community, which we call a knowledge activism community; (c) we shall do this from a specific angle, which is action-centered rather than content- or identity-centered.

The latter point demands some clarification. The specific case we shall examine in this paper instantiates a central analytical problem of online research: that of people performing social actions online anonymously, under an alias or using avatars. This simple and widespread given has momentous consequences for analytical approaches of online social action: we cannot reliably assume participants’ identities and use them as a priori categorizations in the analysis (cf. Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019). We cannot, for example, use particular demographic and sociological diacritics – gender, age, even nationality or place of residence – in the analysis, since none of these data are available to the analyst, except when advanced software tools and analytics can be deployed. What we do have, however, are data documenting specific social actions – online interactions in which specific normative codes evolve and circulate; in which particular epistemic, affective and ideological stances are being semiotized by means of specific resources; and in which we see, through all of this, the emerging communities whose collective work (or, in Garfinkel’s 2002 terms, “congregational work”) generates sometimes considerable social effects. The communities are generated by the actions they are involved in, which is why we privilege these actions as the objects of inquiry. We shall see how this action-centered approach enables us to be very precise in the identification of the communities: specific forms of action generate specific forms of community.

We shall examine a particular conspiracy-theoretical event in which an online New Right activist community called Q used the mainstream media reports of an incident involving a white student (the “MAGA kid”) and an elderly Native American man to produce elaborate reframings of what happened, using “ergoic” arguments grounded in a conspiracy theory which we shall call the “deep state theory”. In the next section, we shall briefly introduce the incident; the subsequent sections will discuss, the nature of the congregational work performed within the Q community and the structures of the ergoicargumentative work they display in their online actions. In our conclusions, we shall return to the main themes of this paper and connect them to some major issues in research on online communities such as Q.

2. Q and the MAGA kid incident

In January 2019, two marches clashed on the Mall in Washington DC: the pro-life March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples’ March. While the first one could be roughly described as politically conservative, the second could be said to be politically liberal within the US political universe. One incident from the meeting of both marches went viral as a short video clip on social media: an encounter between a young white Catholic high school student called Nick Sandmann, wearing the iconic “MAGA hat” (the emblem of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign), and an Omaha elder called Nathan Phillips.

The clip itself circulated in a variety of versions and these versions became a topic of heated controversy. Initially, the dominant reading of the clip opposed a dignified Native American elder and a “smirking” white chauvinist kid. The “smirk” was read as an expression of disrespect, racism and white supremacy, thus strengthening the theme of the Indigenous Peoples’ March.  The fact that Nathan Phillips was also said to be a Vietnam veteran highlighted the inappropriateness of his attitude: veterans command respect, period. Memes were made in which this reading was codified (see Figure 1), and mainstream media broadcasted the story in these terms.


Nick Sandmann’s MAGA hat (by means of which he is identified in Figure 1) evidently laid a strong indexical link between Sandmann, the incident and Donald Trump, and in online discussions this connection was elaborated (see Figure 2).


A New Right forum (or hivemind) called Q also immediately picked up the incident, and in the remainder of this section their reactions and reframing attempts will be central.

Q is an online activist collective in which a particular vocabulary is being used, including one for identifying the hierarchical levels of members and the specific activities they undertake, as well as the themes they mobilize around and the opponents they choose to fight. Q operates at different levels, with ingroup core actions confined to the relatively marginal user-generated imageboard platform 8Chan, while actions reaching out to a broader network of (potential) followers being performed on Facebook. More specifically, Q is believed to be a high-ranking individual or a small group of individuals operating in Trump’s administration with Q clearance, a level at which top secret and restricted data can be accessed. Based on their insider knowledge, Q post semi-coded messages (“crumbs”) on 8chan, which are compiled and discussed by their followers (Anons), who organize themselves in what they call ‘Great Awakening’: “an organic information and truth-seeking campaign, the goal of which is to help President Trump peacefully Make America Great Again, and by extension to make the world a better, safer place for all to live in peace” (Anons 2018: 1)[1]. This involves identifying and exposing both domestic and foreign enemies of Trump with a particular focus on what they have done (false flags operations, corruption, misdirection, cover ups, mind control etc.) what they do and will probably do with regard to current and past events.

Q’s first wave of Facebook responses consisted of rejections of mainstream media’s version of the events, swiftly followed by avalanches of messages offering the truth about what happened (cf. Figure 3).


In the days and weeks following the incident, ‘evidence’ was accumulated showing that Nathan Phillips was not a Vietnam veteran, that he had participated in several other public protests and activists’ meetings, that he could be identified as affiliated to organizations run by George Soros, and so on. The initially dominant frame was effectively turned upside down. Now, images of the incident should be read as involving an innocent, ordinary white kid being the victim of aggression by a professional activist claiming fake credentials. And from there onwards, the small incident became understood as a mere illustration of the big problem providing the raison d’être for Q: systematic anti-Trump machinations planned and performed in the US and elsewhere. The way the incident was cast in mainstream media, so argued Q members, was just another “hate hoax” – the fake news often qualified as “an enemy of the people” by Donald Trump.

The lines of action performed by Q in the wake of the MAGA kid incident have been sketched. We will proceed to deepen it, focusing on an examination of the particular ergoic knowledge regime developed and articulated within Q.

3. Ergoic reasoning: the Deep State theory and the MAGA kid incident

In order to understand what follows, we need to return to an old ethnomethodological principle: that people are reasonable whenever they try to make sense of social life, and that “reasonable” should not be confused with rational as conventionally used. Being “rational”, conventionally used, stands for the strictly regimented, detached, facts-only and evidence-based epistemic modality that characterizes, in the Enlightenment tradition, scientific reasoning and other modes of fact-based knowledge work such as journalism and forensic-legal inquiry.

Being “reasonable”, in contrast, consists of the construction of plausible explanatory formats in which details of everyday life can be related to some “theory” as proof of that theory (hence ergo, since the detail is explicable because of the theory). The theory – similar to what Goffman (1974) described as an overarching “frame” organizing experience – consists of general propositions of “how the world is” and how, consequently, everyday events can be made sense of as “logically” explicable with reference to the general propositions. The conventional understanding of being rational, then, is just one specific (and specialized) mode of being reasonable (Garfinkel 1967).

We can take this one step further. One can be “reasonable” precisely by disqualifying rationality in its conventional sense. The propositions of “how the world is” have the status of truth, and when this truth is contradicted by “hard facts” (of science, journalism or the law), such facts can be dismissed as fallacies or lies. And what we seen in conspiracy theories is exactly that: an antirational mode of arriving at reasonable explanations grounded in ergoic relations between specific events and a general theory or masterframe of “how the world is”. The latter has the status of truth, and – here comes the conspiracy – this truth is typically hidden by powerful opponents and demands to be revealed through the actions of the conspiracy theorists.

The masterframe within which Q performs its actions can be sketched as follows; we shall use the Q jargon discussed earlier.

  1. Q explicitly claims to work for Donald Trump. In that sense, it can be set apart from most other conspiracy theorists, who identify with the margins and pose as powerless voices. In the case of Q, there is an explicit alignment with the President of the US. The president, however, is described as locked into battle with what Q calls the “Cabal”. The Cabal are an alliance of several actors also qualified (by Trump) as “the swamp”: the real powers that control the US and the world. Q explicitly inscribes its actions in Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp”. Q members join Trump’s battle as “patriots”, self-qualifying as “We the People” (with its intertextual resonances firmly rooted in the foundational texts of US democracy). And they undertake “research” – knowledge practices aimed at publicly revealing a truth deliberately hidden by the Cabal.
  2. The Cabal is – in practice – organized around four major actors. The first is Hilary Clinton, Trumps opponent during the 2016 presidential elections and seen as guilty of a protracted conspiracy to weaken the position of Donald Trump and, thus, to undemocratically regain the power that she was democratically denied in 2016. Clinton is described as an active opponent who, through the machinery of her Clinton Foundation and related charities and NGOs, as well as through her connections with the DC elites, sets up an unending sequence of attacks on Donald Trump. Trump systematically used the epithet of “crooked” for Hilary Clinton.
  3. A second major Cabal actor is Barack Obama. Obama, in Q discourse, represents the “deep state”; in that sense he is rather a passive opponent whose harmful influence is felt through the actions of state agencies such as the CIA, the FBI and the Supreme Court, all of which have been organized by Obama in such a way that they serve the interests of the Cabal.
  4. The third major actor in the Cabal is billionaire entrepreneur George Soros. Q describes Soros as a “puppet master” who actively finances and implements the plans and schemes of the Cabal, usually through the NGOs and networks he runs. Soros is also a “globalist”, whose activities have a scope far beyond the US. Which is why Trump needs to develop a new international policy and new international partnerships.
  5. Finally, there are MSM, the mainstream media, seen as the public outlets of the Cabal and therefore the main direct opponents of Q’s fact-checking and debunking online actions. The media, so it is argued, are the tools of propaganda and disinformation of the American public, happily transforming meticulously crafted anti-Trump hoaxes into major news stories.

