Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

Normativity and social visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.

Surveying Social Relationships

By Daniel Miller, on 2 October 2015

One of the chapters of our forthcoming book How the World Changed Social Media, which will be published as an Open Access book by UCL Press in February 2016, describes a survey consisting of 43 questions we asked 1199 respondents (mainly around 100 per fieldsite).

Just occasionally this survey produced results which were commensurate with our general ethnographic data, for example, this chart showing the average number of friends is well matched by what our informants say about how generally sociable they feel people are in the place where they live.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.23.23

Similarly this figure of whether people use social media to develop new relationships makes sense to us. In some places such as Brazil or Trinidad it is because prior to social media people typically developed friendships through the mechanism of becoming friends with the friends of already established friends or relatives, and this is something that social media lends itself to. By contrast the issue in industrial China is that factory workers, who are constantly shifting from place to place, grow to rely on their online connections as the place for developing friendship, partly because opportunities are quite limited for friendship offline.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.23.50

But in other cases the results of this survey are clearly incompatible with what we know from our ethnographies, and we will always favour the authority of 15 months living with a community over a mere survey. It will not be hard for you to spot the problem in the next figure. This is the high number of people in our rural Chinese site who mention siblings as the people who most often post on their walls. The problem is, of course, that given the one family per child policy, most of these young people don’t have siblings. McDonald suggests this is a combination of two factors. Firstly those who do have siblings perhaps share a very close relationship with them. But, this figure also represents a practice in China where it is common to refer to one’s cousins as siblings. It was just one of many examples where we found that our survey could be very misleading unless you had the ethnographic background to understand how and why people had interpreted our questions in a particular and often unpredicted way.

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WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2015


Image courtesy of Josh Stocco, Creative Commons

It is not uncommon for the people of Balduino to discuss sex. Even my least talkative informants enjoyed telling me about their love affairs outside their official relationships. So it is not surprising that loads of sex clips circulated through my informant’s smart phones’ WhatsApp exchanges. Yet I did not understand that a trusted female informant – that agreed to share her personal communication with me – constantly forwarded me clips of heterosexual anal penetration.

Most of the videos she sent me depicting sex had in common one element: they were low budged videos that displayed painful anal sex penetration.

Since I cannot show you those clips because of the nature of the content, I will briefly describe what is particular about them.

One clip shows the moment the male actor mistakenly misses the actresses’ vagina and penetrates her anus abruptly. The video is edited comically using slow motion to depict the ferocious reaction of the woman as she breaks from that predictable porn performance and, screaming, begins to attack her partner on that scene. There are also clips in which the women try to hide the pain by screaming in as if she was having an orgasm.

All these videos indicate that the women are putting up with those scenes for reasons that are not related to pleasure. They accept it, most likely because they are being paid as porn actresses, but they do not like it.

Why would adult heterosexual women be sharing this kind of content if it is not because it turns them on – as it clearly doesn’t?

My informant and her friends laugh at these scenes. For them, it is humouring the only channel that allows this kind of subject to be brought up. Laughing about these videos is a way to talk about the sudden change in gender relations in the village.

It was only in the past two decades that most women there began having the opportunity of developing a career and becoming financially independent from their male partners.

Men are no longer needed as before to provide money and protection for the family. In fact, women have become better adapted to the formal job market; they have studied more and are more productive than men according to various sources I spoke with. This change raises discomfort among men.

An informant told me her partner took away her birth control pills when she refused having sex late in the night (as she had to work early in the morning) as a way to punish her. As a mother she would again have to stay home and accept her dependence on him. Looking from this angle, the sharing of these painful anal clips exposes how difficult it has been for women and for men to negotiate new roles.

The conclusion may seem too obvious; but showing painful anal penetration clips may be just a way of agreeing that the men in Balduino are a big pain in their arses.


