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Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Tom McDonald, on 14 March 2017

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’, showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

Public anthropology: urgent yet undervalued

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 17 November 2016

An education in anthropology encourages us to ask deep questions and look beneath the surface.

An education in anthropology encourages us to look beyond cultural assumptions.

In the days following the results of the US presidential election, there has allegedly been a wave of racist attacks and hate crime across the States against Muslims, hispanic Americans, black people, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. At the root of such behaviour is deep cultural ignorance and education is one of the most powerful weapons we have against intolerance and fear of the ‘other’. The humanistic sensibilities that an education in anthropology fosters can be paradigm-changing. It seems apparent that a commitment to an engaged public anthropology has never mattered more, or been more feasible in this digitally connected age. Many anthropologists, including the Why We Post team, feel the moral and political imperative to bring anthropology to a wider audience than was previously possible with traditional modes of research dissemination. But as anthropologists situated within today’s hyper-competitive academic job market, how can we navigate the often tenuous balance between public and academic output?

How can we manage to produce high-quality public content at the same time as managing the responsibilities that come with being professional anthropologists working within the demands of the academic job market? This was a question put to me by Alisse Waterston, the president of the American Anthropological Association, after a talk I gave at the IUAES in Dubrovnik back in May. The theme of IUAES this year was ‘world anthropologies and privatisation of knowledge: engaging anthropology in public’, yet my panel was the only one with the explicit theme of how to bring anthropology to the public. The panel convenors, Jenny Ingridsdotter and Kim Kallenberg from Södertörn University in Sweden, explained the difficult balancing act inherent in their academic lives: “In order to pursue an academic career we are encouraged to write peer reviewed articles and engage with research communities. Yet little time is left to engage socially and interactively with local communities or communicate important results to public spheres. As young scholars it might be even more complicated to legitimise designation of time to public output. Still we feel it is really important and at the core at what we do as ethnographers.”

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

I believe that there are several factors that enabled our team to successfully produce large amounts of public output at the same time as writing up their research, publishing, and applying for jobs (all of the 5 post docs have now secured academic employment). Firstly I think it’s important that public engagement shouldn’t be an afterthought to research, but like with Why We Post, should begin from a project’s inception if it is to be successful. Partly this is because the writing skills necessary for communicating to a general public take time to hone, and also because it’s important for researchers to understand early on in their work the kind of field material (video, photographic, textual) they need to record in order to produce engaging content that will appeal to non-anthropologists.

Given our topic of research is the uses and consequences of social media, our project was conceived as having a broad appeal from the outset; with selfies and memes we might be able to bring people to anthropology who otherwise might overlook it. Project leader Daniel Miller envisaged a spectrum of dissemination/engagement methods including open access books, an e-course, and a public-facing website, all of which was made possible by a generous ERC advanced grant which funded the project and has covered my salary as a public engagement fellow and research assistant. I was hired at the three-and-a-half-year mark when the team were in the process of writing up. Working with these talented researchers to produce our public content I saw how it was often difficult for them to juggle the academic and public output, even with the support of a team. The more conversations I had with them, the clearer it became: public engagement in anthropology is currently institutionally undervalued and needs greater recognition within the established modes of evaluation that researchers are subject to. I think that projects with more limited resources than ours would struggle to produce the same range of public output, despite the best intentions of individual researchers to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

In addition to writing 11 open access books (aimed at both academics and lay readers, with jargon-free text and references kept to footnotes), the Why We Post team agree that producing visual and textual material for the online course was the most time-intensive of our initiatives, taking longer than expected. One of our researchers, Shriram Venkatraman believes that this was mainly down our high production values coupled with our lack of experience in creating such material – and a lack of existing models to follow. We were the first UCL course on FutureLearn and the first comparative anthropological online course of this scale. The sheer amount of material coming from our project also posed a challenge – how do you condense insights from a total of 135 months of ethnographic fieldwork across nine fieldsites into a concise course aimed at a general audience? The answer: a combination of Googledocs, tracked edits, miles of emails, and a lot of good will and humour. Support also came from UCL’s Digital Education team whose expertise in online learning was pivotal in developing a successful course.

Despite the time-intensive nature of scripting and filming course content, Jolynna Sinanan commented that the skills she gained were invaluable: “The time pressure was immense but the skills we learned in filming, writing, developing and translating content for the course were very valuable, especially when gaining public exposure for our research is becoming more important. We are also competing within an academic climate that values producing a high level of quality as well as quantity, so we need to display virtuosity as well as accessibility with our research outputs, from being able to write journal articles to making short films for YouTube.” The skills developed in public engagement can also benefit traditional academic output, as Xinyuan Wang explained: “producing the course actually helped my academic writing as in the course I needed to describe and discuss things in a straightforward and engaging way (which is actually more difficult in many ways than composing an academic paper). After working on the course, my own arguments actually became clearer and better constructed, which is definitely very helpful in my future writing and actually saved time rather than wasted time in the long-run.”

