Veröffentlichungen von Urmila Goel / Desis in Deutschland

Forschungsprojekt "Die virtuelle zweite Generation"

Urmila Goel

From the German Periphery – On Ethnographic Explorations of Indian Transnationalism Online

Reprinted from ‘From the German Periphery – On Ethnographic Explorations of Indian Transnationalism Online’, in Ajaya K. Sahoo & Johannes G. de Kruijf, eds. Indian Transnationalism Online: New Perspectives on Diaspora (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 63–80. Copyright © 2014.

The aim of this chapter is to reflect on the formulation of research questions as well as the processes and consequences of research. This focus has been inspired by discussions at the international seminar ‘Indian transnationalism online: ethnographic explorations’ in Hyderabad in 2012. Accordingly I am taking the title of this international seminar and explore it in three stages. Firstly, I question the concept of ‘Indian transnationalism’, in particular the meaning of ‘Indian’ outside of India. Secondly, I look at barriers to ‘transnationalism online’. Thirdly, I discuss ‘ethnographic explorations’ of virtual spaces. At each of these stages I add to my theoretical deliberations material from my research about the Indernet. This is a virtual space founded by people identifying themselves as (second generation) Indians in Germany, which started in summer 2000 as a meeting place for others who were similar to them in terms of this linkage of India and Germany. Following the discussion of ‘Indian transnationalism’ I show, firstly, how the users and editors of the Indernet relate to the concepts of Indian and German. Secondly, in exemplifying ‘transnationalism online’ I discuss how far the Indernet can be considered as transnational. Thirdly, I describe my ethnographic explorations of the Indernet. After thus having discussed the three parts of the seminar title, I conclude by looking at the figure of the ethnic entrepreneur (Brubaker 2004), in particular in the form of the webmaster and the researcher, whose projects are coded in ethnic terms.

Indian Transnationalism

The phrase ‘Indian transnationalism’ can be understood to refer to the migration from India to other parts of the world and the consequences thereof. This interpretation as well as the phrase itself, however, raises questions.

The first one is: What is India and who is an Indian? Does India refer to the Republic of India? Or to what used to be British India? What defines an Indian? Citizenship, birth place, ancestors, culture, physiognomy and/or something else? And if so, what exactly defines these? Which ancestors, what culture, which physiognomy and what else? Is Indianness something embodied, passed on by the genes of the parents and thus a biological category? When does one qualify as an Indian and when not (Goel 2008a)? Is Indianness something homogenous and if so, what about the differences between people? Do we use the term Indian as a category of practice or a category of analysis (Brubaker 2004: 31–33)? Who has legitimation to define Indianness for what purpose? Which categorisations are we using when and why?1

Brubaker (2004: 31–32) argues that (ethnic) identity is used as a category of practice

"by political entrepreneurs to persuade people to understand themselves, their interests, and their predicaments in a certain way, to persuade certain people that they are (for certain purposes) ‘identical’ with one another and at the same time different from others, and to organise and justify collective action along certain lines."

These ethnic (political) entrepreneurs pursue economic, political and/or social aims, which are coded in ethnic terms and thus mobilise in these terms. Researchers might also act as ethnic entrepreneurs, creating the category they are investigating. Thus, it needs to be asked why researchers use concepts like Indian as categories and what aims they pursue by this. How far is their category of Indian linked to nationalist projects? And to which? Which role does, for example, Hindu nationalism play in it? Who is included in the category and who excluded, and why? What political, economic, social aims are pursued thus in the research?

When I think about ‘migration from India’ or ‘Indian transnationalism’, I am guided by constructivist theories of social identities, among others Jenkins’ (1997) concept of transactional ethnicity as well as Barth’s (1996) and Cohen’s (1985) theorisations of ethnic groups or Brubaker’s (2004) of ethnicity without groups. Ethnic identity according to them is not something essential but the outcome of social interactions. Furthermore, this transaction takes place in societies structured unequally through power relations such as racism, heteronormativity or classism.2 The ascriptions are thus not innocent but rather place the individual in a more or a less powerful position within the society. I am interested in these power inequalities, their consequences for societies and individuals and how individuals deal with them. Thus in my research I focus on the transactional nature of Indianness, i.e. I do research about people who are marked as Indians. This means they are considered on the basis of some physiognomic and/or social markers to be Indians and/or consider themselves being Indians. As these ascriptions are specific to particular spatial and temporal contexts, it is necessary to further specify the latter: in my research this is contemporary German-speaking Europe (with a focus on Germany).