The qualitative insights we get from applying questionnaires

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 August 2014

After our team gathered in London this past May, we came back to the field with four main tasks, one of which is to apply a new questionnaire to one hundred participants. Now that this mission is nearly accomplished, I am surprised by what I learned from the questions that, for various reasons, did not work and also by the ones that did. The application of a questionnaire forced me to contact people outside the groups I am closer to and provided a valuable opportunity to check if the generalizations I have made so far are correct. At the end, the questionnaire showed how quantitative methods could be misleading as people either don’t understand or differently evaluate the questions they are faced with. But they can and should be used in the context of long-term qualitative research as the researcher is then able to learn not just by the responses, but also mainly by the information that is offered beyond what the questionnaire requests.

On this blog post I will present some of the qualitative insights the application of this questionnaire has provided.

Right at the beginning of the conversation we ask the informant how many friends she or he has on their preferred social networking site. My expectation was that teenagers would have thousands of friends while everyone else would have about a few hundred or less. This has been the case among some participants, but as I applied the questionnaire often I heard the following intriguing reply by everyone including teens: – “Oh, I have loads of friends there. About 60…” There are quite a few things that can be unpacked from this answer. One is that I realized my teenage informants were heavy users and they were not representative of the entire group of people in their age group. Besides that, it is intriguing that having 60, 80 or 120 can be perceived as being a great number and I can now ask around to find out why is that so.

Some questions confirmed perceptions the ethnography uncovered. Later on in the questionnaire, we ask how many of the person’s friends on social networking sites the informant has never met face to face. Although I am Brazilian like my informants, their notion of what a Facebook contact should be is clearly different from mine. A “friend” here is everyone you can know, which is a group that includes the people that knows the people each one knows (friends of friends). Very few of my respondents answered that they knew personally everyone from their network. The typical reply was that loads of those they were friends with on Facebook they had added because, among other reasons, they had friends in common. So through sites like Facebook we see that my informants understanding of an acquaintance is much wider and flexible than that of people with my urban middle class background.

My informants have not understood the question that helped me realize this previous observation. Originally our research team wanted to know if informants asked the permission of friends or of family members before adding people to their network of contacts. As I read this question to informants, they replied to it quite quickly and confidently so it was not until almost finishing this task that I saw they had understood something very different from our original intention. They usually answered that they consulted friends before adding new contacts, but they were actually saying that when they receive a request from someone they haven’t met and don’t know, they go to this person’s profile and browse around to find out, among other things, who these people are friends with. Having friends in common is an important aspect in the decision of accepting friendship requests.

Some questions worked out incredibly well. One of these asked: do you feel that the opportunity of interacting with people through the Internet has become a headache? This was clearly understood by everyone and it will be interesting to see after we process the data if there are specific demographic groups that replied affirmatively to it. For example: young married people apparently both enjoy meeting more people and are bothered by having their lives more closely monitored by their partners. Others said that Facebook mixes up together different groups of people and it has become a burden to deal with frequent tensions inside one’s network.

We ask informants whether they think social networking sites are good or bad for education and for work. Although some replied Facebook was bad for education because it captures the attention of students out of their schoolwork, several parents consider it positive for exposing their children to information and knowledge. The answers were even more emphatic about work. As Baldoíno is a working class village, many of my informants here work in hotels, are private security guards or have small businesses and having the possibility of communicating with peers and with business partners easily and without paying is very helpful.

On the whole, my informants could not say whether they had “liked” businesses on Facebook. It is unclear to almost all what the difference is between, for instance, a soap opera and a company, and notions such as “local”, “national” and “international” in regard to the businesses they “liked” were confusing to them. Why shouldn’t Coca Cola be local or national if its products are available locally and their adverts are running on national TV channels? Some informants answered that they have purchased items from the businesses they follow, but what they mean is not that the purchase happened as a consequence of them “liking” the business. They like the product and they express this by “liking” them on Facebook and buying products.

I was surprised to see how the people here understand the Facebook timeline. In my private use of Facebook, friends rarely publish stuff on my timeline; as a whole, we share the understanding that one’s timeline is a private place that should not be used by others unless on specific occasions such as birthdays. Here in Baldoíno leaving messages of all sorts in someone else’s timeline is part of the way Facebook is used and the word “timeline” has become part of the vocabulary people use to talk about social networking online.

