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Digital Ethnography Approaches to Tribal Development

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Dr. S. B. Roy Professor and Founder Chairman Email:

Cyberspace and its virtual communities have initiated numerous methodological transformations. The availability of large amounts of data online requires renewed skills for digitizing and interpreting data. Establishing real-time connect has become part of the accepted epistemological practices. At the onset of the 21st century, a virtual mode of enquiry was coined by various scholars as Cyberethnography (Robinson and Schulz 2009), Netnography (Kozinets 2009), Ethnographic research on the internet (Garcia et al. 2009), Virtual ethnography (Hine 2000), Discourse-centred online ethnography (Androutsopoulos 2008) and Digital ethnography (Murthy 2008). Digital Ethnography bridges communication among people online. It builds an inclusive interface for long-distance studying of societies and cultures. In the Covid era, this format acquired immense importance as ethnographic methodological innovation. In Hammersley and Paul’s (2019:139) opinion, it provides a restricted focus on computer-mediated communication and networks; the study of the virtual world, the use of digital technology to record and analyse aspects of everyday life; social actors use of digital technology and the use of digital resources to author and reconstruct ethnographic research.

Smartphones have further opened digital ethnography opportunities for scholars and the communities they study as social life, and cultural attributes have been documented through video conferencing facilitating the remotely placed participants. Films, still pictures and audio recordings provide inputs to collate the material culture, social communication patterns and symbolic behaviour. Recording of material culture and intangible social interactions form the toolkit of cultural analysis commonly used by ethnographers which can now be recorded through the medium of digital ethnography.

Data collected through digital ethnography are documented, stored, and managed digitally allowing the researcher to work with a flexible methodology for responding to novel and developing phenomena (Boellstorf et al. 2013). It proves particularly insightful when inquiring about a community's cultural life and its representation on digital platforms (Hine 2000). To this comprehensive understanding, Miller(2018) adds, digital anthropology is an arena within which developments are constantly used to make larger normative and ethical arguments rather than merely observing and accounting for the consequences of technological change (Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Anthropology [1]).

This technological input is applied by practising anthropologists in India for making interventions through capacity building with the salient objective to provide support to marginalized and remotely located communities to supplement their livelihoods at the local level. One such experiment is being undertaken by IBRAD [2], a voluntary organization working with tribal communities since 1985.

Programme Objectives

The primary objective of using Digital Ethnography for facilitating tribal development entails creating an environment of social learning through virtual classrooms. Such online interactive sessions enable knowledge sharing of participants among peer groups quickly and easily. IBRAD developed a mechanism for tribal people to share problems and best practices and tackle recurrent problems. Such videos have proven to be invaluable social learning tools that enable the community to adapt faster. Newer patterns of behaviour emerge in interactive processes and are acquired by observing and imitating others from the same cultural group.

The project draws inspiration from Massick and Watkins’ (1990) rationale of social learning. According to the authors, it is essentially a culture centred process. The most effective means of acquiring it is through informal and incidental learning. Geographical distinctions only impact its operational effectiveness. Hence, it is imperative to focus on holistic social learning strategies common to the culture or region (Hite 1999) to maximize its effectiveness.

The second objective of the project is to complement it with Participatory Action Research (PAR). It is a unique effort to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Not many examples exist where ethnographers have attempted to apply the theoretical framework to facilitate a community for finding solutions to ecological, economic, or cultural issues. The focus is on mapping community problems, answering concerns and developing strategies with the use of grounded theory in accordance with local inputs. The community's involvement is an essential part of PAR for developing a new body of knowledge. It is essential to plan how knowledge gained by the ethnographer may be used for accruing benefits to the community. I call it reciprocal development; it is a professional gain for the ethnographer and a developmental gain for the community. It is also an attempt to counter the criticism of ‘armchair theorizing’ (Hammersley and Paul 2019), as a theoretical narrative emerges from empirical explorations. Very few instances exist about the research outcomes being applied to form a community development model or build theory.