Thus entering the context of the transnational, the second question is raised: What does Indian transnationalism mean? If the term Indian refers to the Republic of India or an Indian nation, then the phrase combines the nation and the transnational. It does not transcend a national logic, but actually continues it. It seems to be linked to the notion of diaspora in the sense of dispersal from one place of origin (Cohen 1997; Safran 1991) with India at the centre and the transnational linked to and through it. This notion, however, has been criticised for overemphasising the role of the centre (Clifford 1997) and essentialising identities in terms of nation or ethnicity (Anthias 1998; Goel 2007). Furthermore, the concept of diaspora can be (mis)used in nationalist projects. An example of this is The Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora (Lal 2006): My article on Germany (Goel 2006) was changed by the editors without my authorisation to include a passage titled Netaji about Subhas Chandra Bose’s activities in Germany and the Indian legion there. While my original text3 highlighted Bose’s problematic coalition with the Nazi regime, the inserted passage wrote heroic Indian history. An aspect of German (and Indian) history has thus been decontextualised and its violence negated.

Furthermore, while Lal (2006) tries to map the whole world, covering each continent and even places like Eastern Europe, most literature about the Indian or South Asian diaspora(s) focuses on the regions with large populations traced back to South Asia, in particular Great Britain and the USA as well as the countries in which Indians were brought as contract labourers and to some extent also Canada, Australia and West Asia (e.g. van der Veer 1995; Bates 2001 or Oonk 2007). It is left to the researchers from the (European) periphery4 to include analyses from there (e.g. Jacobsen and Kumar 2004; Jacobsen and Raj 2008). Coming from the peripheries it is thus difficult to find analyses from other peripheries to which one can compare one’s work. Another issue is that of language: if academic literature is written in languages other than English, the accessibility of it is transnationally much restricted. For (academic) transnationality, the English language is necessary, which, however, means that local audiences (both academic and non-academic) are potentially excluded.

Indian transnationalism and the Indernet

The name Indernet is a play on words, taking the German word for Indian ‘Inder’ and combining it with the English internet abbreviation net for network. It thus signifies a network of Indians. This meaning, however, can be understood only by those understanding German (and English).

Although the Indernet started trilingually in German, English and Hindi, only German was actively used (and by now Hindi has totally disappeared). The language German is not only linked to Germany but also to Switzerland and Austria. Thus despite the editorial focus on Germany, there have always been active users from the other two countries as well as users in other places of the world who grew up with German. The usage of German was not only a consequence of language competence, as many users also did know English quite well and did use English language spaces as well, but reflected the localised context of their interaction, which was best expressed in German and probably also only made sense in German (Goel 2008c).5

Like the notion of German, that of Indian was interpreted quite flexibly by different people on the Indernet. There were those with one or two parents, who migrated from India to Germany, but also users, whose parents were from Pakistan or who were adopted from Sri Lanka (Goel 2005, 2008a). In spite of their heterogeneity, these users and editors were marked by physiognomic and/or social markers as (imagined) Indians in German-speaking Europe. Accordingly, this is the category of analysis I am using for them although their categories of practice might have been quite different. Those marked as Indians in German-speaking Europe are transnational in the sense that they belong to several natio-ethnocultural6 contexts of belongingness at the same time and move between these at least in imagination (Mecheril 2004: 73). I thus adopt and adapt the phrase ‘Indian transnationalism’ to refer to a biographical link to India imagined from a location in some other natio-ethno-cultural context.

Transnationalism Online

Internet technologies from early on have been seen as tools to cross (not only national) borders, make them less important and connect people over long distances. Ethnographic studies like Miller and Slater (2000), Greschke (2012), and Miller (2011) show that the internet is used by migrants to keep or develop transnational ties. They show that the internet is used in particular for everyday interactions and that in these several different technologies are combined. But internet technologies cannot cross all borders; many borders do remain or become even stronger and new ones develop.

