Searching for Home in the Historic Web: An Ethnosemiotic Study of London-French Blogger Habitus

My presentation at Connected Life 2015 will investigate the dynamics between representations of the French community on-line and their lived experience on-land, by means of an “ethnosemiotic” reading of a small corpus of blogs. The fine-grained analysis of the blogs, all of which are housed in the London French Special Collection (UK Web Archive), aims to uncover tacit meanings relating to the habitus of the migrant bloggers and its possible transformation over time.

Drawing on the commonalities between Pierre Bourdieu’s ethnographic theory, in particular his notion of habitus (1972, 1980, 1994), and Gunther Kress’s socio-semiotic concepts, principally those pertaining to multimodality (2010; Kress et al, forthcoming), the ethnosemiotic framework allows the minutiae of on-line representations to reveal broader sociocultural truths. The multiple unspoken modes of communication present in the blogs, such as colour, images, directionality, modularity, font, punctuation and the like, together with the major mode of coded written language (in French and/or English), are closely examined through a semiotic prism in order to gain deeper insights into the identity, positioning and evolving habitus of the bloggers within the diasporic space.

In concrete terms, for the purpose of this analysis Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is broken down into three constitutive elements: habitat, habit and habituation. Firstly, habitat relates to the notion of the physical ‘home’ of the London-French bloggers, and the extent to which their material environment is manifested immaterially in the habitat of the blogs themselves. Secondly, habit refers to the everyday practices of the bloggers as an externalised expression of their inner experience of life in the capital. Finally, habituation, the most abstract of the three components, alludes to the taken-for-grantedness of the migrant situation, the “natural”, almost imperceptible, merging of the habits and dispositions of the Franco-French habitus of origin with those of the “host” environment to produce a transformed (or otherwise) London-French habitus of which the bloggers are arguably unaware. Furthermore, by comparing screenshots of blog posts or landing pages with a purportedly ‘identical copy’ (Brügger, 2014) captured on a different date in another Web archive, namely the US Internet Archive, the JISC UK Domain Dataset (1996-2010) or the blog’s integral archive, subtle evolutions in London-French habitus emerge.

Thus, this presentation will tackle the “big” data of Web archives from a “small” and necessarily narrow perspective, the focus being on thick (Geertz, 1973), qualitative data as opposed to arguably ‘thinner’, quantitative data. Its originality lies both in its concentration on French-language primary sources and in its call for ethnographic and multimodal socio-semiotic smallness. Here, the unique (re)presentations of ordinary individuals reintroduce the subjective human to the ostensibly objective numbers of Web archive data, and as such validate the pinpointed, blog-specific approach adopted. In the words of Tricia Wang, ‘Big Data produces so much information that it needs something more to bridge and/or reveal knowledge gaps. That’s why ethnographic work holds such enormous value in the era of Big Data’ (‘Big Data Needs Thick Data’, 13/05/2013, and why the blogs of a few have been chosen to shed light on the experience of an entire community.

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