We can call this the “deep state theory”, and summarize it schematically as follows:


This deep state theory provides the dominant ergoic logic for all of Q’s actions. Whenever a case is opened by Q, the direction in which ‘research’ is taken is scripted in the terms of this masterframe. The first step, therefore, is the instant assumption that mainstream news is fake, after which the detailed fact checking must reveal the direct or indirect involvement of the various actors in the Cabal.

In essence, the masterframe pictures an all-powerful, totalitarian state undemocratically controlled by the Cabal and shaped so as to serve their interests. The term “deep state” stands for exactly this: a state the organization and functioning of which have been profoundly adapted to serve particular elite interests rather than those of the masses (“We, the People”). The all-powerful nature of that state is reflected, according to Q members, in the level of meticulous planning of hoaxes and the never-ending, massive supply of such hoaxes, suggesting top-level organization, phenomenal resources and investments made available, and the mobilization of the “best and brightest” in the efforts of the Cabal. There are obvious pointers towards George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Newspeak took the place of today’s “fake news” and where Big Brother sees all, knows all, and shapes a reality which is, in actual fact, a totalized lie intended to safeguard the power of the state from any unwanted form of interference. In the “MAGA kid” incident, the reference to Orwell is explicit in this meme:


Entering into greater detail, we see how the elements of the deep state theory serve, ergoically, as directives for practices of “research”. These practices are diverse and range from the constructions of “true” memes as didactic tools, over more elaborate explanatory practices in which features of evidence are being discussed, disassembled and reconstructed, and interactionally constructed modes of learning, mutual ratification and correction.

3.1. Data

The data were gathered from a Q-based Facebook group QAnon Follow The White Rabbit, which had roughly 37,000 members at the time of the incident. We joined the group several months (October 2018) prior to the incident to conduct a systematic ethnographic observation without active participation (commenting, liking or sharing). There are four main reasons why we selected this group in particular: i) the group is highly active (usually dozens of posts per day) and with a relatively high level of engagement from its members, ii) the group is sufficiently representative of the Q phenomenon in view of its gatekeeping mechanisms – it is a closed group (access is granted upon answering relating to Trump in which the applicant must show alignment with the Q masterframe), iii) the group shows little or no signs of content filtering or censoring activities and the vast majority of posted content is Q related; iv) the group has enabled a search function that helps us to laser in on its reception of the MAGA kid incident as it unfolds in a number of contexts which we will describe below.

We shall limit our analysis to QAnon’s reception and re/de-construction Nathan Phillips’ media image based on the memes and comments as reactions to posts containing links to various media informing of the MAGA kid incident that had posted in the group between January 20 and 25.  The data were collected in March 2019 after the activity pertaining the incident had ceased. To gain a better understanding of the networked chronotopic conditions in which our data emerge, we cross-checked and consulted our data with other Q-based platforms and websites, including q-research section on 8chan, Q-related data aggregators (e.g. and other Q-related groups and pages on Facebook.

3.2 Analysis

We will focus on the following aspects of QAnon’s knowledge activism in debunking of the (mainstream) media image of Nathan Phillips: 1) exposing his true military credentials and 2) dispelling his authority as a native elder, which provides basis for 3) revealing his ties to the Deep State, and finally 4) his complicity in more grand conspiracy theories connected with the Cabal, namely its crusade against Christianity. But let us not forget that our analysis is not aimed to (dis)prove conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon. Our goal is ethnomethodoloical: we look at how the members of the QAnon make sense of the MAGA kid incident though interaction; or more precisely, how their interactional engagement marks a congregational work producing conspiracies as social facts and conspiracism as a default mode of reasoning. On that note, we begin with a brief outline of the most circulated memes illustrating the masterframe with regard to each line of debunking, and then we proceed to the discussion of the comments along the line in question.

Nathan Phillips is not a Vietnam veteran

Phillips’ military credentials were immediately questioned and invalidated in the wake of media’s reporting on the MAGA hat incident and subsequent interviews in which Phillips mentioned his military background and alleged service in Vietnam. QAnon’s ‘research’ (comparing Phillips’ earlier media appearances and other available information about him) shows discrepancies in his claims as well as questionable sincerity in his performance, which subsequently serve as ergoic arguments in undermining his account. The discrepancies are also documented in a number of memes circulating in the group.


fig 7 8Q

Fig. 6 features Phillips’ discharge papers (released under the Freedom of Information Act) indicating a number of AWOLs (absent without official leave) and no evidence of his Vietnam service. Its explanatory caption indicates that while his military service is honorable (even for QAnons), his personal integrity is not; and therefore, he cannot be trusted. This creates an aura of unbiased and rigorous ‘research’ or ‘fact-checking’ in addition to constructing a sense of epistemic superiority (having access to classified or hard-to-get information) on the basis of which QAnon makes its ‘evidence’ more compelling.

Other memes point to discrepancies in Phillips’ account (fig 6.) or mock Phillips by putting him on par with another “fakes” gaining a status of a meme (fig. 8). These memetic figures include a NBC anchor Brian William (on the right) falsely claiming to be a wartime correspondent in Iraq and a survivor of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, David Hogg (on the left), who is believed to be a crisis actor.[1]Memes propagated by Qanons inform and are informed by the masterframe of “how the world is”– the event was staged, orchestrated or simply ‘fake’. This is also reflected in the vocabulary resonating with the imperative to expose the role of Nathan Phillips played in the event.


(2) The old bloke is a FAKE – PAID ACTOR !!!!!!!

(3) He is a paid protester.

(4)    Nathan Phillips is a fake and a plant. He was never in the service. Says he was a veteran. The Indians don’t like him, He gives them a bad name. He is a professional victim and a POS!

(4.1)Lets not forget stolen valor. Having never served as a “recon ranger” (no such job exists in the Marines) and never served in vietnam (As he professed to CNN)

Commenters frame Phillips along the same lines of ingenuity: as a fake patriot ‘FAKETRIOT’, paid actor and protester, an activist, a plant (i.e. a planted undercover agent)and a professional victim. Full or partial capitalization and overpunctuation frequently mark the urgency and insistence of highlighting the superiority of the epistemic regime pertaining to the Q masterframe.

The last two comments show how ‘evidence’ can be further specified and elaborated by QAnons. While (4) outlines the baseline ‘facts’ about Phillips, (4.1) answers by a more nuanced expository account of the claims Phillips “professed to CNN” (see the full transcript in Sidner 2019). In this vein, Phillips is not just a mere ‘fake’ – he is charged with ‘stolen valor’ (lying about military service), which is arguably a higher offense earning him more deplorable status of a ‘LOWLIFE’ and ‘POS’ (piece of shit). Apart from his military records, his self-reference ‘recon ranger’ (presumably part of special operation forces generally known as Army Rangers) is what gives him away, as it, according to 4.1, does not correspond with the Army register (nor with his expertise as refrigeration mechanic, fig. 5). We thus see that QAnon brings together people with different levels of knowledge and expertise from a wide array of domains which they utilize in concordance in their pursuit of ‘the truth’.

