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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 Building Diaspora: Filipino Cultural Community Formation on the Internet, Emily Noelle Ignacio explores the possibilities, pitfalls, and limitations of developing an authentic Filipino diaspora identity through the use of the Internet. Her study attempts to ascertain if a non-moderated newsgroup developed for discussing a unified Filipino identity has the ability to provide its users with what they are seeking. Along with being an academic endeavor, in this case her Ph.D. dissertation, it was also a personal quest. Ignacio is a Filipino-Canadian who grew up in the United States and viewed the research as a tool for exploring her own cultural identity and the forces that shaped it.

The study focused upon the interactions and posts occurring on the soc.culture.filipino newsgroup over a two-year period. Ignacio believed that the Internet was providing a unique transnational space where Filipinos from all over the world could meet and talk about what it means to be Filipino. Her initial argument is that the Internet allowed for a space where a re-articulation of identity and cultural community building could occur outside of traditional boundaries of a nation. Because the Internet environment was so fluid, her research was able to examine the way individuals attempted to formulate an authentic cultural identity within an environment filled with Filipinos from a variety of political, social, economic, and physical backgrounds.

Her research demonstrated "the constant articulation, re-articulation, and impacts of local and global political issues and social policies in the definition of 'Filipino'" (5). Within the online setting, people fiercely debated what constituted an authentic identity. This provided Ignacio with the opportunity to examine the forces that influenced people's representations and interpretations of their culture and their self. In many ways, the study became a view of social constructionism at work. The manner and methods people used to formulate some sort of Filipino identity showed the complexity and influences divergent national histories, cultural images, and cultural artifacts have when the participants attempted to establish what it means to be a "genuine" or an "authentic" Filipino.

Ignacio found that participants within the group attempted to eradicate a Filipino colonial mentality by teaching Filipinos about their "real" culture. However, this led to heated and ongoing debates concerning what constituted their "real" culture and who had the authority to determine what could be considered authentic. This was a complicated issue within the group and one that Ignacio explored from a number of angles. Traditionally, within newsgroups, the founders or members that have been there the longest have cultural capital within the environment and often become a legitimate source of authority. However, in the soc.culture.filipino group, the founding members were ABF (American born Filipino); they were the people who were searching for an authentic identity rather than providing it. To establish who had authority within the online environment, Ignacio found that participants utilized a number of means, including signifying that they had a higher education (and hence a better understanding of the history of the Philippines), that they have relatives in the Philippines (and would therefore have close links to their homeland), or that they have traveled there often. However, one of the key sources for authority concerned where a person was born or lived. With these complex and conflicting voices claiming legitimation, there was a continuing and unresolved question concerning "Who represents the true Filipino identity?"

Ignacio found that, in an attempt to present a unified identity, many people in the group talked about what they weren't. In many cases, it was through opposition to some image of "other" that participants tried to determine what they were. For the most part, this was opposition to an American identity and culture. Other indicators Ignacio used to determine identity formation included discussions or threads concerning Filipino jokes, the commodification and description of Filipino women, language, Filipino history, cultural values, and food and traditions.

The book does come across as theory thick and Ignacio spends a great deal of time exploring the influences, factors, and issues diasporic groups face when they attempt to define or establish who they are. This theoretical depth to her work may be there for some obvious and not so obvious reasons. First and foremost, she certainly does establish to the academic community that she knows her topic. I believe a second reason for the thick theoretical framework resides with her belief, and rightly so, that the analysis of the soc.culture.filipino group has implications far beyond just an examination of a search for Filipino identity. This work resonates with a global environment filled with groups and cultures that are continually attempting to negotiate and establish an identity. Ignacio believes that the Internet is a transnational space where that type of negotiating can occur in a new and unique way. By providing a significant theoretical analysis she demonstrates that her case study fits into a larger picture, and should not be viewed just as a limited study of online Filipino identity formation.

I believe the third reason for being theory thick is much more subtle and personal. Ignacio is clear about her own cultural heritage. She is a Canadian born Filipino living in the United States. Within the dichotomy of the group, in which she was a participant observer, she has cultural capital as an academic doing research and also as a Filipino looking for cultural identity. Yet, Ignacio is not even ABF, so her ability to question and critique Filipino identity formation resides in her complex understanding of the forces and issues that influence this process, not necessarily her own heritage. The depth of theoretical understanding and analysis was her own way of "exorcising the ghosts of my own relationship with the Filipino American community" (145).

