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Building Diaspora: Filipino Cultural Community Formation on the Internet

Author: Emily Noelle Ignacio
Publisher: New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Marc W.D. Tyrrell
 REVIEW 2: Hilary Robertson-Hickling
 REVIEW 3: Christopher Helland

First and foremost, I would like to thank to Marc W.D. Tyrell, Hilary Robertson-Hickling, and Christopher Helland for their kind, thorough, and informative reviews of my book, Building Diaspora. Many thanks, also, to David Silver and the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for this opportunity to engage in the conversation that the reviewers have initiated.

The conversations on the soc.culture.filipino took me by surprise. As the reviewers rightly note, being a Filipino Canadian who’d grown up in the United States of America, seeing the different views various Filipino immigrants had of their own identity, and seeing a strong emphasis on multiculturalism negatively affect other racial and ethnic communities in the United States, I was highly skeptical about many of the participants' desire to find and articulate an "authentic," unchanging culture. I honestly believed that, within months -- or perhaps even weeks -- after the newsgroup would be set up, people would see the diversity within the Filipino community as people posted in their various dialects, or questioned the categorization of Filipinos as "Asian" (or "Pacific Islander") as people in the diaspora who are not subject to the US-based classification of race on an everyday basis (including those in Hawaii) asked questions.

I had not anticipated, however, having to engage so extensively in theories of race, ethnicity, and gender; as the reviewers noted, I had hoped that this particular medium would immediately help us transcend these concepts, especially as issues of race were most often articulated using US-based concepts (for example, Asian vs. White) to an audience who’d I had assumed did not have to deal with these concepts as often or as deeply as those of us in the United States. But, as most ethnographers have experienced, the data swept me away, and discussions which reified US notions of race, as well as nation, culture, and gender, not only dominated but guided or gave shape to the conversations throughout the 21 months I’d studied the group. Conversely, assumptions of fluidity which I'd assumed to take center stage surprisingly were scarce. Going into this project, I had hoped that I would encounter great discussions about the importance of religion and, perhaps, read about the experiences and rich history of the Muslims in the southern part of the Philippines, as Chris Helland is correct in his assessment that discussions about religion would have offered us great insights into the Philippines place in the history of trade, empire, colonialism, and even resistance. Yet, I'd found that religion was rarely mentioned in the 21 months I was a participant observer. I also assumed that regional differences would be discussed. Given that many of the participants on the newsgroup resided in the United States and Canada, two groups which have reflected an awareness of regional differences, the different religions and even religious practices within Christian communities (so much so they are central to many Filipino organizations' identities), I was surprised at the paucity of discussion of these topics.

But these surprises forced me to open up different lines of inquiry, which I hope was reflected in the book. As I looked at the data, I had to take note of how participants on the newsgroup reacted to and engaged with the fact that US-based notions of Filipino culture and racial categorizations entered into discussions of various topics with great frequency. Given that over 2/3rds of the posts were focused upon determining national, culture, racial, and gendered boundaries, I had to address the intertwining of racial classification systems, colonialism, and gender that were commonplace in their discussions. I also tried to learn what purpose holding onto traditional concepts served and could serve. Most importantly, I wanted to see if an insistence on upholding strong boundaries between races, cultures, and nation would eventually illuminate the tenuousness of these socially constructed concepts, and if so, how that would affect the discourse within the group. Ideally, I would have also liked to have been able to discuss the absence of certain topics or, at least, the reification of certain cultural images (such as the reification of all Filipinos as Catholic), but, given the methods I chose (a combination of participant observation and the method of instances), I felt it necessary to focus upon, address, and analyze what was said. Unfortunately, there were only a handful posts in which the participants even mentioned religion, and since it was not a central point in any of the posts, I strongly felt that I did not have enough material in which to thoroughly analyze their assumptions of religion. The only recurring theme which remotely addressed religion was the use of the "Maria Clara" stereotype to differentiate the "fact" that Filipino women have stronger moral values than their white, Western counterparts. And, even then, the discussions did not lead to the participants’ questioning or debating their assumptions of religion, as it did their assumptions about race, nation, values, and gender.

In addition, these new lines of inquiry helped me revise my chosen methods a bit. Although the method of instances, technically, does not necessarily entail the ethnographer to stay for a long duration within the particular site of study (as it is concerned with the preserving context by which particular conversations are held more so than examining the structure of the sentences), a large part of the reason why I chose to stay in the site for two years is because I was taken aback at the amount of conversations which centered on -- and incorporated rather essentialist notions of -- race, gender, culture, and nation. Never had I anticipated that these issues, much less discussions which alluded to their relationship to militarism, Orientalism, or colonialism, would emerge. And yet they did, frequently in conjunction with one another. Because the debates surrounded these particular issues, and because the posts themselves brought up concepts of nationalism, authenticity, race, and gender, I felt the need to listen very carefully to what the participants were saying and then analyze their posts within specific contexts of the conversations. In addition, it forced me to analyze the contexts in and of themselves to see in which contexts certain phrases, arguments, or even jokes worked or didn’t work to strengthen or inform the parameters of the diasporic community. The reason, though, that I could not move beyond those issues is because these issues still do enter into conversations -- even as they seemingly exit the "real world" and enter a virtual world. As I'd written, this particular world ran perpendicularly to the real world, whereby real issues brought to fore, articulated, and re-articulated in cyberspace, which only contributes to the literature of which cautions against (believing in) utopian communities on the net.

But, as the reviewers mentioned, this does not necessarily mean that cyberspace communities merely reflect "real life" communities. While they may bring "real life" issues onto the net, there still is the potential that to envision new ways, issues, or artifacts with which to center one’s community. As I'd written in the last chapter of the book, weary of the "trap" of relying on tenuous dichotomies, the participants attempted to move beyond these issues which had caused them so much pain. While it certainly is possible for these realizations to happen outside cyberspace, having these conversations on the net did, I believe, accelerate this process, as participants from different parts of the world came face to face with the instability of local and global classification systems.

Further, I strongly believe that studying these conversations can help us better understand and analyze communities in one geographical, non-cyberspace space. Currently, I have been working with and doing a participant observation within a small Filipino community in Chicago whose members are first generation immigrants who came from a non-Tagalog region and who pride themselves in their Catholic identity. This group, as other communities, keeps in contact with home via different technological means -- phone cards, phone texting, email, websites, chat rooms, and satellite TV -- as well as by visiting relatives back home. As a result, I have to be very attentive to their use of and assessment of these new technologies on their knowledge about -- and articulation of -- Filipino issues. It has also forced me to assess the impact and importance of Catholicism and regional differences in the community, two issues which were barely addressed by the Filipino community on the newsgroup at the time in which I had done my participant observation. So far, as in Building Diaspora, this study continues to illuminate how "old" concepts such as race, culture, nation continue to be discussed -- and challenged. In doing so, it opens us to whether multicultural planning and polices, especially in Western, industrialized counties, help or ignore issues pertaining to race, gender, and ethnicity.

Emily Noelle Ignacio
University of Washington, Tacoma

As of August 1, Emily Ignacio has moved to the Department of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Tacoma. There, she will also be working closely with the Labor Center and the Insitute of Technology. Please direct all correspondences to eignacio@u.washington.edu

Emily Ignacio


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