When the discrepancies became evident to general publics, CNN amended their report with the following note attached to the end of the transcript: “Correction: After this interview was conducted, Phillips told CNN he was Vietnam-era veteran. He did serve in the military during the Vietnam War, but according to his service records, he was not deployed to Vietnam” (Sidner 2019, n.pag). Commenters expressed both surprise and pride in furthering their endeavor in enacting the ‘Great Awakening’:

(5)    I can’t believe that CNN have started telling the truth..

(6)    Good news of the day – It’s getting harder and harder for the MSM [mainstream media] to dupe us anymore. It’s almost like a majority of us are waking up!

We now turn to another mode of ergoic reasoning related to identity work. In the next section we will see how the Q masterframe drives the scrutinizing and meticulous invalidation of another aspect of Phillips’ media image – his respectable rank among Native Americans.

Nathan Phillips is not a true representative of Native Americans

According to the research conducted by QAnons and testimonies of its members who identify as Native American, the Native American community is presented as ambivalent toward Nathan Phillips at best. Another series of memes and comment testimonies question the sincerity and authenticity in Phillips’ behavior. Instead of promoting Native American traditions and culture, Phillips’ presence in mainstream media reporting on the MAGA kid as well a past incidents shows ‘evidence’ that it has been in fact an intentional provocation falling in line with his previous public stunts that expose his true nature of an agent provocateur with a political agenda.





In this vein, fig. 9 captures and comments on Phillips’ earlier media presence tailored in a coherent frame that de-constructs his image as a respectable elder of the Omaha tribe, and re-constructs it as a provocateur political activist with ulterior motives. This includes, apart from the MAGA kid incident, a 2015 interview with Phillips following a similar confrontation with white students from the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) allegedly dressed as Indians in which Phillips claims that the students had approached him and eventually launched racist remarks on his address. Similarly to the MAGA kid incident, Phillips seeks moral vindication in the interview: “Whoever would sit judgement [sic] on them [the students], the university the law, society, that is their job” (Spencer 2015: n. pag.). The final fragment at the bottom of fig. 9 shows Phillips posing for a photograph in 2018 while being situated in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests[1]. Being equipped with an eagle staff and jacket with Indian tribal patterns, Phillips’ posture with his head not facing the camera, dark glasses and folded hands emanate a conceited look of a poseur or a model, and do not add up with the supposed protests that ought to have been going on. The composition of the photo thus does not speak of authenticity – it is taken as yet another piece of ‘evidence’ of the spuriousness behind his victim image presented by the mainstream media. Once again, Phillips’ identity performance is mocked through semiotic work superimposing his head into another memetic format ‘the most interesting man in the world’ (fig. 10) that is supposed to convey an avuncular life advice from a refined gentleman. In the same vein, Phillips gives advice on how to exploit a disadvantaged racial background to your benefit by playing a victim. Finally fig. 11 shows that screenshot Tweets can also operate as memes, which, in this case, questions Phillips’ representativeness of the Native American community by its own members.

Commenters attach great importance to Phillips’ representativeness of the Omaha tribe as well as Native Americans in general. We can notice processes of ratification in the comment section when it comes to extending the blame to the entire tribe, in which Phillips is taken as an elder.

(7)    If he’s their elder what does that say about them?

(7.1)    [referring to5]Don’t lump them all together. There are many elders in tribes. Elders mean older people .His tribe is probably embarrassed by him. Most Natives are good kind people. And will admit when someone is wrong.

Interestingly, Phillips is immediately reproached as an isolated individual whose actions do not represent the views or position of his tribe. On the contrary, the leading and authoritative connotations behind his rank of an elder are invalidated (“Elders mean older people”) and severed from his identity (“His tribe is probably embarrassed by him”) in addition to being attributed several qualities incompatible with an imagined ‘Native’ (Phillips is evil, unkind and intentional liar). Other commenters anticipate similar lumping statements and preemptively intervene with an apology.

(8)    I am Native and this guy has done nothing good for native people.
I am assuming that because of his actions there is big money involved.
I will Apologize for his actions
But with this I am putting this out here too.
We do all really need to learn to get along or the groups
wanting to keep everyone fighting so we can’t gang up on them

By identifying himself as a ‘Native’, he presents an insider view on Phillips, confirming that his interests align with the Cabal (i.e. ‘big money’) rather than with the Native Americans. What can be also noted is the imperative for maintaining social cohesion of QAnons in the face of provocateurs like Phillips and “the groups wanting to keep everyone fighting” and limiting the QAnons’ options to “gang up on them”. This brings us to the collective enemy, the Deep State.

Nathan Phillips is an agent of the Deep State

Having outlined some of the aspects behind QAnons’ ‘evidence’ debunking Phillips’ mainstream media image, it is no surprise that the inconsistencies and discrepancies in his statements and inauthenticity of his self-presentations are associated with the conspiratory scheming and machinations of the Deep State.




Before we address more general connections with the Deep State drawn in the fig 12, let us first discuss another frequent type of memes (fig. 13 and 14) associating Phillips with a current prominent representative of the Deep State – Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic Senator, 2020 preliminary presidential candidate and a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton. Warren has been consistently mocked by Trump and his supporters as ‘Pocahontas’ (or ‘Liawatha’[1] and the like) due to her purported Native American heritage she claimed after releasing results of her DNA test. Similarly to Phillips, she has been caught in a controversy, whereby their actions are perceived as political stunts and repudiated by the representatives of the Native American community. It comes as no surprise that when Warren praised Phillips’ endurance over “hateful taunts” on her Twitter account (Warren 2019), the compromised credibility she had accrued in the QAnon discourses was immediately transferred onto Phillips via memes as useful instrument.

Both memes possess captions drawing connection to the usual suspect of the Deep State (i.e. Soros, fig. 13) or evoking a sense of fulfilled anticipation, empowering and reinforcing the Q masterframe (fig. 14).

On a more general level, connections between Phillips’ Native Youth Alliance[2] and the Deep State are more didactically outlined in a diagram on fig. 12, which marks another line of ‘evidence’ that invalidates the institutional legitimacy of the organization that Phillips openly represents and promotes. This is done in a typical fashion – by following the financial trail or the ubiquitous question ‘cui bono?’ (who benefits?) which becomes pressing after Phillips’ purported identity virtues (a respectable elder with a noble cause) and credentials (Vietnam veteran) are dismantled. Exposing Phillips as “fake” is not enough – the ‘reason’, ‘motivation’ or generally ‘the truth’ behind his spuriousness must be explained. It is thus no surprise that QAnons’ research discovers financing by the crown members of the Deep State (i.e. Soros and his Open Society in conjunction with other compromised foundations marked by red squares), indicating their vested interest which will be discussed in the following subsection. The need for rendering the event meaningful for the QAnon community is explicitly articulated in the caption “now it makes sense” (top left) – the meme then provides a direct visualization of the conspiratorial masterframe applied in the particular chronotopic configuration of the MAGA kid incident.

More specifically, making sense is here guided by a number of visual devices, namely red arrows, boxes and careful distribution of additional semiotic fragments (list of donors/supporters, logos, portraits, headlines and sub-headlines presumably from a website of or related to Native Youth Alliance) in a circular composition – a frequent visual trope in conspiratorial discourses drawing ties between different individual and organizations (Byford 2011: 74). The geometrical shape often evokes order and coherence to otherwise seemingly random patchwork of ‘evidence’. As far as the comments are concerned, commenters seem to be readily accepting the ties between the Deep State and Nathan Phillips.


(10)     Soros paid puppet

(11)     And finally, the TRUTH !!! A Soros paid instigator.