Fundamental to internet usage is access to technology and technological competence, which determines who can go online and who cannot (Morley 2000: 186–188; Tawil-Souri 2009). Once technological access is given, the question of language competence becomes crucial. Even though the internet increasingly offers video and audio technologies, still internet communication is focused very much on language (written and increasingly spoken). To participate in the communication one needs to read and understand the language used as well as be able to write and speak it oneself (Tawil-Souri 2009: 32). Goggin and McLelland (2009) show that the internet is much more multilingual than anglophone internet studies suggest. They collect analyses both about widely used internet languages such as Chinese or Korean as well as about languages spoken by very few persons such as Welsh or Catalan. They show that the anglophone focus of internet research cannot be legitimated by the false claim that English is the most important language of the internet. It is much more an issue of the language competences and interests of the researchers as well as the unequal power relations in the world. Jeganathan (1998: 517–518), for example, shows how an American company can imagine itself online as placeless and universal, even though the location in the USA is implicitly made clear not only by using English but also by offering destinations all over the world with the exception of the USA (from which the other destinations are to be reached).

Besides the language, the issues dealt with in the virtual spaces set barriers. The topics dealt with depend on the location of the people involved, not only their geographical but also their class, gender, natio-ethno-cultural, etc. location (Anthias 2009: 12). Not all people are interested in the same things, not all people can relate to the same things. Thus Greschke (2012: 23) argues that although in principle anybody could access the internet space Cibervalle, in practice it does not only need a particular language competence, but one also must be able to find the space in the depth of the internet. She goes on to argue that the people who are most likely to find Cibervalle are those who are searching particularly for information about Paraguay. They must share a specific interest with the others in the space not only to interact, but first of all to find it.

Research about online communication of people considered Indian outside of India (or to use the language of the seminar: Indian transnationalism online) similarly has certain biases. When I started my research, I found mainly USAcentred research (e.g. Rai 1995; Mitra 1997 or Mallapragada 2000), although often this focus was not explicitly stated but rather became obvious implicitly. I also found much on Hindu nationalism online (e.g. Lal 1999 or Brosius 2004), which again was very much USA-centric. At the international seminar, at which this work was first presented, this dominance of locations and topics was to some degree reproduced. All this research is valuable for me, because it deals with the question of migration and the internet, but the Indianness of it hardly relates to the Indianness of my research field in Germany. Thus this work on Indian transnationalism online is hardly more relevant to mine than Miller and Slater (2000) or Greschke (2012), which share my ethnographic interest. Similarly, Gajjala’s (2004) Feminist ethnographies of South Asian women are important for me not so much because of the natio-ethno-cultural ascription of the research field, but much more because of the critical feminist and postcolonial perspective (like Kuntsman 2004, 2009). There might be research on similarly peripheral Indian transnationalism online as mine, which would be more relevant to me. But so far I am not aware of it (most probably both because of my lacking language competence and the limited accessibility of research from the peripheries of anglophone academia).

The Indernet’s transnationalism

As said above, the Indernet started trilingually, but only flourished in one language: German. The language and the topics linked to it made the Indernet special for its users. It made it different from English language online spaces used by people in Germany, such as the transnational or the mailing list GINDS (Indians in Germany). For those socialised in German-speaking Europe and marked as Indian, the Indernet provided a virtual space in which they could use their everyday language to discuss issues linked to their everyday lives and to chill out with others like them. It provided a space of the second generation, in which they could imagine being natio-ethno-culturally like everybody else within the space and where they were safe from racist Othering (Goel 2005, 2009).7

The Indernet was a transnational space in the sense of catering for the multiple natio-ethno-cultural belongingness of its users and giving them the possibility to jointly imagine their belongingness to India in German-speaking Europe. On the Indernet they could talk about India and develop their own image of India in reaction to dominant images of India in German-speaking Europe and the images of their parents. Here they could also acquire and develop information they needed to succeed in everyday interactions. People marked as Indians are often ascribed an expert knowledge about India and they are asked questions that, being socialised in German-speaking Europe, many cannot easily answer. To avoid admitting ignorance, acquiring the necessary answers for the most frequent questions is a helpful strategy. The Indernet was thus a space of negotiating, debating and developing one’s own position on issues somehow linked to India. Here the editors and users could reject, adopt and adapt images according to their needs. All of this happened in German and based on the experiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland negotiated with others from this region about an India, which in its realities was far away for most of them.8

