In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Digital Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Early Work
  • Edited Volumes
  • Review Essays
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Methodology
  • Ethics
  • Social Media and Websites
  • Mobile Devices
  • Online Socialities
  • Games and Play
  • Communication and Language
  • Social Organization
  • Design, Activism, Hackers, and Piracy
  • Governance
  • Labor
  • Sexuality and Emotion
  • Youth and Education
  • Gender
  • Race/Racism
  • Medicine, Embodiment, and Disability

Anthropology Digital Anthropology
Tom Boellstorff, Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0087


Digital anthropology is an established and growing field focused on the Internet-related transformations that make possible a whole array of new social phenomena. Research in this exciting domain provides valuable perspectives regarding the relationship between digital communications technology and cultural practice, revealing new configurations of labor and capital, reinscriptions of hegemonic power, and novel experimentations with self-making and relationality. “Digital anthropology” is in conversation with other fields, including media anthropology, science and technology studies, sociology, art history, communications, design, media studies, and black studies. Digital anthropology, as such, is profoundly interdisciplinary. Indeed, many of the scholars cited here would not describe themselves as digital anthropologists, nor would they always be seen as such by others. This article is an updated version of Tom Boellstorff’s original article, published in 2013. The goal is to provide an examination of some key themes that broadly fall under the remit of digital anthropology. This version offers a “refresh” and slight remix of the sections that Boellstorff developed in the first version. Each section included in this bibliographic entry is not exhaustive. The listing of topics are heuristic and many of the cited works could have appeared under multiple headings. The citations included emphasize ethnographic research and relevant anthropological theory and, as such, the article does not include primarily quantitative, literary, historical, or philosophical scholarship. While early digital anthropological work focused on Euro-Western locations, more recent work has engaged with digital life, worlds, and cultural practices in the Global South and between geographic locations. This updated entry reflects this shift. In an era where “big data” can make quantitative methods appear to have a privileged vantage, digital anthropological research can offer simultaneously detailed and expansive studies with an attention to novel and consequential logics of digital communication technologies in relation to selfhood, power, and capital.

Early Work

Because digital anthropology is a relatively new domain of study, it is particularly important to take its history into account. Of course, much of that history extends and predates the digital, including work on pre-Internet technologies as well as scholarship on embodiment, exchange, games, mass media, and a range of other topics. This section focuses on key early research on digital socialities. Given that this work was published before 2000, the notion of “early” is obviously relative (additional examples of earlier work appear in other sections of this bibliography). Several important early works were produced not by professional anthropologists but by journalists and designers of online environments. Taken as a whole, this early work addresses themes of enduring interest, including Communication and Language (Cherny 1999), Social Organization (Curtis 1997, Damer 1998, Dibbell 1998, Morningstar and Farmer 2008), Medicine, Embodiment, and Disability (Stone 1995), Methodology (Paccagnella 1997), identity (Turkle 1995), Labor (Terranova 2000), and infrastructure (Star 1999).

  • Cherny, Lynn. 1999. Conversation and community: Chat in a virtual world. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

    Cherny’s ethnography of ElseMOO is an early example of studying online socialities “in their own terms,” in that she did not attempt to interview any of her informants offline (p. 307). Cherny focuses on questions of turn-taking and register, making this an early study of communication and language online.

  • Curtis, Pavel. 1997. Mudding: Social phenomena in text-based virtual realities. In Culture of the Internet. Edited by Sara Kiesler, 121–142. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Curtis was the key designer and manager of LambdaMOO, one of the most influential text-based virtual worlds, which first went online in 1991. Originally published in 1992, this overview of LambdaMOO is remarkably insightful, noting emergent online social conventions that scholars continue to explore in virtual worlds and beyond.

  • Damer, Bruce. 1998. Avatars! Exploring and building virtual worlds on the Internet. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit.

    Damer’s study includes everything from theoretical analyses to how-to guides for building virtual worlds; the book even included a CD-ROM with software that readers could install on their computers to enter a range of virtual worlds. As its title suggests, special attention is paid to questions of avatars, representation, and embodiment.

  • Dibbell, Julian. 1998. My tiny life: Crime and passion in a virtual world. New York: Henry Holt.

    Dibbell provides a detailed and influential study of the text-only virtual world LambdaMOO, including the chapter “A Rape in Cyberspace” (pp. 11–32), an early account of antisocial behavior in a virtual world context. He also explores a range of ethnographic topics, including community, trust, desire, and economics.

  • Morningstar, Chip, and F. Randall Farmer. 2008. The lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1.1: 1–21.

    Launched in 1985, Habitat is generally considered the first online graphical virtual world. In this article, first published in 1991, its creators provide a prescient analysis of the cultural norms that took form in Habitat, norms that continue to shape digital culture in the broadest sense.

  • Paccagnella, Luciano. 1997. Getting the seats of your pants dirty: A methodology for ethnographic research on virtual communities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3.1: JCMC314.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00065.x

    Drawing on ethnographic research of an Italian-language virtual community based in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), this early discussion of methods for online ethnographic research addresses a range of enduring issues, including questions of context, ethics, and participation.

  • Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. The ethnography of infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43.3: 377–391.

    DOI: 10.1177/00027649921955326

    Star’s ethnographic exploration of questions of infrastructure has had a significant influence on a range of digital anthropological work. In the context of digital anthropology, infrastructure represents one key aspect of the often unspoken background of everyday sociality and has ramifications for governance, political economy, and power. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. 1995. The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Stone’s important early study of life online pays particular attention to questions of embodiment, as well as sexuality and emotion. Issues of intimacy and social experience are also central to the analysis.

  • Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy. Social Text 63.18: 2: 33–58.

    DOI: 10.1215/01642472-18-2_63-33

    This article raises critical theoretical questions around labor and cultural production in the digital economy that have had tremendous impact on scholarship focusing on labor, gender, and capital.

  • Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    This book brings together ethnographic and psychological methods to provide an influential early examination of how selfhood is shaped by engagements with the online. There is a particular focus on how the “interface” shapes how persons experience social contexts on the Internet.

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