(12)     Chief smoking crack is a scum bag bought paid for by Democrats
Video clearly shows him walking to confront kid.
Kid did nothing wrong.
And once again CNN and the corrupt media spin it off against the kids
Promoting false propaganda

The associations between Phillips with the Deep State point to its multi-layered and vague structure of that Popper describes as “a kind of group-personality” operating as “conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men” (Popper 1972: 125). In this regard, Phillips falls in line with the usual suspects of the Deep State: liberals (9), Soros (10 and 11), democrats (12), and of course the mainstream media (most notably CNN, 10). The act of exposing Phillip’s true motivation often sparks a conspiratorial jouissance– satisfaction in furthering QAnons’ agenda (9) and a fulfilling sense of closure (11), but also a call for more elaborate explanation (12) re-energizing the purpose and validity of QAnon’s enterprise. On that last note, 12 attempts to extract a ‘take-home’ message situating the MAGA kid incident into a larger perspective. The decisiveness in Phillips movement towards the group of students have been interpreted as a sign of premeditation rather than coincidence (because he was paid to do so), which the mainstream media attempt to “spin” in promoting their own “propaganda” and the agenda behind it reaching and affecting the whole of ‘AMERICA’.

Consequently, there is a larger agenda to be discovered or exposed through the prism of everyday public events and encounters. Note that the perceived relationship between Phillips and the Deep State is of subordinate nature; Phillips is a mere instrument – a “puppet”, “actor”, “instigator” (provocateur) in a more grand scheme of things. This brings us to the overarching narrative in the Q masterframe– its millennial alignment with Christian morality and values against which the Deep State conspires.

Nathan Phillips provoked the standoff in a conspiracy against Christianity

To understand QAnon’s preoccupation with Phillips’ complicity in a conspiracy against Christianity, we have to reiterate that the whole incident took place in a clash between a catholic high school students participating in a March for life and Indigenous’ peoples March led by Phillips. Having revealed the true intent in Phillips’ engagement in the Indigenous’ peoples March, the conflict is quickly translated into a millennial fight between good (catholic MAGA hat kids) and evil (Phillips as an agent of the Deep State). Here we shall limit ourselves to the most prominent line of interpretation – staging the incident as a bid of the Deep State to incite anti-Catholic sentiments in order to weaken Trump’s sway over the Supreme Court of the United States.



Nearly three months before the MAGA kid incident, an associate judge of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), had suffered a multiple rib fracture demanding surgery and considerable medical care, and vanished from both public and professional life to recover from the incident. This led QAnons and other germane groups to believe that she is in fact dead, and negotiations are taking place regarding her replacement. Memes in this respect point to an elaborate scheme (fig. 15) to thwart or delay the nomination of Amy Coney Barret – Trump’s potential Supreme Court candidate and an openly faithful Catholic. Remembering that the ultimate goal of the QAnon community is the “Great Awakening”, the memes in this regard also aim for a general galvanization of the QAnon to wake people up in the course of fighting the ‘evil’ (fig. 14). The incentive resonates strongly in the comment sections.

(13)This tells me that he is being paid to slury the media message about Catholics. Yep. Getting ready for [RBG]

(14)This is to get people riled up and anti catholic for the next Supreme court nominee once they announce Ginsberg is dead

(14.1)  That is exactly the reason they are doing all of this. It is planned and paid for folks. Wake Up. The replacement for Ginsberg is going to be a Catholic female. They are trying to get the public up in arms about Catholics! It is called brainwashing the sheep!

(14.2)  yes, I believe that is a piece of the puzzle

As previously noted, Qanons are convinced that RBG is dead or her death will be announced in a near future (indicated in the QAnon code by a kill box [name] surrounding a given target, as used by 13). Once again we see a call for unity against the divisive subterfuge and scheming of the Deep State “to get people riled up and anti catholic” (14). Looking at some of the reactions to 14, commentators do not perceive the incident as isolated; it is “a piece of the puzzle” (14.2) or a larger effort in “brainwashing the sheep” (14.1). A frequent attempt to realize or uncover the bigger picture consists of drawing parallels among similar events in order to ergoically infer the mechanisms or strategies deployed by the Deep State.

(13) The Democrat Party Their sycophants Of The Main Stream Media And the Holly’s Wood elites, have become toxic… they have no respect for Christians or Catholicism …they have escalated the false narrative about the incident instigated by Nathan Phillips, to the same level as “Obama and Hands Up Don’t Shoot”…this fake news has been used by the Democrats and their sycophants of the MSM to sow Racial and Religious Division among Americans…

(14)OK, this POS is obviously paid off to attack all things Catholicism..Hmmmm…I wonder why??? Nothing to do with RBG and the new projected SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] judge right? They are not even clever.. Their playbook is simple. You are a racist, sexist with masculine toxicity, homophobic committing face crimes while smirking. Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light. The BS is so thick right now that you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling. Its bombastic and even more sophomoric than before. Doesn’t seem possible but it happens.

In this regard, 13 draws parallel to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown who had been allegedly killed by a police officer while surrendering. The event gave way to ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ – slogan/gesture gaining media traction and quickly spilling into protests and activist moments (e.g. Black Lives Matter) against police violence. In the wake of the event, then-president Obama responded with sympathy for Brown and called the Americans to remember him through “reflection and understanding” (Obama 2014: n. pag.; cf. fig. 14) – a move which is now perceived as part of preparing fertile ground for contemporary division along the racial and religious lines, especially in the light of the controversy[1] that surrounded the shooting soon afterwards.

On the other hand, 14 tailors an ergoic frame laced with irony in a series of rhetorical questions, pointing to a ready-made scenario presumed to be enacted by the Deep State on similar occasions. The obviousness (“you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling”) behind perceived behavioral order attributed to the Deep State seems to be the driving force reifying not only the Q masterframe, but also their knowledge activism gradually leading to fruition (“Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light”). Although the notion of the Deep State is rarely explicitly mentioned, it functions as a codification of discursive properties or chronotopic conditions that organize and ratify meaning-making processes related to mediated events, whereby ‘the truth’ can be discerned as a historical contingency in which its individual parts (Obama as its architect, democrats – including Clinton and Warren – as the enactors, the mainstream media as its instruments, Hollywood’s elites as its promoters, and Soros as the financial engine) work in conjunction to manipulate the public against Trump.

To summarize, we see knowledge activism of the QAnon community as not just  exposing or spreading ‘the truth’  in ‘Great Awakening’, but rather as an effort to instill a specific ergoic mode of reasoning to be applied in everyday life (alternatively described as ‘metapolitics’ (Maly 2018), ‘conspiracism’ (Barkun 2016; Byford 2011) or ‘paranoia’ (Hofstadter 1967)). The recipients or target audience are not categorized in terms of specific social or identity diacritics, and even the ideological opponents are not excluded – simply everyone ”see the light”. QAnon’s knowledge activism strives to reach beyond echo chambers of the Q related groups and platforms – it is to be enacted both online and offline, but with a constant recursion to the source of Q and QAnons. In this sense, knowledge activism constitutes the main organizing principle of the Qanon community, it secures its social cohesion in the face of a great internal diversity as well as dispersed and disembodied character of social media giving rise to temporal and loosely connected light forms of sociality in the online-offline nexus (Blommaert and Varis 2015; van Dijck, Poell and de Waal 2019).

4. Conclusions

The different actions documented in the preceding section are all guided by the “truth” inscribed in the deep state theory; details of the event can be ergoically connected, through “research” by Q members, to features of the theory – which is thereby continually confirmed and reiterated as the truth about “how the world is”. The actions we observed are all oriented towards knowledge, and Q can, as a community, be described as profoundly involved in knowledge activism. This knowledge activism is “reasonable” while it is profoundly antirational: it operates according to a compelling logic, the validity of which resides in the quality of the theory. When the quality of the theory remains unexamined and unquestioned, it is very hard to dislodge the specific ergoic arguments produced in the process. Conspiracy theories, we can see, are powerful argumentative tools.

It is through attention to concrete actions performed by members that we get a glimpse of the structure of an otherwise elusive community such as Q and of the ordered, patterned character of their actions. We are not observing an accidental congregation of people misled by first impressions and fake facts: we see a regimented community collectively performing a set of well-defined and ‘specialized’, genred actions, in a way that combines a light organizational structure with massive algorithmically mediated message circulation and considerable impact on public opinion, by systematically (and reasonably) dislodging and reframing what is widely accepted as the truth. This is serious business, and it is hardcore contemporary politics.