Digital Ethnography for Tribal Development

To test the efficacy of this innovative method of data generation and intervention, IBRAD in 2020 started digital training to implement the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ unique programme GOAL (Going Online as Leader). As a member of the Ministry Task Force, I was invited to devise methods and programmes to implement them. Using anthropological and ethnographic insights these renewed methods were defined as Digital Ethnography in 2021. As a part of this initiative, a course was designed using digital technology for Government officials and stakeholders for easing the implementation of the Forest Rights Act- 2006 [3]. Subsequently, the IBRAD team developed a model of Digital Ethnography for promoting the sustainable livelihoods of the Tribal Community in the light of PESA [4], Biological Diversity Act 2002 and Forest Rights Act 2006. The programme received appreciation from all stakeholders. Seeing its success, the IBRAD team decided to use it to reach out to primary stakeholders, the tribal in villages of Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

Precursor to the Project

Tribal communities are traditionally dependant on forests for their survival and livelihood, currently, facing the challenge of livelihood insecurity, because of massive degradation of their habitat. Climatic changes have further aggravated the degradation of the natural resource that had assiduously been saved by the local communities. Not only are the natural resources degrading, but even the rich traditional knowledge of managing natural ecosystems is rapidly disappearing. It is a colossal loss and has pushed many of the indigenous communities to the margins, struggling for survival.

The National Forest Policy of 1952, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 have focused on protecting the forest and wildlife at the cost of human habitats. The Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) are already on the verge of annihilation as they have been adversely impacted upon by some of the existing policies. They have been deprived of minor forest produce that is critical to their survival. Several development projects have displaced the tribal people without adequate compensation, compelling them to look for livelihoods outside their natural habitats. The prevalent post-lockdown Covid-19 pandemic situation has made the life of the tribal even more vulnerable due to the telescoped options available to them to earn their living. The external agencies inclined towards providing support through skill development for diversification to supplement income are unable to reach them.

Research Plan Outlay

There are three essential parts of the present study, namely:

  1. Mapping features of the natural landscape as a habitat of the community

  2. Understanding Prevailing Social Systems

  3. Systematic study of Cultural practices

These three components of the research design are essential because co-adaptation forms a vital component of ethnographic research. In a dynamic situation conducting a processual analysis is critical. At the outset, a broader canvas is painted of the likely problems of sustainable livelihoods that impact the community health system. For conducting a systematic study, the following steps have been adopted:

  • Situational analysis of the natural landscape of the study area for understanding the social system and the culture of the community and how it impacted the livelihoods.

  • Understanding the worldview, cognitive awareness, and reorientation of social institutions as also the agents of social change promoting alternative livelihood options.

  • Building capacities and facilitating the adoption of appropriate technologies.

The IBRAD team developed digital ethnography methods to contact remotely located vulnerable tribes of Chhattisgarh and Odisha during the lockdown using video conferencing tools. The technique helped understand detailed features of the natural landscape, prevalent traditional social institutions, and the intrinsic cultural mores of the tribal community with a focus on building capacities for improved livelihoods. At the outset, we realised that the involvement of government agencies is crucial for planning and implementing sustainable livelihood strategies [5]. Intensive planning in collaboration with government agencies started with laying out a roadmap, discussing milestones and deliverables, and importantly a planned well-structured timeline. Adherence to the timelines for attaining successive milestones and dedicated follow-up is essential. This is important because delays can have negative consequences.

Interface Between Agency and Community Leaders

For the preparatory phase, a series of meetings are arranged on the zoom platform between senior functionaries of the Forest Department and the IBRAD team. In these online discussions with the Principal Chief Conservator of forests (PCCF) the merits of digital technology to facilitate forest biodiversity conservation and tribal development are explained. Its efficacy in helping both the tribal and the forest field staff is given in detail.

The second step was to hold online meetings with the line [6] departments to share the concept, methods, and approaches towards preparing a road map. The government functionaries helped identify the landscape. Subsequently, a physical interface was organised between the primary stakeholders’ leaders of local communities and the field officials. The first meeting was organised at village Nedamin the state of Odisha and the second physical meeting was organised in the village Ghoghrain Chhattisgarh. Field teams reached these villages with the necessary wherewithal like smartphones and laptops for pursuing the objectives of the project.