The Indernet was very localised not only by the language and the contents discussed there, but also in terms of its users and editors. There was no significant interaction online with people from India or Indians outside of German-speaking Europe. Nonetheless the Indernet opened the possibility of being in Germanspeaking Europe and imagining oneself part of a global Indian diaspora. It did so by symbolically offering the three languages through the project description and by offering information about Indian popular culture in the UK.9

Besides this imaginative transnationalism, there was also interaction, which crossed natio-ethno-cultural as well as national borders, on the Indernet. In this virtual space not only young people with parents from different parts of India came together, but to some extent there was also pan-South Asian interaction, in particular with users, whose parents came from Pakistan. Furthermore, the Indernet linked young people in Germany with those in Austria and Switzerland and it allowed people who were brought up in these countries and who were temporarily abroad (studying in the USA or UK or doing an internship in India) to stay in contact with those back home. The Indernet transnationally connected those who felt themselves somehow connected to India and German – a very localised transnationalism.10

The description so far has been in the past tense, because the zenith of the internet portal Indernet lasted from its foundation in the summer of 2000 until about 2006/07. After this there was a phase of near standstill, during which the interactive parts of the portal were inactive and the editorial section was hardly updated. In autumn 2011 suddenly the Indernet was reactivated. A blog has taken the place of the internet portal and is interlinked with a Facebook page. Thus a new Indernet is developing, which is much less centred on enabling communication between Indians of the second generation and more on providing information about India (in Germany). It might well be that with the new opportunities social networks like Facebook offer, those marked as Indians in German-speaking Europe now have much less need of a virtual space like the internet portal Indernet to communicate with others like themselves. Within Facebook they can develop and maintain their own networks of communication. This is something they also already did, while the Indernet functioned as a space of the second generation. Not only did they communicate publicly in forums or chat rooms, they also used other features of the Indernet to get in touch with people. They consulted in particular the events calendar to meet people offline and used a media mix of forum, chat, private messages, email, instant messenger and phone to communicate with others. The Indernet was the place where information about Indians in Germany and their meeting places could be found and where one could initially meet. This function might now be taken over by Facebook, where there are several spaces and paths to find others like oneself. Looking at Facebook walls and friends list (as far as they are public to me), many of my former interview partners are interacting both with others marked as Indian in German-speaking Europe and those marked as Indians elsewhere. In some sense this is more visible in Facebook than it was on the Indernet. Facebook also seems to provide better opportunities to address different friends differently, both in terms of language and topics.

The coexistence of different users and different usages is not a new phenomenon. Besides those marked as Indians and socialised in German-speaking Europe, there have always also been users from the dominant societies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria (increasingly so from the middle of the 2000s) and to some extent also Indian IT professionals, who recently migrated to German-speaking Europe, have been using the Indernet. While according to my material for many of the first category, the Indernet served as a space of the second generation (Goel 2005, 2009), this was by no means the only function it fulfilled for them. Like for members of the other two categories, the Indernet was able to cater for many differing interests. Among these are getting information about India, showing interest in India, discussing India (Reggi 2010) and looking for information about India and Indians in Germany. In fact, I was told by a number of my informants (both white and marked as Indian) that they primarily observed the Indernet to learn and stay informed about the second generation in Germany.

The virtual space of belongingness was thus only one (or maybe also several) subspace(s) that could be found under the roof of the Indernet. It/they coexisted with other spaces catering for other interests. Since there were different entry points into the Indernet (the homepage, the forum, the chat, etc.) and paths through it, users could use the portal in quite different ways without noticing these differences and imagining doing the same as everybody else. The users marked as Indians and socialised in German-speaking Europe could thus navigate the Indernet without interacting much with users of the other two categories (for the latter this was probably less possible). When people of the different categories, however, met and interacted, this might also be understood as a transnational interaction in some sense. It seems that in particular the white users imagined themselves to enter on the Indernet a transnational space, giving them the possibility to interact with Indians who they imagined to be fundamentally different from themselves (Goel 2008b; Reggi 2010).

Ethnographic Explorations

Many internet scholars now claim to do ethnographic studies. In most cases this seems to mean that they conduct interviews and/or observe internet usage for some limited time. They use methods from social and cultural anthropology, but stay rooted both methodologically and theoretically in their own disciplines (such as media and communication studies, sociology, etc.).