Research for this paper was supported by the ESF project “International Mobility of Researchers at Charles University” (No.: CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008495). We gratefully acknowledge the stimulating input of Piia Varis. 


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We are deeply grateful to our colleague and friend PiiaVaris for inspiration and guidance in the field of conspiracy theories. Piia’s work (e.g. Varis 2018) sketched the direction and raised the issues we try to address in this paper.

Brenton Tarrant’s views of diversity


Jan Blommaert

28-year old Australian Brenton Tarrant executed a thoroughly prepared attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, leaving 49 people dead and more injured.

The format of his attack was entirely derived from the manifesto of Anders Breivik. As he writes in his text, “I only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik.” This inspiration included leaving a manifesto of his own, called The Great Replacement. A full analysis of this manifesto will follow soon. For now, let me just quote, verbatim and at length, what Tarrant writes on diversity in his manifesto. For those familiar with Breivik’s manifesto, the remarkable similarities will be obvious.

Diversity is weak

Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength? Does anyone even ask

why? It is spoken like a mantra and repeated ad infinitum “diversity is

our greatest strength, diversity is our greatest strength, diversity is our

greatest strength…”. Said throughout the media, spoken by politicians,

educators and celebrities. But no one ever seems to give a reason why.

What gives a nation strength? And how does diversity increase that

strength? What part of diversity causes this increase in strength? No one

can give an answer.

Meanwhile the “diverse” nations across the world are scenes of endless

social, political, religious and ethnic conflict. The United states is one of

the most diverse nations on Earth, and they are about an inch away from

tearing each other to pieces. Brazil with all its racial diversity is

completely fractured as a nation, where people cannot get along and

separate and self segregate whenever possible. South Africa with all its

“diversity” is turning into a bloody backwater as its diversity increases,

black on other black, black on white, white on black, black on Indian,

doesn’t not matter, its ethnicity vs ethnicity. They all turn on each other

in the end.

Why is it that what gives Western nations strength(diversity)is not what

gives Eastern nations(China, Japan, Taiwan,South Korea)their strength?

How are they so strong, China set to be the worlds most dominant nation

in this century, whilst lacking diversity? Why is that their non diverse

nations do so much better than our own, and on so many different


Diversity is not a strength. Unity, purpose, trust, traditions, nationalism

and racial nationalism is what provides strength. Everything else is just a




Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape


Jan Blommaert & Ico Maly


Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA) was developed as a way of addressing in a more satisfactory way the structure and significance of linguistic landscapes as an object in the study of sociolinguistic superdiversity (Blommaert & Maly 2016). The effort was inspired by a refusal to perform ‘snapshot’ linguistic landscape analysis based on hit-and-run fieldwork and yielding a Saussurean synchrony as analytical outcome. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the dynamic, processual character of superdiverse linguistic landscapes through a combination of longitudinal fieldwork, detailed observations of changes in the landscape, and an ethnographic-theoretical framework in which landscape signs are seen as traces of (and instruments for) social action (cf. Blommaert 2013).

It is the latter point that we seek to examine more profoundly in this paper. The aspect of social action remains, in general, an underdeveloped aspect of Linguistic Landscape research (LL), and here, too, the Saussurean synchrony can be identified as an underlying sociological imagination in much work. Social action, it seems, is located within a geographical circumscription – a neighborhood, a street, a town – which is seen as the locus of action of a sedentary community. LL signs are routinely interpreted as reflecting, in some way, the linguistic repertoires of those who live in the area where the signs have been emplaced. This, then, enables LL researchers to make statements about the demographic composition of such areas of emplacement, projected into statements about the sociolinguistic structures in that area.

The concept of social action, thus interpreted, remains highly superficial and deserves and demands far more attention. The question that needs to be raised is: who is involved in social action in such areas? And what is the locus of such actions? Linguistic landscapes in superdiverse areas often offer clues that significantly complicate the assumptions about sedentary populations mentioned above. A simple example can be seen in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken. © Jan Blommaert 2018

This picture was taken in the inner-city district of Oud-Berchem, Antwerp (Belgium) in the summer of 2018; we see a van with a Dutch-language inscription “Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken” (“Antwerp General Roofing Works”), but with a Polish license plate locating the van in the area of Poznan. While the inscription suggests locality – a reference to Antwerp on a van emplaced in Antwerp – the license plate suggests translocality. Thus, building work performed in Antwerp appears to be connected to actions performed in Poznan – recruiting a workforce, manufacturing bespoke materials, warehousing heavy equipment and so forth. In an era of transnational mobility, such things are evident, but they raise the fundamental questions outlined above.

Such questions, we believe, are becoming even more pressing and compelling as soon as we adjust our baseline sociological assumptions and accept that contemporary social life is not only played out in an ‘offline’ physical arena of copresent participants encountering each other in public space (the focus of Goffman 1963), but also in online spaces crosscutting the online ones in complex ways (cf. Blommaert 2018). We live our lives in an online-offline nexus. This simple observation renders us aware of the fact that social actions can be organized, set up, “staffed” and distributed in online as well as offline spaces; and it helps us realize that much of what we observe in the way of social action in superdiverse (offline, geographical) areas has, at least, been conditioned and perhaps even made possible by online infrastructures, in terms both of actors and of topography. This point we intend to illustrate in what follows.

A focus on action

Before moving on towards these illustrations, we must briefly clarify the focus on action we shall bring to this analysis. Our own view of action is deeply influenced by an older tradition of action-centered sociology, of which Goffman (1961, 1963), Cicourel (1972), Blumer (1969) Strauss (1993) and Garfinkel (1967, 2002) can be seen as co-architects (see Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019 for a discussion).

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes, “which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

The latter point is of crucial importance here. It emphasizes that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions, and in an online-offline nexus, identifying this “personnel” is the challenge: who is actually and concretely involved in social action as actor? Who actually contributes to the actual form and structure of social actions? To these questions we can now turn, and we shall use ELLA as our tool.

Invisible lines

The method we employ in ELLA is very simple: we observe everything we notice in the way of publicly displayed language material. But we do not stop at the level of language – even if that language is, evidently, an important clue for locating e.g. diasporic audiences – but we look at what is actually contained in the signs. And one feature of a great number of publicly displayed signs nowadays is online information: references to websites, social media accounts and so forth. This already directs us towards a highly relevant insight: that “public” as a feature of sign emplacement now has at least two dimensions: the local public emplacement of signs – the concrete place where signs are put and shown to potential audiences – as well as a translocal, online public sphere with which the local signs are profoundly connected. This insight, in our view, forces us out of the local area and out of the customary modes of LL fieldwork: we have to move from the street to the computer, and we follow the online information displayed in the signs.

The superdiverse area of Oud-Berchem counts a large number of new shop-window evangelical churches catering for specific diaspora audiences from Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia (Blommaert 2013). One such church is located in premises previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant. A couple of posters are affixed to the austere front of the building; Figure 2 displays one of them.

Figure 2

Figure 2: services at the Latin-American church. © Jan Blommaert 2018

The poster offers mundane information: the weekly organization of services in the church. We notice that the information is bilingual, in Dutch and Spanish (here is the level of language), and we already know from previous fieldwork that the church is run by pastors from Peru and caters for a relatively small congregation of faithful hailing from several parts of Latin America.

At the very bottom of the poster, however, we notice a web address: When we follow that link, we enter a very different sphere (Figure 3).

figure 3

Figure 3: Experience Bethel.

Bethel TV is a globally active religious enterprise, based in California, and offering for-money religious services and commodities to a very wide audience of customers around the world. The Bethel TV website contains all the features of commercial websites, including the “free trial” offer, preferably followed by the “premium” subscription (Figure 4).

figuur 4b

Figure 4: Bethel Premium

Note the implications of this. We have moved from a sociolinguistics of offline areas and communities into a sociolinguistics of digital culture, and both are inextricably connected in a locally emplaced sign. That we find ourselves fully in the realm of digital culture becomes clear when we follow some more links. Bethel TV is active on a great number of social media platforms, and prominently on YouTube, where its channel has almost 150,000 subscribers (figure 5).