The questionnaire ends with two questions about politics and the answers I collected are revealing of the particularities about this place. I think all but one person said she or he had unfriended someone because of political differences. Many said that they have unfriended people because of quarrels motivated by other reasons, but not because of politics. These answers reveal the physical distance that in fact exists between them and local representatives. Politics is a topic not worth quarreling about because there is nothing to gain from it. Government type of politics represent a burden that has to be dealt with every two years during elections and politicians are very present during that time but afterwards they disappear.

Although informants consistently said they didn’t care about politics, most said confidently that social networking sites have made them more politically active. They were very sure about both answers so I started asking what they understood about being politically active. Initially I suspected they meant Facebook allowed them to be more active in their community as they are now able to complain publicly about things they don’t like, but this was not what many were trying to say. By being more active politically they are saying they are better informed about what happens beyond the daily life in their locality. Facebook is a place that disseminates information so they learn about more things that are interesting to them that they don’t get through other media such as the television.

There is a lot more to say about this experience and about how quantitative methods can be a valuable tool to acquire qualitative data, but hopefully the examples offer possibilities for this subject to be discussed further. I am curious to learn how the experience has been for my research colleagues and hope they blog about it here as well.

Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

Football World Cup 2014: observations from Panchagrami

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 27 June 2014


Cricket, cinema, politics and religion are things that interest Tamils the most. This is not only reflected in their offline lives but can be witnessed online too, especially on Facebook. Now, where does football fit into all of this? Though football isn’t something that is entirely ignored, it really doesn’t scale up as cricket does. It is one game which is constantly encouraged in schools during the physical training hours next to cricket, but, it really doesn’t have the same following as cricket does. However, it is nonetheless more popular than hockey, which is India’s national sport.

Most men would tell you that they were exposed to football during their school days, but, as a sport the interest in it gets restricted to their school/college days, compared to their interest in cricket which is carried on to their adult life. However, the scenario is not all bad as there are people who do follow football feverishly and know each team’s statistics by heart, but, the numbers just don’t match cricket. Chennai, the nearest city to my fieldsite – Panchagrami – has a Manchester United clothing shop in a famous mall and people do shop there, some for its brand value and a few as fans.

The Ground Reality
So, how does the recent FIFA World Cup 2014, score in this scenario? While Brazil wakes up to football, it’s almost bed time in India. The live telecast of the World Cup starts only at around 9:30 PM which is almost past dinner time for most folks in Tamil Nadu, India. The first match at 9:30 PM isn’t too tough to follow, but the next slot is close to midnight and the slots thereafter most often takes a toll on people who work. They go back to work like zombies if they stay awake watching the entire series the night before. So, people following the live action of every single match is rare.

These night slots come at a disadvantage not only to fans but also to the hospitality industry. Star hotels, restaurants and bars do play the matches live, but most have a time constraint and normally don’t go over midnight. Though replays of matches do take place in the afternoon, football isn’t really treated as a great marketing option during weekdays, though weekends are slightly different. There is only one five-star hotel in Chennai which has taken football to be a serious way of marketing and attracting fans to dine in and has activities related to the sport 24/7. While a few others do consider this an attractive marketing option, most places haven’t really bothered too much with the idea. Bars and restaurants in Chennai (specifically those in star-rated hotels) play football on their television sets, however, most go on only till about midnight and close down, so catching the live telecast from Brazil in public places is difficult for most people here.

