Facebook as a Tool for Studying Performance Communities

As a cultural anthropologist, I am at my best when I’m physically engaged in what I study: martial arts and other forms of performance. Over the last several years, however, Facebook has become an important part of my methodological toolkit. In 2008, I was in Bahia (Brazil) studying non-Brazilian capoeiristas who make apprenticeship pilgrimages to Brazil, traveling to the source of the art to train with a local master, thereby increasing their legitimacy in an art from a culture other than their own.

In Brazil, I enrolled in a local academy that was popular among foreign capoeiristas. Aside from the fact that I went home and wrote up my field notes for an hour or two each night, there were few differences between myself and the people I had come to study. Because many of us lacked access to a local phone, we made plans to visit other capoeira academies, go to the beach, etc. via Facebook. When I concluded my field study, I started using Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family completely unrelated to capoeira…and didn’t really give much thought to the online capoeira community until a few years later.

After wrapping up the manuscript that would eventually become my first book, In Search of Legitimacy, I started thinking about the questions that were left unanswered in that work. In particular, I wondered what happened after each pilgrim went home. Did his or her commitment to the art increase, or did they view their trip as more of a ‘capstone experience’ after which they would move on to new things? I wasn’t quite sure how to answer these questions, but soon happened upon an idea.

I created a Facebook page titled “Capoeira Research” as a virtual meeting place for people who might want to read about my work…and potentially participate in it. After tagging friends who are capoeiristas, martial artists, and/or scholars working on these topics, I invited people to share links to their research and shared some to my own. Periodically I post things relevant to capoeira, or pose questions about capoeira practice. For example, in January, I asked: “Did anyone out there participate in a roda in conjunction with the women's march (in any location, not just D.C.)? I'd like to gather stories of people using capoeira as part of their civic engagement. Please comment here or email me at lauren.griffith@ttu.edu.” I paid $5 to “boost” this post, which resulted in more than 1,700 people seeing the post. Unfortunately, it did not yield any results…but other posts have.

Returning to what happens when pilgrims return home, I created an Internet-based survey asking about pilgrims’ reasons for visiting Brazil, their experiences while there, and their experiences upon returning home. By spending less than $20 on Facebook’s advertising services, I gathered 29 usable surveys. Considering the niche population I was seeking, I was pleased with this number. It generated enough data for me to write an article and a section in my newest book (Griffith & Marion, forthcoming). Other, more idiosyncratic, engagements with people on this page have led to several ethnographic interviews, which are the starting point for my newest project on capoeira and identity. 

Anthropologists sometimes fetishize ‘the field,’ but I’ve realized that the field can be a digitally constructed space rather than a geographic place. From collecting data to disseminating results among the community that was generous enough to share their lives with me, Facebook is becoming an essential tool in my work.

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