Figure 4

Figure 5: Bethel TV YouTube channel

YouTube channels along with other social media activities, let us note, are a frequent feature of the new evangelical churches in Oud-Berchem. Thus, Apostle Johnson Suleman, the pastor of a church serving a small West-African congregation in Oud-Berchem, is far bigger online than offline. His YouTube channel has over 106,000 subscribers and shows footage of services held in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and several other countries (Figure 6).

Figuur 6

Figure 6: Apostle Johnson Suleman online

The case of Apostle Johnson Suleman suggests a slightly different analysis than the ones we provided in earlier work: the church in Oud-Berchem is not connected with the “homeland” of its founders (Nigeria in this case), as a kind of “station” in a network of diasporic community members seeking to worship. It is a node in a transnational network of actions, performed by an itinerant pastor-entrepreneur. The center of this network is not Lagos or Abuja: its center is online, it is the YouTube channel that ties together a range of activities and actors dispersed over several countries. And the case of Bethel TV shows how local churches are resourced by religious multinationals also connecting a multitude of small local nodes in a global network.

We see now, through this online-offline ELLA, how lots of invisible lines run to and from a local area – Oud-Berchem – and how explaining what goes on in this local area demands attention to what the invisible lines bring and take in the way of resources and “personnel” to concrete, situated actions such as Sunday churches, and to concrete, situated modes of community-making. Members of the congregation have 24/7 access to some services of “the church”, regardless of where they are physically stationed. Figure 7, from the website of yet another evangelical church located in Oud-Berchem, illustrates this.

Figuur 7

Figure 7: Web testimonials

The website offers a page for “testimonials”, and apart from two Antwerp-based members, we also see a testimonial from a member based in Manchester, UK. Members not present in the actual physical locale of the church can watch the services on YouTube and draw similar spiritual satisfaction from it.

Conclusion: ELLA 2.0

When we follow the leads from locally emplaced signs towards the online sphere they point towards, we begin to see vastly more. This move from offline to online and back, we consider to be of major importance for ELLA, for it directs us towards a far more precise view of actors and topography of action. As for actors, the actions performed in specific offline places are dispersed and operate locally as well as translocally. The “personnel” of locally performed actions, thus, is far broader and more diverse than what an exclusively offline LL analysis would show. As for topography, we see invisible lines connecting places as far apart as Oud-Berchem and California, and resources, formats and personnel are provided in all these places and made available for local enactment.

We thus find ourselves in an ELLA 2.0, an online-offline ethnography starting from linguistic landscapes and taking us to the structure of social actions in superdiverse neighborhoods. Its findings inevitably distort the acquired imagery of sedentary diaspora demographics as the cornerstone of superdiversity studies: “multi-ethnic” neighborhoods as the locale within which social actions by their populations must be confined, or privileged analytically. The online-offline nexus no longer affords such views.


Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

—– (2018) Durkheim and the Internet; On Sociolinguistics and the Sociolinguistic Imagination. London: Bloomsbury

Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2016) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and social change: A case study. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti. (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 191-211. New York: Routledge.

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press

Cicourel, Aaron (1973) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interactions. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Prentice Hall

—– (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.

—– (1963) Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology’s Program: 1-64. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New Brunswick: Aldine Transactions

From the Self to the Selfie


Jan Blommaert, Lu Ying, Li Kunming

[Draft chapter, in Byron Adams & Fons van de Vijver (eds.) Contributions to Identity: Identity in Non-Western Contexts, 2019]


The central thesis of this chapter is that, since the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a social and cultural environment that has undergone fundamental and unprecedented changes due to the integration of online infrastructures in the patterns of everyday life conduct.[1] Since then, we inhabit the online-offline nexus, and while both zones have characteristics of their own, both have deeply influenced each other and must be seen as one sociocultural, economic and political habitat. This habitat is as yet poorly theorized, since we continue to rely largely on social theories and methodologies developed to account for patterns and structures characterizing offline conduct: theories of the Self. Such theories now need to be complemented by theories of the “Selfie” – the online configurations and performances of identity observable as normal, default modes of identity work in the online-offline nexus.

In what follows, we shall present a number of proposals for addressing the Selfie. These proposals will be grounded in an action-centered perspective on identity – to be explained at length in the next section – which, in our view, is necessitated by a fundamental feature of online social life: the absence of physical copresence in interaction situations, leading to a lack of the mutual monitoring work which was so central in, for instance, Goffman’s work as a means to achieve knowledge of the other (e.g. Goffman 1966). The other appears online, as all of us know, as a technologically-mediated avatar of which the “real” features cannot be established through the cues we so generously display in offline interactions. In examining online social conduct, consequently, knowledge of who the interlocutor is never an a priori but an effect of concrete social action, and while performing such actions knowledge of the other is presumptive or even speculative. Such action – interaction, to be precise – needs to be central in any methodologically safe approach to online identity.

We shall illustrate these proposals by means of two analytical vignettes, both taken from research on online identity practices on the Chinese internet. China, it must be underscored, offers the student of digital culture perhaps the richest panorama of phenomena and processes presently available. This is due to the massive spread of online (and mobile) online applications, the highly integrated and powerful nature of such applications, and the extraordinarily intense usage of these applications by a very large population. Details on this will be offered below. There is another advantage to working on online data from China: the advanced surveillance culture that pervades the Chinese internet and which has often been critically commented upon by outside observers  But while this surveillance culture is known and visible in the case of China, it is not exceptional at all. Surveillance culture is omnipresent in the online sphere wherever it occurs, to the extent that Zuboff (2019) speaks of “surveillance capitalism” as the system which we now inhabit.

This omnipresent surveillance culture has an important effect for what follows, since online identities – Selfies – always have two major dimensions: an “inside” one, referring to the identity work performed and inhabited by participants in online social action; and an “outside” one performed and ascribed by algorithmically configured data fed into user profiles. While all of us perform intense identity work whenever we operate online, all of us are simultaneously identified – through data aggregations – by surveillance operators active on a metalevel. There, we get an inversion: while the other is often unknown to everyday actors in everyday online interaction, the data-generated metaconstructions of profiles are all about full knowledge of the actor. While in what follows we shall be concerned mainly with the “inside” dimension, one should keep in mind that both dimensions of identity need to be addressed in order to get a comprehensive picture of the Selfie.

An action-centered perspective

Let us reiterate the main reason why we opt for an action-centered perspective on online identity work, for it is of great significance methodologically.  In online social environments, the “true” identity of actors involved in some form of social action is, by default, a matter of presumption. We assume that we are having a “discussion” with our “online friends”, and we notice comments from online friends X, Y and Z. X, Y and Z may not (and very often are not) be people we encounter in the offline sphere; consequently, the only identity we can attribute to them is based on what they themselves show and display to us while we engage in interaction with them.

Such online interaction, as we know,

  • is mostly scripted-designed and multimodal interaction;
  • performed by people we can identify only on the basis of what their profile information reveals; this information can be restricted by privacy settings, it can be misleading or outright fake;
  • it is curated in the sense that the actor can modify, edit, reorganize and even remove the messages deployed in the interaction and
  • technologically mediated through the algorithms of the application we are using, ensuring continuously adjusted “bubbles” of participants selected for involvement on data-analytical grounds. So even if we wish to direct our message to, say, all 2536 of my “friends”, we can never be sure that all of them will see that message, and we ourselves (the “senders” of the message in traditional communication theory) cannot see who can see our message. Thus, while we are directly chatting with X, Y and Z, a few hundred others – whom we do not (and cannot) know – may be witnessing the exchanges.
  • It is archivable in several ways: one, as part of our own archive of stored interactions; two, converted into user data gathered, ordered, kept and transformed by app providers, network owners, hardware manufacturers and security agencies; and dispatched to a market of customers interested in what Zuboff (2019: 8) calls “behavioral futures”.The latter form of “recycling”, note, is constant: all online actions are converted into behavioral-predictive data.