The other issue is with the concept of bars in Tamil Nadu. The bars here are of two different kinds, the first type is attached to the local government-run alcohol shops called TASMAC. But, most middle class men prefer not to frequent this bar and opt to take alcohol home. Further, there isn’t any facility here to watch football. The second kind of bars are those that are mostly present in star-rated hotels or exclusive bars/restaurants and can be pretty costly compared to the local government-owned alcohol shops. So, people frequenting them would normally be people travelling on business or upper middle class/rich folks. However, irrespective of the bar one frequents, if one decides to drive back home, with the stiffening of rules against drunk-driving, one is almost certain to get caught by the law and shell out loads of money (either as a fine or at least in terms of corruption to avoid a fine). Some clubs do offer football viewing during dinner for its members, while most often the television sets in gymnasiums play them as an option along with cinema songs.

A World Cup 2014 arrangement at a star-rated hotel in Chennai:



The scenario in coffee shops is not too different. Though some do have replays of football matches instead of cinema songs, most prefer cinema songs to match replays. Most often one can catch some advertisement/sign or symbol related to the World Cup in the form of a commercial product. Coffee shops don’t spend money putting together advertisements or banners of the Football World cup, but willingly display beverages bearing the symbols of the World Cup.

For example, Coca Cola cans which have the World Cup advertisement on them.

Pic4 The constant scene of people who watch windows of shops/showrooms with a television set playing a live stream of the cricket World Cup matches isn’t seen with the FIFA World Cup. Though, the time at which the matches are played might be one reason, the other would be that football just doesn’t interest people here as cricket does. Private viewings in homes do take place in Chennai. However, except for a few nights in the season, most stop watching past midnight during weekdays, due to work day schedules. The only store which has a dedicated football brand Manchester United also only plays matches of the team and not the FIFA World Cup, as a store associate expressed his concern of attracting too much of crowd, if the matches were shown in the store. However, the time of live relay of such matches was also something that did not work out in their favour.

Pic5 One definitely cannot ignore the World Cup as there are vinyl hoardings and the media (print, radio and television) constantly relays news of the World Cup. Most often people seem to prefer watching news slots of the matches or just get the scores from the internet rather than watching it live. Discussions at offices or schools on football aren’t as frequent as they are regarding cricket.

The World Cup on Tamil Television news


However, it does have its own reflection on social media, and especially on Facebook. Private chats and groups on football do exist. Most often one needs to get invited to these groups, where discussions between Facebook friends happen. Being a part of such a group was clearly enlightening, as it gave the opportunity to witness conversations first hand. Members keep checking for scores online and run their own analysis of teams. They also share links of popular articles related to the teams they love or hate or just about the World Cup itself. Some even run voting options such as the one below Pic7 Pic8


The Scene in Panchagrami

By contrast to the above scene in Chennai, Panchagrami, which lies in the outskirts of Chennai offers a completely different scenario. What hits one is that there are absolutely no vinyl hoardings of football. Further, there are no commercial enterprises that offer an overt advertisement related to football. The only place which has a public viewing of football matches is a star-rated hotel at Panchagrami, situated on a major highway. It offers football match viewing between 7 PM and 11:30 PM every day available only at the roof-top garden restaurant, opened newly at the hotel. However, the screen where the match is projected is pretty small and unclear.


Interviews with the restaurant staff revealed that when families dine in, they really don’t pay too much attention to the matches and most aren’t bothered about them. Some have even requested the staff to change channels (to play cinema songs) as the sport seemed boring to them. However, the staff were ready to admit that excitement picks up only when groups of young men come in to dine and specifically only when they consume alcohol. This normally seems to happen on weekends rather than weekdays. Every evening there are men who travel on business who dine in at the hotel and sit alone to watch the game, just until they finish dinner, most often out of boredom rather than an interest for the sport. The same was true of a coffee shop in the area too; they were content playing cinema songs rather than the World Cup as they felt that cinema songs were much better received by their customers. When probed deeper, they did say that a few customers mostly men, sometimes requested the staff to change channels for a few minutes to update themselves on news related to the football World Cup. Again, timing for catching live action of the World Cup just isn’t suitable for most people nor does it suit the business.

The corner tea shops are normally the spaces where communication of world news is witnessed through informal discussions. Frequenting some of these tea shops revealed that people did speak about cricket in the last week and never once mentioned Football. Informal chats with a few in these tea shops revealed that they just didn’t care about it and were content getting a glimpse of it from the local newspapers.

