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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

In the final chapter of her book, Building Diaspora: Filipino Cultural Community Formation on the Internet, Emily Noelle Ignacio comments that "perhaps scholars should examine all cultural artifacts and language the same way. Maybe then we will learn that our goal should not be merely articulating differences, but recognizing similarity and examining the construction -- and uses -- of difference" (142). This comment highlights, to my mind, both the strengths and the weaknesses of Ignacio's Building Diaspora.

The work itself is based on her doctoral dissertation, a study of identity formation in an online newsgroup -- soc.culture.filipino. Her data was drawn from following 21 months of online discussions, selecting threads that pertained to particular questions concerning identity construction, and printing them out for further analysis. Given that weekly posts ranged from 250-300 in April, 1995 to over 1000 by the start of 1997, the amount of potential data was quite extensive.

The first chapter is an introduction to the work and includes both a theoretical précis and a methodological outline that situate the analyses presented in later chapters. The methodological section in particular is useful both to situate the data and as a particular guideline on one way to conduct newsgroup research. The theoretical précis is somewhat less useful. While it situates the study in the intersection between post-colonial studies, social constructionism, and computer-mediated communications, this supposed placement is not really indicative of the later analysis.

The second chapter, "Problematizing Diaspora," situates her project in a post-colonialist discourse centering, on the one hand, around the desire of people to "go back to their roots" and, on the other hand, an examination of the construction of "cultures, nations and notions of homeland" (34-35). This analysis starts with an examination of racial projects in the United States and how an uncritical, "liberal" multiculturalism serves to cloak them. On the whole, this section is excellent, barring a minor gaffe where she states that "U.S. government officials . . . entered the slave trade in 1619" (37) -- a situation that would, no doubt, have surprised James I.

This is followed by a section entitled Why Bother with Identity? where Ignacio beautifully highlights two core problems with many common understandings of "the concepts of race, gender, identity, nation, and culture" (42): first, that these categories are "natural" or fixed; and second, that if they are not fixed then they can simply be "willed away." She quite correctly notes that "both of these simplistic ideas are often used to maintain inequalities" (43). Ignacio uses these misunderstandings to show why it is so important to examine the constructions of both identity and culture within a multifaceted framework. As she notes, "we must take into account diversity, multiple identities, and hybridity within social groups . . . and stop reifying notions of natural, essential identities" (44). The final parts of the chapter show examples of the desire to discover ones roots in the homeland and of the basic dichotomous tactics used to establish "true" Filipino identity.

In chapter 3, "Selling Out One's Culture," Ignacio examines the development of specific tactics used by the participants in the newsgroups to identify and/or construct an "authentic" Filipino culture/identity. She masterfully situates the analysis into the broader historical, economic, and political contexts grounding the question of the origin of "authenticity" in the lived experience of the posters.

The first example thread, dealing with the relative merits of raising children in the U.S. vs. the Philippines, is used to open the question of "location = authentic," an analytic strand that is continued in the second example, a series of flames surrounding the "right" to discuss conditions in the Philippines between an American Filipina ("Norma") and a man ("Jhun") residing in the Philippines. She uses this thread to illustrate a dichotomy of authority between those located in the U.S. vs. those in the Philippines but, especially in view of her analysis of "authentic" gender roles in Chapter 4, one must wonder if gender, not location, was a more important factor in the debate.

The next set of threads analyzed, on language and which alphabet should be used, is quite interesting and contextualized quite nicely. In particular, the way in which the highly problematic discussion surrounding alphabetic reform was conducted is quite enlightening as the participants had to deal not only with the question of the place of English but also the fact that there is/was no single Philippine language. The use of humor to "resolve" the discussion, along with the latter use of humor as an identity marker, clearly show that the debate itself is a core component of Filipino culture (cf. Radcliffe-Brown, 1952).

The fourth chapter, "Ain't I a Filipino (Woman)?," is for me both the most interesting and the most frustrating chapter. Ignacio herself comments that "writing this chapter was extremely difficult" (80). The chapter centers around the concept of women as "gender markers" between dichotomously idealized American and Filipino cultures (discussed in chapters 2 and 3). It starts by giving some information on the place of the sex trade in the Philippines, which is followed by an examination of the current stereotypes of Asian women in American media. This is followed by an examination of the stereotypes of Filipinas on the newsgroup and the use, by some posters, of the newsgroup as a target audience for "sex trade" marketing, specifically variants of the mail-order bride business.