Online interaction, seen from that angle, is nonlinear and defies common models of communication dependent on the transparency of the communication and its resources, including the participants’ identities (individual and collective), the nature of the interaction and the message and their trajectories as consequential or inconsequential communicative events. Online interaction, we can see, is characterized by complexity, uncertainty and low predictability, which makes it hard to squeeze into ideal-type theoretical models.

Online interaction, however, remains observable as social action. And while we can say very little with any degree of a priori certainty about the nature of the interactions, the resources deployed in them and the individuals and collectives involved in them, the actions themselves can be used as a lead into all of this enabling post hoc statements on these aspects of action. Put simply: if we want to know online identities, we need to closely examine online actions.

This heuristic puts us firmly within a long lineage of interactionalist work – a tradition of social thought and methodology with roots in American Pragmatism and Phenomenology, mediated by George Herbert Mead (1934) and Alfred Schütz (1967), and developed by scholars such as Erving Goffman (e.g. 1966, 1974), Herbert Blumer (1969, 2004), Aaron Cicourel (1973), Anselm Strauss (1993), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966), Harold Garfinkel (1967, 2002) and many others.[2]

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes,

“which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

That means that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions.[3]

Having sketched the main principles of the action-centered approach we shall use here, our task is now to link it to the specific characteristics of online interactions, as reviewed earlier. Specific forms of interaction will demand and afford specific forms of identity work and yield specific identities; the specific nature of online interactions, thus, may compel us to focus on identities that are not often seen as essential, “thick” or enduring. But they are identities, to be sure – Selfies rather than Selves. That means: they are concrete, interactionally ratified (and thus relational) inhabited-and-ascribed roles in online social action, recognizable as such by others and constituted out of a number of specific identity dimensions.

Our analytic vignettes will provide arguments.

Becoming an expert user of memes.

The internet is a mammoth informal learning environment, and learning practices, broadly taken, are among the most frequently performed online social actions. Search engine commands are of course cases in point, but even when people engage in discussions, chats or other forms of “ludic” activities, learning appears as one of the main dimension of action. Since online environments are also sites of extremely rapid innovation and change, continuous learning needs to be done in order to enter specific groups of users or remain a ratified member of such communities.

We enter the realm here of so-called “light” relationships, identities and communities, carried along and given substance by means of “light”, ludic practices of the kind so often described by Goffman (e.g. 1961, 1966) – practices not often attributed too much importance when seen from the outside, but often experienced as highly salient by participants and worthy of very considerable efforts (Blommaert & Varis 2015). Attention to such light phenomena is not a mainstream tactic in disciplines explicitly interested in identities. Yet it connects with the interactionist tradition we chose to align our approach with, and in which there was an outspoken interest in the mundane, routine phenomena in which social order could be observed and made palpable. We adopt from this tradition the view that the big things in society can be observed and understood in seemingly small and innocuous events.

Let us now turn to some data gathered from Sina Weibo and WeChat, China’s largest social media providers. As mentioned earlier, China’s online infrastructure offers a fertile terrain for the study of digital culture, unmatched perhaps by any other area in the contemporary world. The reasons for this are manifold and range from the sheer scale of the infrastructure (with nearly a billion people using online tools); the level of sophistication of social media platforms in which functions elsewhere requiring dozens of separate apps are integrated into one platform; the intensity of use of online infrastructures, notably of social media; and the specific features of Chinese language and culture played out in online activities (Du Caixia 2016; Li Kunming 2018; Wang Xuan 2018; Hua Nie 2018; Lu Ying 2018). The latter is of special interest when we feed it back to one of the core features of online interactions: their scripted-designed multimodal nature. The specific characteristics of Chinese script constitute tremendous affordances for wordplay, neologisms and graphic design based on scriptural elements (Hua Nie 2018).

Several such affordances are played out in what is known elsewhere as “memes”, and as “Biaoqingbao” in online China.[4] Biaoqingbao are (like memes) compound signs consisting of an image and – usually – a caption. Images can be summary, like line drawings, but also intricate and manipulated, as when a celebrity’s face is pasted upon a panda bear’s head; in every instance, such doctored images convey interactionally recognizable and ratified emotive meanings – anger, surprise, laughter, aggression, but also more finely tuned emotive responses. Captions often use existing Chinese characters with a twist – playing into the homophony of characters to produce sarcastic or ironic wordplay, obscenities or covert sociopolitical critique, and they sometimes acquire a long and fruitful life as constantly morphing, multifunctional signs (cf. Du Caixia 2016; Hua Nie 2018). Memes can become extraordinarily popular with millions of shares and instances of use, and Biaoqingbao designers can become minor online celebrities with a large cohort of followers whose electronically transmitted cash donations turn Biaoqingbao design into a profitable business venture (Lu Ying 2018). One specific mode of usage of Biaoqingbao is in what is known as “emoticon fights”, in which interactions are organized around the exchange of Biaoqingbao, each time trying to trump (or “defeat”) the opponent.

We have, in this brief survey of Biaoqingbao, already identified identity effects. Highly talented Biaoqingbao designers can acquire celebrity status and function as the recognized leaders of a community of followers. In addition, such success can move them into a more prosperous socio-economic position in Chinese society, outside of the formal economy and labor market. Manufacturing complex, witty and appealing Biaoqingbao is, thus, an activity that can shift positions in a field (to use Bourdieu’s 1993 well-known terms here), and such position shifts are, in effect, identity shifts as well.

But there is more. The relationship between Biaoqingbao makers and their followers, and among members of the users’ community as well, is characterized by hierarchies within a learning community. An example can make this clear.

In 2016, a complex and composite meme appeared on Weibo, displaying fragments of nine classic paintings in a certain sequence (figure 1).

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 19 14.28

Figure 1: “posh” Biaoqing

The captions added to the painting fragments describe the emotional value attached to them, in phrases such as “Rembrandt style fright” and “Dutch mannerism onlooking”. And in her post, the maker of the Biaoqingbao wrote “please help yourself to Biaoqingbao” – an explicit invitation to start using the memes in the ways she had described.

What followed was a stampede towards these “posh Biaoqingbao”, with many thousands of people expressing an interest in them and inquiring about specific ways to use them. Such ways, the Biaoqing maker explained, would bespeak a cultured and sophisticated stance: using them in online exchanges would suggest an advanced level of education, erudition and taste. People quickly followed, reposting the original meme, designing and submitting some of their own making, and commenting extensively on the qualities and defects of all of them and offering informed suggestions as to their interpretation and potential of use in emoticon fights. In Garfinkel’s (2002) terms, we were observing “instructed action”, in which people tried, explored and implemented each other’s suggestions – and most prominently those of the Biaoqingbao maker – in discussions, negotiations and trials.

Let us rephrase some of what we have encountered so far. We observe how, around the new Biaoqingbao, a knowledge community is formed in which different levels of knowledge define the relationships between members. The Biaoqingbao maker is the instructor, so to speak, and within the community of followers definite differences could be noted between more and less “experienced” commentators. Newcomers in the rapidly expanding community had to submit to processes of learning-from-scratch or acquire a place as a competent member by displaying relevant experiences with similar signs and practices. Rules were made, learned, deployed and modified throughout the process of community formation and consolidation. And an online practice that had no previous history of usage quickly became a normatively ordered, mutually ratified and regulated mode of interaction. This process of normative ordering and mutual ratification, in addition, enabled the display of a sophisticated, cultured and educated persona in online interactions. The hierarchical internal structure of the learning community, thus, enabled new forms of outward identity work in confrontations with non-members.

The amount of energy used in this process of formation and consolidation of an online learning community are tremendous, and the magnitude of the efforts can be measured by the money donations offered by grateful followers to Biaoqingbao makers. Thus, even if what we observe here is easy to dismiss as mere entertainment and innocent just-for-fun interaction, elementary processes of social ordering, identity formation and group construction are being shown in the process. This process, let us note and emphasize, is a process of action construction – the joint construction of a specific genre of online social action – and the way in which the process develops is through a wide and layered variety of learning practices, of which individual and collective identities are an outcome. Such identities, note, are exclusively online identities, and their construction, elaboration and development require the specific infrastructures of online social spaces.