The urgency of conservation and associated problems of the community required quick assessment of inherent ecological knowledge and resource use (Martin 1995). Simultaneously, a plan had to be prepared to rapidly teach local people some basic techniques for supplementing incomes by adding to existing knowledge systems. Following these exigencies, the IBRAD team mediated across the virtual mode from their headquarters in Kolkata. The team had earlier developed the Eco Chain Approach [7]. The approach is aimed at motivating people to conserve natural habitats and biodiversity through the processes of Participatory Biodiversity Management. The approach blends scientific principles with indigenous knowledge and includes the participation of various stakeholders in:

  1. Identifying problems

  2. Facilitating a group of social change agents

  3. Assessing available resources and trade-offs

  4. Setting goals

  5. Developing action plans to attain goals.

The third step was emulating standard PRA methods through digital technology. With the help of primary stakeholders and field staff, the basic plan was prepared. It required seeking inputs from the line departments about the land available for making nutrition gardens and planting nurseries, identifying the water source for irrigation, location of vermicompost pits, identifying water bodies for the fishery, rainwater harvesting and pond placement following the flow of water collected in or around the village. In addition, identifying the land for agroforestry and community orchards as also the setting up of a herb garden was done.

An annual crop calendar was drawn. It included the activities based on the seasonal time-cycle. Specific efforts are made to ensure the involvement of women and children in the identification of the local issues related to food security, water availability and sanitation. All of which directly or indirectly affect community health. For effective implementation, the astute knowledge of patterns of an organisation is essential for the configuration of the relationships characteristic of a particular system (Capra1995).

Interventions and Outcomes

IBRAD established a Training Camp (Prashikshan Shivir) at both the field sites with the first being namely, village Ghoghra in West Pandariya Block in Kabirdham district Chhattisgarh. A semi-permanent hexagonal structure was built in the centre of the village on the patterns of a Ghotul in Bastar in harmony with the local tribal landscape. It is designed with the intent to provide a platform for continuous learning and support management. IBRAD initiated a model of Conservation for Sustainable Livelihood through digital technology for the Baiga PVTGs (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) in August 2020. We prepared Digital Training Modules, short video clips and a virtual classroom workbook as essential training tools for capacity building. The village micro-plan was prepared by identifying the issues, challenges, and opportunities for adopting an integrated agroforestry approach for management. PRA exercises are conducted with the help of a facilitator (Sanchalak) [8] and the local forest staff.

The first module designed for digital intervention resulted in the creation of 27 vegetable gardens (SabjiBaadi) to provide organic seasonal vegetables to meet the basic nutritional requirements of each household. Surplus production is shared with the neighbours and sold in the market for adding income to the household.

The project team along with the local Baiga tribal identified four points along the streams flowing in the village for the construction of Check dams and for harvesting rainwater. These ponds are now used for bathing and washing, source of drinking water for the cattle and for irrigation. It helped in improving the moisture content of the soil in the region making it more fertile. The second digital module identified two ponds for community-based fishery development making it an important activity for livelihoods and a vital nutrition source. The local Baiga villagers harvested 192 kg of fish which was distributed among 48 members.

The third module designed by the project team is for making vermicompost as organic manure. Six groups of three members each followed the digital training module and prepared vermicompost pits. About 300kg of vermicompost was produced in these pits. It reduced the chemical fertilizer use and added to the earnings and to local soil health by reducing soil and water pollution.

With a view to supplementing income and quality production, seed banks are created for the conservation of indigenous seeds and improving the nutritional food value and land-use practices. Training on multiple cropping patterns, improved yield and sustainable productivity helped gain improved income and food security. New crops like potatoes have been produced for the first time by 56 villagers. The Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) comprising the Baiga are known for their knowledge of medicinal herbs and curative abilities. They are the traditional medicine men. It was, thus, natural for the project team to encourage digital documentation of the medicinal plants. Most of these are now endangered species because of the large-scale exploitation by pharmaceutical companies. Through digitally design strategies, 12 rare medicinal plant species are resurrected and conserved in the herb gardens. The Lodha tribe from the second field village, namely Nedamin village in Odisha are encouraged to save their rare and invaluable natural herbs for posterity and encourage their children to inherit and protect the dying indigenous medicinal systems. Herb gardens also helped in revitalising the traditional health systems and in providing additional sources of earning. Interventions through online mode also helped in providing Silvi pasture, using common or fallow land. This paved the way for further improvement of the health of livestock through a regular supply of nutritious feed. Improved quality of soil due to the use of organic manure provided a healthy yield of crops. Local tribes are encouraged to plant fruit trees of indigenous variety, have healthy fruit supplements and market surplus. This way they contribute towards maintaining biodiversity while enjoying a healthy lifestyle. The tribal are also encouraged to maintain nurseries to produce quality planting materials, for selling saplings, improving plantation, and sustaining local ecology. Non-timber Forest Produce (NTFPs) are also included in the list of products to be conserved both for the market and for ecological conservations.