My interest in ethnographic explorations, however, is much more rooted in the discipline of social and cultural anthropology and in developing its methods for the virtual space further. In particular, my interest is in the embeddedness of the use of internet technologies in the offline world. Accordingly, I drew heavily on and was influenced by Miller and Slater (2000), who starting from an offline place (Trinidad) followed different paths of internet usage. They argue that ‘the Internet is not a monolithic or placeless “cyberspace”; rather, it is numerous new technologies, used by diverse people, in diverse real-world locations’ (Miller and Slater 2000: 1) and that accordingly internet usage should be analysed in its particular contexts (in their case in Trinidad and its diaspora). Furthermore, Miller and Slater (2000: 1–23) demand a full-fledged ethnographic approach, criticising the arbitrary use of some ethnographic methods:

"We assume ethnography means a long-term involvement amongst people, through a variety of methods, such that any one aspect of their lives can be properly contextualized in others." (Miller and Slater 2000: 21)

In their case,11 their study of the internet in Trinidad built on former ethnographic research by Miller in Trinidad and internet research by Slater. They combined fieldwork in Trinidad itself with a longer period of fieldwork online. Offline they conducted interviews, hung around cybercafés and places of friends, chatted with people, used informal encounters and a questionnaire. Online they did much of the same, hanging around, chatting and emailing as well as analysing internet data. Ethnography for them, however, not only requires a variety of methods, but a lasting ‘immersion in a particular case’ (Miller and Slater 2000: 21), which is needed for as much contextualisation of the material as possible. This in-depth analysis of a special case they argue can then be used as part of a comparative analysis to formulate generalisations. It can also be used to analyse long-term developments as Miller’s (2011) study on Facebook usage in Trinidad illustrates.

Rather than starting from an offline space like Miller and Slater (2000), the ethnographic explorations of Greschke (2012), Kuntsman (2009) and Shahani (2008) start (like mine) from a virtual space (the transnational Paraguayan forum Cibervalle, The Pan-Israeli Portal of Russian-speaking Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transsexuals and the mailing list Gay Bombay) and then follow paths and topics from there. Like Miller and Slater (2000) they look at the embeddedness of the online in the offline world, do multi-sited long-term in-depth analyses and take into account several perspectives. In their openness to the field, their ethnographic analyses follow clear theoretical questions. Greschke (2012) is, based on theories about world society, interested in the role of the internet in migrants’ everyday life and the emergence of global communities. Shahani (2008) looks at globalisation, gay love and (be)longing in contemporary India and bases his analysis on internet, queer and globalisation studies. Kuntsman (2009) starts off with an interest in queerness, migranthood and nationalism in Israeli on- and offline spaces and ends by analysing figurations of violence and belonging in contemporary Israel. She does so based in feminist, queer and postcolonial theory. Their interests thus all go beyond just analysing the internet. They are interested in questions relevant to the respective societies and thus contextualise their material in the respective time, space, political, etc. context. Their ethnographic explorations thus provide localised analyses of communication crossing (not only natio-ethno-cultural) borders.

The difference between using ethnographic methods and doing an ethnography might be summarised by the focus on the long-term multi-perspective involvement in a particular offline or online space, which allows the researcher to notice subtleties and developments. In order to do this, the research, even if it is multi-sited, must carefully contextualise the material according to the particular localities analysed. Coming from critical racism, postcolonial and queer feminist theory I add that, furthermore, it should be guided by a clear epistemological interest beyond the pure observation of the internet.

The Ethnographic Exploration of the Indernet

In my ethnographic work I started from the virtual space Indernet. From there I pursued different paths linking different on- and offline spaces, attempting to understand more about how the Indernet was used by different people and what relevance this usage had for them.

But first I had to get to know the internet portal in order to make it the centre of my research. The path to the Indernet began long before its foundation in the summer of 2000. It began by getting involved in seminars for second generation Indians organised by the Indo-German society (DIG) since 1994. Through these I got in contact with others of the second generation from all over Germany, learned about their biographies, experiences and activities and thus became interested in researching the situation of Indian migrants and their children in Germany. I started to publish articles in an Indo-German magazine and during my master’s course in London conducted small research projects on issues related to this group of people. Due to the particular migration history from India to Germany in the mid-1990s, for the first time a sizable number of children from migrants from India were old enough not only to search for their own spaces, but also to found them themselves. Thus not only the seminars of the DIG took place, but also local youth groups developed, several club nights of Indians of the second generation for the second generation were organised and young people experimented with the internet. In November 2000 the youth group of the DIG (of which I was a part) organised a networking seminar for the second generation, in order to get to know each other and improve cooperation.