The care of the Selfie

The same goes for the phenomena we now turn to. One of the features offered on Chinese social media platforms is a live streaming app called Zhibo, and this function has become widely used for the development of new, informal forms of online economy. Goods and services are traded via online streaming platforms, and mobile money transfer (another function of the platforms we consider here) enables swift and safe transactions.[5] Li Kunming (2018: 129) reports more than 200 livestreaming platforms, with an audience estimated, in 2016, to have reached 325 million – half of the Chinese online population.

One particular commodity has become widely popular on Zhibo: female beauty. Women open online chat rooms where they entertain a male audience; income is generated by “gifts” that can be purchased through the app and sent in real time to the chatroom host. Chat room apps would offer a range of such gifts in various price categories, from a relatively cheap “kiss” to an awfully expensive “Ferrari” or “diamond”. Before we move to consider some aspects of identity construction in such chat rooms, a more general observation has to be made with respect to the characterization of online interaction we provided earlier.

In Goffman’s terms, much of what we observe in the way of online interaction would be disembodied communication (1966: 14), and scripted messages or memes, such as the ones we surveyed in the previous section, would be typical instances of such disembodied communication. Obviously, interaction through livestreaming is not disembodied, and there is even copresence enabling the kind of give-and-take of visual clues in realtime that Goffman described in such detail. In livestreaming events, we can speak of real encounters in the sense of Goffman (1961). There is a twist, however, and the twist is significant. First, while we obviously observe embodied interactions here, the communicating body is technologically mediated, and the same goes for the aspect of copresence. The women in the chat rooms appear on a screen – usually that of a handheld device – and they usually are visible only from the waist up. And their bodies are just part of what is displayed on the screen, as we can see from Figure 2. Next to the woman’s face, icons and message balloons constantly appear, and they are crucial parts of the interaction.


Fig. 2: Yizhibo chat room. © YouTube 2017.[6]

The embodied interaction, thus, is scripted, edited and curated, and it is multimodal and asymmetrical: while the woman can be heard by her audience members, the latter can only communicate to her by means of scripted messages; and while the woman is visible, her audience members remain invisible – their presence is attested through the messaging and the sending of gifts. The broad genre in these interactions can be described as flirting. The women show themselves, they move, talk, sing and respond to messages and icons of their audience, by expressing affection and gratitude. Thus, the woman in figure 2 kisses her webcam as a reward for a gift just received from one of her audience members. And this is the point where we see a tremendous amount of identity work being performed.

The women do not come online unprepared. There are certain normative templates for expressing femininity, and Li (2018) elaborates on the template called Baifumei – a Chinese term composed of “white-attractive-wealthy” and widely used to describe a particular ideal of feminine beauty. Baifumei are women with a pale skin, an oval-shaped face, eyes somewhat bigger than average, and “Western” in looks and preferences. Such looks can be acquired by elaborate and detailed make-up schemes, using specific brand creams, lipstick shades, eyeliner and mascara; and also by using electronic filters contained in the app for making the eyes look somewhat bigger and for adjusting the outline of the woman’s face. What audiences see in such chat rooms is clearly a Selfie – an electronically mediated and configured self-representation, necessitating great care whenever we refer to “embodiment” as a feature of these interactions.

Intricate behavioral scripts also need to be deployed and followed in interacting with the audiences as well. While a degree of vulgarity – expressed, for instance, in jokes, songs or wordplay – is not discouraged, obscenity clearly is. Women can present themselves as erotic, but they should not, and do not, undress in front of the camera, and too overtly sexualized moves or utterances would also be discouraged. The point is to be attractive to the men with whom they interact, to show attention and affection to them, to even express love to them – but all of this in ways that steer clear of associations with pornography and prostitution. The latter, of course, are criminal offences in China, and it is vital for the women to remain within the boundaries of what is politically, culturally, socially and legally acceptable.

This is important for several reasons. One – the obvious one – is that no one searches for trouble with the Law. But two aspects are equally important. There is the economic aspect, enabling the women to earn very considerable amounts of money (and to become financially independent that way) as long as their online performance satisfies the various normative expectations articulated and imposed by audiences, providers and authorities. And there is a social aspect to it as well: women can be free to flirt with men online in ways that, in offline China, could be perceived as deviant or offensive, and could have a range of undesired consequences. In other words: it is crucial that the women only perform their flirtatious practices online, as it keeps them safe and autonomous socially as well as economically. No wonder, then, that almost all women operate under an artist name: what they do online has to be and remain exclusively online.[7]

Let us summarize what we have covered in this vignette. The self-presentation of women in Zhibo chat rooms is governed by an elaborate “care of the Selfie” (a term obviously inspired by Foucault 1986, 2003). This care of the Selfie consists of a very wide range of normatively ordered actions aimed at creating and performing an identity exclusively designed for the online environment in which it is played out. It is proleptic identity work, anticipating the criteria of one’s audience and adjusting one’s appearance accordingly prior to seeking the audience’s uptake. The actions consist of preparatory practices organizing the presentation of the body online, as well as of interactional practices aimed at successfully performing the identity for which men are ready to present gifts. All of them combined are very real forms of identity – critical identities that enable women to acquire an income and a degree of autonomy hard to acquire elsewhere in society.


Our two vignettes showed how specific online actions generate specific online identities. These identities bear similarities, naturally, with other known forms of identity, especially when we compare them with the “light” but socially important identities described by Goffman, Garfinkel and others. At the same time, when we look at the details of identity construction in the cases we discussed, the influence of the online technological infrastructure is compelling. We are facing identity work here that is partly recognizable in terms of older established categories of identity, but which is at the same time entirely new in its loci and conditions for production.

The scale of such phenomena, and the pace of their production, circulation and change are tremendous, and this was one reason why we chose to illustrate our general points with examples from online China. Both the routine and ritualized exchange of Biaoqingbao, and the Zhibo chat rooms where female beauty is played out for male audiences, are very widespread phenomena involving hundreds of millions of individuals. These, in other words, are not marginal phenomena, they are structural ones.

Addressing them, however, demands an action-oriented approach in which the specific forms of online social action are examined in a search for their “personnel”, for the identities they allow, invite, enable and ratify. An approach in which we start from what is known about offline life risks bypassing the crucial effects of the online infrastructures on what is possible in the way of social action. It so risks to overlook the most important insight to be gathered from cases such as these: the fact that people have integrated online environments into their everyday social worlds, and that they have become fully competent members of a changed society that way, doing and being different things than before, and attaching great value to those things.


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[2] The work of scholars listed here has become known under a variety of labels, from ‘grounded theory’ (Strauss) and ‘social constructivism’ (Berger &Luckmann) to ‘symbolic interactionism’ (Blumer), ‘cognitive sociology’ (Cicourel) and ‘ethnomethodology’ (Garfinkel). To all of them, the label ‘ethnography’ can equally be applied. By using the term ‘interactionist’ we point to the fact that these disparate efforts are tied together by the shared basic-theoretical principles to be discussed next. The work of Anne Warfield Rawls (e.g. 2002; 2004) is exceptionally insightful in sketching the bigger picture of action-centered epistemologies connecting such different schools.

[3]To make this point very clear, observe that all of this evidently excludes methodological individualism from the theoretical repertoire of the interactionist tradition. See Blommaert (2018: 36-37) for a discussion.

[4]What follows is based on Lu Ying’s online fieldwork, part of her ongoing doctoral research on Biaoqingbao, its modes of usage and community of users.

[5] What follows is largely based on Li Kunming’s (2018) PhD research (cf. also Li & Blommaert 2017). Additional information was obtained from Lin Jie through her ongoing fieldwork, and we gratefully acknowledge her input.

[6] This image is a still from a YouTube clip:

[7] Li Kunming (2018) observes that many of the women who run such chat rooms hail from remote and socio-economically marginal areas in China. They very often lack the qualifications for upward mobility in the formal labor market, and their online economic activities are one way of compensating for such disadvantages. Note that successful women in this business can make millions and acquire the status of celebrity in online China.