Most of my informants in the past week were posting pictures of their favourite cricket/cinema stars and political figures. They even Liked pages of their favourite stars, teams or political leaders. I haven’t found even a single posting on football. Even IT workers staying here weren’t really bothered putting up posts on Facebook about football. Interviewing my younger group of informants, revealed a few interesting findings on why they don’t post anything about football.

  1. None of their friends were interested in it.
  2. They wouldn’t get as many Likes if they post about football rather than cricket
  3. It doesn’t allow girls to Like/Comment on their posts – while they did say that the chances of women Liking/Commenting on a post related to cricket was more. In other words, they meant that football was more masculine and could keep away women from actively participating in their profile (through Commenting/Liking).

However, a few did say that they did receive WhatsApp messages from some of their work/college friends about football and most of these friends were from Chennai and some weren’t even native Tamils and hailed from West Bengal or Kerala where football is much more popular. So, while some reeled off statistics they had collected from their office colleagues and from newspapers, they did accept that the discussions on football weren’t as intense as cricket.

The online forums/discussion groups of upper middle class residential apartments also did not have any messages asking for people to join in a public viewing of the sport. However, talking to an International school in the area revealed that they had football coaching sessions over weekends. Attending a few sessions over the last couple of weekends showed that the fathers normally encouraged their sons who were attending coaching sessions to watch World Cup matches. There was a strong family (father-son) bonding that was visible through their discussions on Football on the practise ground. Some were constantly referring to a few You Tube videos of player interviews and techniques. But, other than a few matches they watched during weekends at home or at a Star hotel, most agreed that watching live action of the World Cup just didn’t suit their schedule or timing. However, they did catch up with the scores on the internet.

There were a few men who did agree that they used football as an excuse to go out drinking (alcohol) together as a group. But they just didn’t bother posting about it online, as they didn’t want their wives to know that they were out boozing in the pretext of watching Football.

Most of my male informants did agree that they had played football and liked the game, but it was soon very clear that playing a sport needn’t necessarily transition to following the sport.

Interviewing and constantly checking for updates on Facebook profiles of my informants about their interest in football revealed yet another dimension – women loved cricket more than they did football. None discussed football. Football, they said was very masculine and somehow it just didn’t suit them. However, they did accept that if they had grown up watching football as they did cricket, maybe they would have loved it and changed their favourites. But, it just doesn’t seem to be happening in the near future.

In conclusion, football still hasn’t diffused into the boundaries of Panchagrami as it has in Chennai. As the area transitions, there might be a greater number of Football fans in Panchagrami. Further, the timings do hinder those who might want to give it a try in Panchagrami. As the final match of the World Cup gets closer, maybe people would be much more interested and would start following the World cup. However, at least people catch a glimpse of it in newspapers or on television sets and do update themselves and the situation isn’t as bad as hockey – supposedly India’s national sport – of which people know much less than they know of football.

This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Fitting In: Real methods in anthropology

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 20 May 2014

By Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xin Yuan Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Most disciplines have formal methods for collecting data. By contrast the critical issue for ethnography is the task of transforming ourselves into the kind of person we need to be in order to conduct successful fieldwork. Someone people in the area feel comfortable with, would wish to make friends with and have confidence in. Since our method is in essence the cultivation of good relationships with our informants. Each of us has had to learn this sensitivity to the field and often change their appearance and behaviour accordingly.

For example Shriram found that when he started his fieldwork in South India he wore a t shirt and jeans. Practically no one would speak to him. But when he tried to go to the other extreme and conduct fieldwork wearing a formal shirt and trousers, he found that most people thought he was trying to sell them something. In one case after patiently explaining to a school the nature of our project and the research he would like to conduct the school teacher apologised but said firmly that the school was not really interesting in purchasing this `anthropology.’ Eventually he took further measures. He pierced both his ears and started wearing hand spun kurtas and `intellectual wear’ to clearly position himself as an academic. After which the fieldwork went just fine.