It was at this seminar that I got to know the founders of the Indernet and became interested in the internet portal, of which I had heard a short time before. Shortly afterwards I started to observe the portal, and sometime later I applied for research funds and began the full-time research project The virtual second generation in spring 2004.12 I was interested in why and how people socialised in Germany related to India and what determined their ethnic self-description.13 Already being influenced by constructivist theories, I questioned an essential Indianness and accordingly used the term ‘virtual’ in a double meaning, referring both to the online space where the ‘second generation’ met and to the imagination of a ‘second generation’.

In my research process I was guided by the principles of grounded theory (Creswell 1998), adapting my approach, methods and analysis in accordance with the empirical material and my theoretical deliberations. Thus came, influenced in particular by Mecheril (2003), a shift in interest from ethnic identity construction to racism. Critical racism theory provided me with an analytical tool to understand why the Indernet attracted users, who were in many ways very heterogeneous and could not be described well by referring to (constructed) ethnicity (Goel 2008a). However, what most of my interview partners and those whom I observed had in common was that in German-speaking Europe they were ascribed as Indians by others. It linked the Indernet user, who had spent part of his/her schooling in India with her/his parents and family, with the user, who was adopted as an infant from Sri Lanka by white parents and never since had contact with South Asia. Racist ascription and not a joint ethnic identity formed their (implicit) commonality.

Since 2000 I have been observing the Indernet and have archived different parts of it. In particular in the time between 2004 and 2006 I occasionally participated in forum discussions, contributed articles to the editorial section, was on a few occasions in the chat, have exchanged personal messages and emails with other users and editors as well as attended offline events (organised by both Indernet editors and users). I also visited Indian offline events organised by other ethnic entrepreneurs and irregularly visited other websites administered by young people socialised in Germany and marked as Indians there (such as digaachen, indianfootball, happyindia and pak24).

My participation on the Indernet was mainly one of a distanced lurker, staying most of the time an observer and hardly considering myself part of the Indernet.14 That said, in the time of my most intensive observation from 2004 to 2006, I became so used to the virtual space and its practices that I felt quite at home there and was emotionally involved in what was happening. It also happened often and still happens that people assume that I am part of running the Indernet. In order for the other users to know or remember that a researcher is observing them (Rutter and Smith 2005), I tried to make myself visible from time to time. Once in a while I posted an article in the editorial section or posted in the forum. My signature in the forum informed users about my research and provided a link to my homepage,15 where detailed information about the research project could be found. When I joined the chat, I told those chatting with me that I was a researcher.

In 2006 during a technical crisis of the Indernet a standby forum was opened by a user, which then developed into an independent forum used by several former users of the Indernet. I started observing this forum as well, registered with the same nickname, but stayed a pure lurker, i.e. read the posting but did not post myself. For a short time I was also registered in StudiVZ, a German social network similar to Facebook, which was in 2006/07 much more popular than Facebook. In October 2011 I finally joined Facebook to follow more closely the Indernet Facebook page, which was started by the editors in 2010, as well as the Indernet group started by users in the same year. I also used my Facebook account to get back in touch with people I had interviewed and was quite successful in this.

Between 2004 and 2006 I conducted more than 80 open interviews about the Indernet with the three founders, current and former editors, users (from occasional lurkers to very active posters) and observers. Among the latter category were researchers, journalists who had written about the Indernet or were interested in India, as well as webmasters of other South Asian spaces, DJs, musicians and club night organisers, i.e. young ethnic entrepreneurs. Most of the interviews were conducted face to face. When this was not possible, either because the interview partner wanted to stay anonymous or I did not have the resources to meet her/him, I conducted email or personal message interviews.16 For contacting interview partners I used my own networks among people socialised in Germany and marked as Indians there, contacted Indernet editors and users, posted a call in the editorial section of the Indernet and followed interesting traces found on the internet portal. Most of my interview partners were brought up in Germany (a few also in Switzerland or Austria) and were ascribed there on the basis of different physiognomic and social attributes as Indians. I interviewed only a few white Germans, most of them observers, but also two users, who had answered my call, an anonymous poster and a former editor. This dominance of those marked as Indian among my interview partners was mainly determined by my research question and my networks. It should not be taken as a clear indication of the composition of the users of the Indernet.