Her work is not value free and does promote an agenda, particularly concerning how it may be possible to have some form of authentic identity that is free from a colonizer's culture. Ignacio argues throughout the book that, "diasporic Filipinos cannot form a community by using the old formula of dichotomizing two cultures or, in general, relying on old category concepts for definitional purposes . . . That is, it is easier for us to see (1) which ideologies and ideas work with one another to further oppression, which could tell us (2) how to dislocate that articulation, so that we can best resist oppression" (112). By being heavy in theory, she is demonstrating the value of her work to the newsgroup and also the diaspora Filipino community in general.

This is certainly a worthy cause and Ignacio does lament that more people within the online group are not breaking free of the traditional "dichotomy for identity formation" paradigm. In many of her examples, she clearly demonstrates the influences determining the representations that are occurring in the newsgroup, and her theoretical critiques explore the implications of these representations.

Case in point: Ignacio's section on "Filipina as Gender Marker" is an exceptionally insightful examination of female representation in relation to cultural identity formation. This highlights problems women within the community face due to the various Filipino identities that are created and maintained by the culture. Sadly, she recognized that challenging those views, even in an anonymous online setting, might amount to being known as a "race traitor" (104).

This case also demonstrated the shortcomings of the Internet as a medium to realize its potential and present alternative identities that challenged the traditional cultural markers. Ignacio noted, "Though there weren't many posts that discredited the sexist, essentialist descriptions of Filipino women, it is technically very easy to propose an alternative position" (109). However, this does not mean that alternative voices weren't present within the group. In fact, Ignacio argues that as long as the group is not moderated, counter-narratives appear. This makes the Internet medium an ideal environment for researchers because they can now "study the effects of local and global politics (like local and global racial classifications) on diasporic members' characterization of ethnic, racial, national, or even gender identity" (143). She believes this then has the potential to be taken one step further to determine how these online activities and representations affect the offline world and people's view of the world.

One shortcoming of Ignacio's book was that it did not examine religious identification within this diaspora community. She was able to demonstrate that there was no central theme or image uniting this online group, and that in many ways their identity was based upon this diversity, yet she never discussed a search for a common religious heritage. Religious identity is often the force used to provide identity for communities in diaspora. In many cases, issues concerning the true religion or religious practices become central to a diasporic group's self-identification. The Philippines has a unique religious history. Originally there was a form of spiritism, referred to as anito or diwata. As early as 1350, Muslim missionaries had been spreading Islam northward from Indonesia into the Philippine archipelago and in the 16th century, Spain introduced Christianity to the Philippines and a unique form of syncretism between the Catholic tradition and the indigenous tradition occurred (Miller 1982). There are now a number of conversionist Christian groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses, in the Philippines trying to win over converts. This unique history begs a number of interesting questions. Did people in the group comment or try and determine a genuine religious identity? Did they equate the current attempts at religious conversion in the Philippines with Americanism, in opposition to their "true" religion? Were any people using the newsgroup to find their "genuine" religious heritage? None of these questions are addressed.

That being said, Ignacio presents a very interesting and detailed examination of identity formation on the Internet, successfully examining how national, racial, and ethnic identity was articulated, reified, and recreated within the soc.culture.filipino newsgroup. She was able to highlight the clashes of both imagined and real life images that occurred when people in the group attempted to define an authentic identity. Her work has a very unique perspective, in that she is an insider to the Filipino tradition, yet she was also someone searching for Filipino identity. This provides significant depth of analysis and personal reflection into the newsgroup and the issues related to the identity formation that would not be available in any other way. Building Diaspora: Filipino Cultural Community Formation on the Internet is well worth the read and provides a great deal of insight into the difficulties transnational groups and communities face when they attempt define who or what they are.

Jack Miller (1982), "Religion in the Philippines," Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. II, No. 1, pp. 26-27.

Christopher Helland:
Christopher Helland is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. His research focuses upon religion in contemporary culture with particular emphasis placed upon religious participation on the Internet. Previously, he reviewed Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture for RCCS.  <chelland@dal.ca>

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