This discussion is followed by an analysis of responses on the newsgroup to both the sex-trade (broadly construed), and of the symbolic palcement of women by Filipinos. Igancio's analysis concentrates on the symbolic placement of women as gender markers between Filipino and American culture. It leads rapidly into a discussion of the glaring problem posed by "inter-racial" marriages, i.e. between "whites" and Filipinas. After eliminating the idea of marriage for economic gain, the posters on the newsgroup come up with the idea that "these women are weakened by their lack of 'authentic culture,' are ashamed of their culture, and, thus, have no problem 'selling out the race'" (93). This is followed by an analysis of so-called Asiaphiles (white males who like Asian women) and Whiggies (Asian women who like white men) posts. The analysis of the Asiaphile/Whiggie threads is brilliant in that it servers to draw many of the analytic strands discussed so far in the book together into a single location.

The sole problem with chapter four is Ignacio's over reliance on theoretical models and her sometimes excessive privileging of certain politico-theoretical stances. She even obliquely admits to this as a problem when she notes that "I often did draw upon theory particularly when I felt self-conscious of the fact that I had to de-authenticate and de-Filipinize characteristics which everyone else in the newsgroup believed to be authentic" (145). This problem should not be taken as a negation of the analyses presented in chapter four but rather as a warning to the reader to read them very carefully. She also notes that she plans on examining the "construction of the 'Filipino woman' and its uses" (142) in greater detail in the future -- something that I, for one, look forward to reading.

Chapter five, "Laughter in the Rain," marks a departure from the extremely charged nature of the previous chapter in that it concentrates on the use of laughter and humor in the discussions. Ignacio identifies two key uses of jokes in the newsgroup: "to close heated debates and, more importantly, to determine membership within the Filipino community" (114). The primary ways of analyzing these jokes is in the form of word play (i.e. how the jokes establish boundaries between Filipino identity and American culture) and in the use of in-group connotations (i.e. historical, cultural, and linguistic references). This form of analysis is quite useful in pointing towards the use of common artifacts as criteria for identity establishment, but it could have been strengthened by a concurrent structural analysis of the jokes (e.g. following Radcliffe-Brown, 1952). If this form of analysis had been done, especially on the "Are You Really Filipino?" list of jokes (see Appendix C and pp. 126-130), the analysis could have been significantly extended.

The final chapter, "E Pluribus or E Pluribus Unum?," asks the question "can there be unity in diversity?" Without reaching any conclusions on the question per se, she then moves into her conclusions including a reflexive section on the research and writing of the book/dissertation. It is in this latter section that she opines that: "Perhaps scholars should examine all cultural artifacts and language the same way. Maybe then we will learn that our goal should not be merely articulating differences, but recognizing similarity and examining the construction -- and uses -- of difference" (142), that I quoted at the start of this review.

It is this comment, more than anything else, that sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of Building Diaspora and my reactions to it. Given the paucity of anthropological references in the work, I am quite sure that she did not purposefully paraphrase Sir E.B. Tylor and yet, this is almost exactly how he described the purpose of anthropology in 1871 when he wrote Primitive Culture.

Let us consider the strengths and weaknesses of the work. Building Diaspora is an excellent analysis of identity formation within a newsgroup. The analyses in chapters four and five on Filipina identity and jokes respectively, stand out as especially strong. Another strength of the book is the personal information that allows us to glimpse the forces in her own life that shape her analysis.

The primary weakness of the work is the implicitly essentialist stance of her theoretical model (see Barkow, 2001, on this) which time after time constricts the potential of her analysis by forcing her back into theoretically essentialist concepts of race, gender, and identity even when she tries to move beyond them. A good example of this is on pages 42-44 in the section Why Bother with Identity?, but there are many other examples where her theoretical stance requires her to ascribe to "oppressed peoples" attributes that may be human universals and vice versa (the discussion in chapter four on women as gender markers is a good example of this). I would strongly urge her to read the history of anthropology, especially the shift in British social anthropology from unilineal evolution to fieldwork-based analyses and to examine the parallels with her own post-colonial, constructionist theoretical model. I have no doubt whatsoever that she will be able to transcend the limits of her current theoretical model and produce an even more useful transformation in post-colonial constructionist theory.

Barkow, Jerome. (2001.) Universals and Evolutionary Psychology. In Peter M. Hejl, ed. Universals and Constructivism, pp. 126-138. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag. Available at http://myweb.dal.ca/barkow/UNIVERS4.pdf.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1952.) Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen & West.

Tylor, Sir E.B. (1871.) Primitive Culture. London: Murray.

Marc W.D. Tyrrell:
Marc Tyrrell's research focuses on 1) the practical and philosophical grounds of how sensemaking is possible and 2) the use of socially constructed structured communications strategies. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology with a specialty in Social Anthropology, and currently works out of the Research Resource Division for Refugees at Carleton University. He has presented at the Academy of Management, the American Sociological Association, the Canadian Anthropology Society, and Microsoft Research, as well as publishing in several venues.  <marctyrrell@yahoo.ca>

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