The long-term observation provided me with the possibility of becoming familiar with the space and its users, to notice subtle and considerable changes and developments. I observed that the subspaces of, entry points to and paths through the Indernet were continually changing, sometimes slowly and sometimes abruptly. I noticed users coming and going, becoming more or less active. I saw changes in the project description of the Indernet as well as in the editorial team and the type of articles posted. I had to adjust to changes in technology, features coming and going, the forum organisation changing and occasional technical crises. My long-term involvement also made possible chance encounters in other contexts with people somehow linked to the Indernet. So, for example, when I met a person in 2008 for an interview in a different research project, s/he told me that s/he knew me from the Indernet. Furthermore, the long-term interaction with me gave my interview partners and other informants the chance to get to know me and my research better. Some of them followed my blog or contacted me for information and support. Several followed the news on my website about the research project and sometimes they interacted with me critically about my research. This also happened occasionally when I sent interview partners a published article, in which I had quoted them. Befriending many of my former interview partners on Facebook, I had the impression that several carefully chose their privacy settings for me in order to avoid me analysing their contents. It seemed to me that they had learned to adopt a controlled interaction with research over the years and were less naive.17 Also the editorial team was always careful about which information it disclosed to me and which it did not. At the same time it used my research for their marketing, advertising it as a proof of the Indernet’s excellence.

The Indernet changed from an internet portal to a blog and Facebook page and thus from providing one roof for many independent subspaces to offering two nodes in a network. From offering a space for the second generation, it changed to being one of several suppliers of information about India (in Germany). These changes have several reasons: technological change, (dis)continuities in the management of the Indernet, biographical developments of the editors, demographic change with respect to the second generation, changes in the interest of the white German audience, etc. These developments could be analysed from many different perspectives: internal organisation, types of usage, types of users, forms and content of communication, forms and content of representation, etc. The choice of the research question is not straightforward but an epistemological choice to be made, and one that needs to consider research ethics (e.g. Gajjala 2004; Kuntsman 2009: 12, 27; Rutter and Smith 2005; Miller 2011: xv). At the periphery of Indian migration in Germany the number of those marked as Indians is rather small and people can be easily identified. Accordingly, it has to be carefully decided which information is published and how to effectively anonymise the informants as much as possible.

The Role of Ethnic Entrepreneurs

Having started with the construction of India, Indian and Indian transnationalism and its protagonists, i.e. the ethnic entrepreneurs, I want to come back to them now. There are many ways in which people outside India are involved in constructing something Indian. They can initiate Indian spaces, produce Indian products, foster Indian ideas, etc. All this can be done for a number of reasons and with quite diverse aims from altruism to economic benefit. But all of them are involved in (re)producing Indianness outside of India discursively.

In the case of the Indernet it was in particular the founders but also the editors who jointly and in interaction with the users created an Indian space, in which users (and editors) could negotiate and develop their ideas of Indianness in German-speaking Europe. The different persons involved will have done so for their own reasons and with differing intentions; both will also have changed over time. In particular at the beginning it seems that the founders created the space they wanted themselves, providing the possibility to meet others like themselves and also to experiment with the new medium internet. There seemed to be a genuine interest of many involved to do something for the community. However, it might be argued that this community did not exist as such before the Indernet, but rather was developed through the internet portal. But there most probably were also other aims pursued by the engagement for the Indernet: recognition from peers, parents and the German public, the wish to change the image of India and Indians in German-speaking Europe, access to events and important people, etc. From the beginning onwards and in the last years increasingly, it seems that there was also an interest in being taken seriously as a business partner, getting advertisements and media partnerships, being hired for marketing issues and potentially for earning money.18

Similarly the webmasters of other Indian virtual spaces, Indian DJs, musicians and event organisers, journalists as well as others involved in ethnic entrepreneurship in German-speaking Europe will pursue their projects for a number of reasons such as the love of music, the racist exclusion in mainstream clubs, a genuine interest in Indian politics, the impression of a business opportunity, etc., and with differing aims such as anti-racist politics, Hindu nationalism, economic interest, etc.

