Student Research Engages #blacklivesmatter and Mountaintop Coal Removal

David Reische is deeply involved in research projects that engage with social media, put video equipment into the hands of communities, and make an impact.

Recently, the public anthropology master’s student used a qualitative analysis of Twitter to examine processes of social movement formation within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. His ongoing project—visual anthropology on mountaintop coal removal—is equally dynamic.

“For the movements I’ve studied, from #blacklivesmatter to Occupy to Anonymous, I consider myself a participant and contributor first, and a researcher second,” David says.

For David, there’s no “typical” day of research. You might find him hitting the streets to demand change, sitting behind his computer using Twitter search functions and other tools to analyze discourse, or presenting his work to AU audiences and beyond.

David shares his experiences with his two current research projects below.


Off the screen and into the streets: The evolution of #blacklivesmatter

Recently, David has applied critical discourse analysis to examine how the hashtag #blacklivesmatter helped give rise to the social movement it names. David sampled tweets in three categories – “before,” “during,” and “after,” and analyzed the evolution of the term over time. He explains his categories methodology as follows:

“The ‘before’ category corresponds to the first use of the hashtag in conjunction with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. This was July 13, 2013. The ‘during’ category was sampled from the peak use of the hashtag, which corresponded to the unrest following the acquittal of officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson in November, 2014. At this time, the movement was not yet ubiquitously known as the #blacklivesmatter movement. In January 2015, #blacklivesmatter was named the American Dialect Society’s word of the year, the first time a hashtag had received this distinction. I used this as a tangible benchmark for when the movement WAS known as the #blacklivesmatter movement, and tweets from this time comprise the ‘After’ category.”

Employing critical discourse analysis and linguistic tools, David then analyzed who was authoring the tweets, how the author positioned themselves, who their intended audience was, and what was said, to determine what function the #blacklivesmatter hashtag served.

“For example, in the ‘before’ category, the hashtag never stands alone. It’s used in conjunction with other hashtags, such as #trayvonmartin, or #J4TMLA—justice for Trayvon Martin Los Angeles. These additional hashtags are needed to provide context and understand what the tweet is about,” David said.

Moving forward into the “during” category, David saw some tweets using #blacklivesmatter without additional context.

“An example would be a tweet that said, ‘I believe that we will win. #blacklivesmatter,’” David explained. “Without any additional information, it is expected the audience will know who ‘we’ refers to—Ferguson protesters or the movement writ large—and what they will win.”

By the “After” phase, David found that, in, in 13 of 20 tweets sampled, the hashtag was the subject of the tweet, and not simply contextual information.

“By the time officer Darren Wilson was acquitted in the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the ‘black lives matter’ hashtag alone was sufficient to establish what the tweet was about” he said.

David’s research takes a close look at how social media enables change—and he works both behind a computer screen and on the ground alongside the activists with whom he works.


Community documentary: Nuanced approaches to the complexities of mountaintop coal removal

David became interested in mountaintop coal removal as an undergraduate. For his first field experience, he traveled to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, where he was struck by the ecological effects of removing mountaintops for coal.

On this trip, David met Larry Gibson, a “little old man” standing up to save his home, located on a $650 million coal deposit.

“I realized that if one person like Larry had the power to make such a difference, that I could, too,” David says.

“It was on this trip that I decided to dedicate the rest of my life and anthropological career to political activism. Larry Gibson passed away in 2012, but I see myself as carrying on his legacy and continuing the education that was his goal.”

David has made two subsequent trips to Kayford Mountain and has since involved other students in visual anthropology projects to shed light on the complex conflicts between the mining industry and opponents of coal.

At AU, David has sharpened his community documentary skills, an approach that gives people authorship and control over their own stories. This way of working will help to engage the coal miners who’d been hesitant to participate out of fear their positions would be misrepresented.

“My SRP (substantial research project) will use the footage and insights I’ve gathered on my trips to West Virginia,” David says. “I plan to make a movie highlighting the ways in which we connect with miners and bridge these often hostile divides, including issues of mine safety and economic alternatives to the coal economy, such as industrial hemp farming.”


How the AU Master’s in Public Anthropology Program Supports David’s Work 

David was drawn to AU for its opportunities to pursue applied, politically engaged activism.

“My time studying anthropology in undergrad taught me about the problems facing the world and how to think about and engage with them as an anthropologist. My time in graduate school at AU has been about figuring out how to build solutions to these problems,” David says.

He notes that entering the program with his own goals has helped shape his experience:

“Having personal goals and well-defined interests helps you weave every class, method, and reading together in a purposeful way, and my professors have all provided me opportunities to apply what we’re learning in a way that fits into my interests.”

David plans to continue integrating his interests in activism and anthropology, with a particular focus on those non-profit groups that fight against capitalism, he says.

“I plan to use the tools I’ve acquired at AU to continue my activism and fight for social justice.”


David Reische is one of many public anthropology students pursuing real work that impacts real people. If you are interested in conducting this type of work—or have other ideas you’d like to take on—learn more about the master’s in public anthropology at American University.


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  1. […] the perfect solution through her MAPA network. Her colleague David Riesche (whose work we featured last December) connected Kelci with his mother, a pro bono lawyer who works with Baltimore’s Esperanza […]

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