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Utilising a blended ethnographic approach to explore the online and offline lives of pro-ana community members

Dyke, Sarah (2013) Utilising a blended ethnographic approach to explore the online and offline lives of pro-ana community members. Ethnography and education, 8 (2). 146-161.. ISSN 1745-7823

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Abstract

The article critically interrogates contemporary discourses and practices around anorexia nervosa through an ethnographic study that moves between two sites: an online pro-anorexia (pro-ana) community, and a Local Authority-funded eating disorder prevention project located in schools and youth centres in the north of England. The article challenges the binary distinctions that are often made between anorexia as a serious mental illness on the one hand, and mere lifestyle choice on the other, and argues for a more nuanced and complex understanding of the dilemmas, practices and emergent subjectivities of those who experience a difficult relation to feeding the body. Similarly, the article challenges methodological distinctions between empirical (‘real-life’) and online or virtual ethnography. It demonstrates how the research participants moved between online and offline presence, and attempts to develop a mobile and connective ethnographic methodology that is similarly attuned to both the actual and the virtual, without separating or prioritising one over the other. The article suggests that educational interventions aimed at reducing the incidence of eating disorders, whether in schools or informal settings, are likely to be ineffective if they do not recognise the complex interweaving of virtual and online activity in the daily lives of young people. Moreover, it is argued that current educational interventions aimed at tackling problematic eating behaviours risk being marginalised as a result of educational priorities that place the core curriculum and national testing at the top of schools' agendas in England. The intervention project described here suffered from perceptions of low priority by school staff, and a tendency to allocate students to the project who had been identified as poorly behaved or as low achievers, rather than according to considered view of need. Paradoxically therefore, young people who may be experiencing a difficult relation to feeding the body appear to be a subject both of high anxiety and low priority.

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