Also the researchers, who work on those marked as Indians in German-speaking Europe, have to be included here. They are also ethnic entrepreneurs involved in constructing Indians and Indianness, even if their aim is the deconstruction of ethnic identity (as it is mine). With my research I am placing the categories of my research within the academic realm (which in German-speaking Europe did not consider them before), making them relevant and fixing them in my terms. My research, furthermore, can be used by other ethnic entrepreneurs like the Indernet editors or Lal (2006) for their own ends, which are outside my influence. Like other ethnic entrepreneurs, my reasons for doing research are numerous: to earn recognition, to help my career, to earn money, out of an interest in others natio-ethno-culturally like myself, to deconstruct Indianness, to understand the mechanisms and consequences of racism, etc.

All of us ethnic entrepreneurs offer products that are coded in ethnic terms, market them and hope that there will be enough demand to make our efforts worthwhile. When we are successful with this, when people take our goods, then the transaction, which is necessary for transactional ethnicity to materialise, takes place. India, Indian, Indianness become a reality when people relate to our products, take them as something real and thus make them real. But in the German-speaking periphery of Indian migration, this is a precarious business. The numbers of people marked as Indians are rather small and the persons live scattered over Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Thus most everyday interactions take place with little contact with others marked as Indians. There is thus only restricted potential for social control and community building. On the one hand this is the reason why Indian spaces are of interest to many; on the other, this means that people can also live well without them. Thus the ethnic entrepreneurs have to make sure the interest in their goods is continuing and people do not choose another offer for identity and community building (around their profession, hobbies, gender, etc.).

One of the reasons for the standstill of the Indernet in the second half of the 2000s was probably that many Indians of the second generation no longer had such a high demand for Indian identity and community (negotiation). After some time on the Indernet, progress in education and maturing as adults, other issues will have become more important for many.19

Because of the role of ethnic entrepreneurs in constructing India, Indian and Indianness, it makes sense to research this figure and in particular the projects of the entrepreneurs, because the latter are the ones that (re)produce the realities. In this sense researching Indian transnationalism online (including the periphery) is highly relevant. Ethnography with its in-depth and long-term analysis can be very productive, in particular when it is done self-reflexively and in awareness of the researcher’s own role in (re)constructing the object of research.


1 For a more detailed discussion see Goel (2007, 2008). Compare also Brubaker (2004) for a discussion of ethnicity without groups and Anthias (1998: 564) for a questioning of the concept of Greek diaspora.

2 Authors such as Anthias (1998) criticise the focus on ethnic identity for ignoring other factors determining individual lives (such as gender or class) and argue for an intersectional approach.

3 (accessed on 25 July 2012).

4 Other peripheries are probably even less internationally noticed.

5 For the importance of the location see also Anthias (2009: 12–13).

6 I use Mecheril’s (2003) term natio-ethno-cultural for the ascriptions made with respect to the diffuse concepts of nation, ethnicity and culture.

7 For similar analyses see Mandaville (2003: 146), Greschke (2012: 100–106) and Kuntsman (2009: 13–15).

8 For a more detailed discussion of the imagining of India see Goel (2008b).

9 For a more detailed discussion of the Indernet’s transnationalism see Goel (2008c).

10 For more discussion see again Goel (2008c).

11 Miller and Slater (2000, pp. 21–22) describes their ethnographic approach, which I summarise in the following.

12 For more information about the research project see research/virtual/virtualindex.html (accessed 6 June 2012).

13 I had already pursued this question in my master’s dissertation on citizenship and identity (see (accessed 27 July 2012).

14 Greschke (2012, p. 43) argues that lurking is one form of participating in online spaces and thus is a legitimate form of participant observation. She, however, also argues that the researcher will thus only get a restricted insight into the space – the perspective of the lurker.

15 (accessed 27 July 2012).

16 For the difficulty of asynchronous online interviewing see Kivits (2005).

17 Compare Gajjala (2004: 19–27) on how the insider by becoming a researcher becomes an outsider and is treated with more caution.

18 The Indernet founders and editors never shared information about their financial situation with me. They only always stressed that they were not making money from the Indernet. The Indernet, however, always displays several advertisements, is part of media partnerships, conducts raffles and addresses advertisers very professionally.

19 Due to demographic reasons they can be replaced only to a limited extent with younger people socialised in German-speaking Europe and marked as Indians there. The younger ones will want their own spaces with other styles.


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© Urmila Goel, 2014