Feedback Mechanisms

For the effective implementation of any project, a strong real-time monitoring mechanism is required. Sanchalak (facilitator also the local coordinator) is asked to send photographs and video clippings of all the activities. The IBRAD staff held regular virtual meetings with the villagers and resolved their concerns giving effective interventions in the local dialect.

Limitations of Digital Ethnography

The ethnographic approach has been used to enhance anthropological understanding of the "Nature- Culture-Social System" since the 19thcentury. However, due to constraints imposed by the Covid pandemic, innovative Digital ethnography has become an exigent methodological pre-requisite. It was initially developed with the emergence of new technologies as stated in the beginning. It is now being applied for interventions and evidence-based outcomes and training the community to be self-organised and self-reliant. In Indian anthropology, it is still at a nascent stage and I am not aware of any other organization or individual researcher using it.

Fieldwork in its traditional form constitutes the soul of the subject. Currently, the restrictions on human physical interactions, the emergence of virtual fieldwork have proven to be a panacea. However, it is pertinent to include the caveat that digital anthropology may be only a temporary and conditional substitute for ethnographic fieldwork. It may be used as an alternative method for data generation only under conditions of time and financial constraint. Digital Ethnography is based on the tools of Digital Technology and the tools cannot work on their own. Their use depends on the knowledge and skills and the manner and purpose for which these tools are used. The challenge here is that 'virtual' or digital ethnography may have its data restricted to what is available online or through digital devices (Pink et al. 2016). This may not provide access to the holistic paradigm of ethnographic research.

Digital modules prepared for these two projects provide a framework for sustained interventions in ensuring livelihoods for remote tribal groups in the absence of physical interactions. The assumption here is that with cultural inputs and requisite modifications for the respective field sites, these may be used in other parts of the country as well.



Transformation of Mankedia PVTG, Dengam village Odisha from Food Gatherer to Organic Farmer

Adoption of Technology: Cultivation of Azolla cattle feed by a Lodha PVTG of Nedam Baripada Odisha.


I do not know how to express my gratitude to Prof. Shalina Mehta who not only encouraged me to write for the blog but improved my manuscript with her exceptional intellectual input, incorporating the missing links to improve its flavour with final editing. I am also grateful to Dr Rajni Lamba for quick editing the manuscript and making it worth reading.

[1] accessed on 1.06.2021

[2] IBRAD (Indian Institute of Bio Social Research and Development), established in 1985 is an exemplary institution symbolizing the spirit of anthropology that prides in synergizing with allied disciplines and working with zeal and sensitivity towards the tribal people. Ministry of Tribal Affairs has granted it the status of Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Tribal development. Its pioneer work in the field of Joint forest management (JFM) was part of the 10th plan of India. IBRAD has been conducting training courses based on the Application of Digital technology and Digital Ethnography to conserve forest mosaic land and facilitate the Forest Rights Act for tribal development.

[3] The Forest Rights act (2006) grants Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDST) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) residing there for more than 75 years, the right to ownership to land farmed by tribal or forest dwellers subject to a maximum of 4 hectares. Ownership is only for the land that is being actually cultivated, by the concerned family and no new lands will be granted. It also gives rights for the collection of minor forest produce and grazing of livestock. Further, it includes the right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. Its implementation has remained poor due to a lack of awareness and effective planning by the government departments.

[4] Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Area) Act (PESA Act) is a law enacted by the Government of India to cover the “Scheduled Areas”, not covered in the 73rd Constitutional amendment. It extends the provisions of Part IX to the Scheduled Areas of the country devolving powers to the Gram Sabha level. The significant feature of PESA is that every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution. [5] Roy (1992) calls it a kind of Bilateral Matching Institution.

[6] In official parlance ‘line department’ implies all the sectoral departments comprising of the forest, agriculture, water resource, health, animal husbandry, rural development etc.

[7] The Eco chain Approach method was developed by IBRAD under a project-OpeNESS (Operationalization of Ecosystem Services) and is now an internationally accepted method of EU project.

[8] Sanchalak (project facilitator) is a local tribal identified with the help of government officials and is trained and engaged by IBRAD with the help of digital technology. He is paid all his field related expenses by IBRAD.



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