Juliano has found his fieldsite to be a split between evangelical Christians and others, and he needed neither to look like a `person of God’ or `person of the world’ so instead of dressing like either of these, he went for a European look that managed to be a neutral ‘gringo’ look that meant he could talk with people from both sides. Jolynna, by contrast had to take off most of her clothes, and adorn Carnival costume before those associated with the creation of Carnival camp that she wanted to study would speak to her. Elisa found that she had to shave her legs and underarms more carefully than usual since even to show a single hair where the legs or arms are not covered could be seen as shameful in this part of Turkey. She also found she had to keep the house immaculately clean.

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Tom suffered from the quantity of strong alcohol he was expected to drink in local ‘feasts’ since that was the basis of male solidarity and commensality in the village where he lived. Danny found that he had to retreat from the more participatory nature of ethnography to more formal interviews since that was what people in England seemed to expect of him. On the other hand when looking at the subsequent interviews he didn’t find that the teenagers he worked with at schools had talked to him any differently as a middle aged man that to his colleague Ciara Green who is young woman, so the assumption that he should, for example, talk to boys and her to girls, turned out to be an unwarranted `strategy’. Nell got censored for drinking straight rum without a mixer, but also suffered considerable sunburn from having to hang out for long periods outside in the North Chile sun. Xin Yuan found that she had to dispense with the clothes she normally wears and adopt the bright patterns preferred by local people. Finally Razvan found he had to shift his behaviour and demeanour between four groups he was encountering: the students, the professionals, the friends and those for him his being a husband seemed most appropriate.

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

The other area of sensitivity which proved very variable was how we managed our own Facebook/QQ profiles. For example Jolynna at first tried to follow Danny’s advice and adopted a very neutral passive profile in Trinidad. She soon found this was entirely inappropriate and had to replace it with a very active one in which she posts frequently in order to make people comfortable, while, by contrast, the same strategy was correct for our English site where we post nothing at all in order to affirm that this sites exists solely for the purpose of research. Xin Yuan in the meantime blinged up her QQ profile with music and colour but also postings about her life in England in order to make herself look more interesting.

All of which confirms a basic premise of anthropology that methods are not things you start with. Rather it is only when you have learnt about the nature and preferences of the particular populations you are now living with that you can also determine what are the most appropriate ways of interacting with them and at least try to conform to their expectations.

Glamorizing social mobility through market research

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 28 February 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Nike cap, international sports shirt, colorful shades, and softdrinks – all items teens use to display financial progress. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Fantástico, a popular Sunday TV news programme in Brazil, had two long pieces related to social mobility this past week. One was about teens learning to install braces themselves as they became a fashionable item. The other is about slums and how, in contrast to the common (external) view, residents now feel happy about living there (both links conduct to pages in Portuguese).

The first story is not framed as something related to social mobility (I will suggest the relation further ahead), but simply as another weirdness that became cool among teens and that can have serious consequences to one’s health. The other story is grounded in market research conducted with over two thousand people by Data Popular, a research institute specializing in investigating what has been called Brazil’s “new middle class”.

A distorted view

It is a good thing to see national news pieces such as the one linked above that question the social stigmas related to living in favelas. At the same time, I found the research to be problematic in the sense that instead of engaging with the usually complex and paradoxical social realities, it shows only positive aspects as a way of promoting this new consumer segment.

The data analysis reinterprets the idea of progress, bringing individualization and breaking social bonds. As an informant explains during the report, outside the slum, life is not just unsafe but also boring. Alternatively, in slums families progressed economically but retained the dense sociality and the networks of cooperation that existed before.

A more nuanced view

I have been living in a working class villa for the past 11 months; I wouldn’t call it a slum although it resembles one in many aspects including the aesthetics of the urbanization.

So signs of prosperity do appear all around but this prosperity is strictly combined with a great sense of competition. Part of consuming is only a way of showing off ones financial conditions. So buying a large TV is not necessarily a choice related to the desire to have that item, but also a form of informing the others about one’s economic progress.

Nobody wants to be seen as the lower part of the social latter; it is as if one’s reputation now corresponds to his or her ability to have and display wealth. If a neighbor buys a certain item, the others around may use all means possible to get the same thing, even if that results in spending the money she or he does not have.

The illusions of progress

This sort of competition does not necessarily make people work harder. In some cases, it has the opposite effect as individuals and families spend a lot of energy partying – because expensive loud speakers and the burning smell of barbecues are efficient ways of displaying one’s means.

But this competition brings even more serious consequences. The poorer families are being more violently confronted with their lack of conditions, and it is the youth from those families that show greater propensity to choose drug dealing as a way of acquiring respect and money.

Using braces, then, is yet another symbol of economic improvement as teenagers have become a sort of showcase for the family’s progress. Similarly, not having to work is equal to not having the obligation of helping in the household. But these changes are affecting the structures of families and society.

Junk food, branded clothes, and quick money

Using braces is as much a health problem as, for instance, the desire to consume highly industrialized goods such as chips and sugar drinks. Either one has the means to purchase junk food or it means their family are “struggling”.

Another problem is that most teenagers on my field site seem to look at schools as only a social arena; a sort of extension of their Facebook friend’s list. It is the place to display one’s means through wearing fashionable items. As an education coordinator told me recently, the poorest ones feel almost obliged to wear the most expensive brands.

Studying is not really something they see as being valuable. Having a diploma is maybe necessary, but learning is not clearly perceived as an advantage. Almost all my informants at this age group said they would much rather have a motorcycle – to show off and make quick money – than to have a professional degree.

So, yes, there is something significant happening in Brazil related to social and economic mobility. A large number of those that previously lived outside of the formal economy are now intensely involved in consuming. The problem is using statistics and research methodologies to simply support a claim that ultimately serves as a sales pitch and does not necessarily improve people’s lives.

The cost of an internet connection when there is none available

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 10 November 2013

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Carcará is one of the songs that was popular among politically engaged youth of Brazil in the 1960s. Caetano Veloso’s recording of this song starts with the comment: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.”

The song describes how a small predatory bird that lives in the northeast of the country survives during the dry winter time by biting the bellybutton of young calves, consequently resulting in their death. The song is a sort of suggestive tribute to the bestial survival strength shared by the millions of illiterate migrants originally from that region.

I thought of this song the other day as I was visiting the home of a friend that is the president of the association of the residents of a squatter area in Baldoíno, my field site. Land invasions take a lot of effort to be legalised, and people must hang in there without official services such as electricity and running water while the government processes the claims and, if that is approved, make the new ownership official and distribute the documentation among the squatters. It usually takes many years to happen, but despite the odds, my friend was showing me his internet connected computer, which was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood.

You can see how important the internet is just by looking at the excitement of the family around the computer screen. But the process of connecting that computer was rather costly and involved ingenuity both from my friend and from the person that is providing him with the radio connection.  First, it was necessary to understand that there are products such as surge protectors that must be bought and installed in order to prevent the computer’s hardware from burning due to the instability of electricity supply. Additionally, a person – a friend of my friend – had the idea of re-selling internet connection and he found that it was possible to subscribe to a broadband service and transmit it by radio signal to places far away. He first studied this through YouTube videos and was then successfully testing the experiment by supplying our friend with his much desired internet connection.

I think the point of this post is self-explanatory: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.” Teenagers at my field site are crazy about the internet. It serves as a marker of distinction and as a place that is mostly exclusive for them to use in relation to their (normally illiterate) parents and adults in general. Parents seem to mostly feel favorably toward the attention their kids devote to using the internet, because then kids will stay at home rather than spending time outside the home unsupervised. They also will be doing something that  at least appears to be intellectual or related to the acquisition of knowledge. These are some of the reasons  the poorest people in my field site are pushing to find alternative ways to bring this service to their homes, especially in the case of squatting areas.