While the process of transforming research findings into public education was both challenging and rewarding, once the team’s contracts were nearing completion and they launched into job searches they faced a new challenge: the academic job market currently does not value online learning in the same way as offline learning. Dr Nell Haynes, our team member who conducted her fieldwork in Northern Chile explained: “The online course is not at all considered to be equal to teaching in-person courses, despite the fact that it actually took much much more time, revision, and creative thinking than preparation for a traditional lecture course. And while there has for some time been a strong movement by anthropologists to have administrations grant more weight (in tenure review and other institutionalised forms of evaluation) to public work, it certainly seems that search committees are often reproducing these very biases. Based on conversations with other job applicants this does seem to be a systemic trend.”

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

If we as a discipline do not value public anthropology highly enough, is it any surprise that the public generally have little time for anthropology? How can it be that a discipline which claims to be global and encompassing in outlook is so limited in its output, often failing to give back to the very communities that it draws knowledge from? We decided to make our e-course and website (including 130 films) available in the seven languages of our fieldsites, and we are in the process of arranging translations of our open access books. The hope is that as public awareness of anthropology grows through such efforts, that there will be more demand for the discipline. As Shriram Venkatraman commented: “our effort is just the start of something big. When there is more recognition from within the field for public outreach and the social impact we can create, this will hopefully encourage many more such efforts which will increase the standing of Anthropology in the eyes of the general public.”

It is heartening to see other efforts towards quality and sustained public anthropology, such as the founding of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) at Wesleyan University, and we hope that such initiatives garner wide praise among anthropologists. We have a duty to promote the kind of cultural sensitivity that anthropologists take for granted to as broad an audience as possible, so that people who see cultural difference as a potential source of anxiety, might come to appreciate, and even delight in, the multitude of ways there are to be human.

 


Thanks to the Why We Post team for sharing their experiences of the public engagement balancing act. Also thanks to our lively panel at IUAES (Berna Yazici, Laura Korčulanin, Miha Poredoš, Aivita Putnina, Branko Banović, Margarita Barrera, Helleka Koppel, and Pascale Hancart Petitet) who continued conversations with me beyond the conference, and who are involved in projects ranging from public art installations of golden excrement in the ‘Give a Sh*t’ project, to an anthropological radio show in Laos.

Emergent Brazilians comment the impeachment of the president

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 September 2016

obama

This is one of the memes circulating among low income Brazilians in reference to the impeachment of President Dilma. The top comment says: “Gosh, is this true?” Below the image it reads: “‘I do not recognise the new Brazilian government’, says Obama, threatening to close the American embassy…

One of the latest hot topics of research in Brazilian social sciences is the extreme polarisation of opinions in the country. Social media was at the centre of the street protests of June 2013. The impression then that the internet was unityfing Brazilians against corrupt politicians. However, only a few months later online communication apparently helped to intensify tensions between groups in society. In my (educated middle class) circle, for example, almost everyone (if not everyone) has experienced “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook because of different political views. (If you are not following the news about the political crisis in Brazil, read about it here.)

But I wonder how lower income Brazilians were perceiving the same events and how they viewed the Senate’s decision to impeach the president. Thanks to WhatsApp, it was easy to contact them and quickly get some answers, which I translated and added below. Similarly to the educated middle class, these emergent Brazilians are also following closely this debate, partially because of the television coverage, but also independently via social media through the exchange of memes – see images at the top and at the end of the post. They are also divided in regards to supporting or not the Senate’s final decision, but three out of the four informants considered the impeachment unfair. More interestingly, though, is to note how the intensity of debates has enriched their understanding of government politics.

Opinion 1: “Fair? The condemnation did not have plausible arguments and just to have peace of conscience they did not take away her political rights”, which should be the legal outcome of an impeached president.

Opinion 2: “My son cannot take a test in his (public) school because they don’t have paper and the privately hired staff are 3 months without receiving salaries. I am against the government because of the matter of education. In the last few years my son has had only one or two classes per week. Both the governor and the mayor are from the Worker’s Party [same as the president], and they have been in charge for the past 12 years. I think the impeachment was unfair for the particular reason presented, but fair for the overall situation. I have many friends that are unemployed.”

Opinion 3: “In my opinion it was not fair because it was the people who elected her. To be honest, I wanted her to leave, but I would like to choose who would replace her. To some Brazilians like me, it is as if we have no voice and the only thing we can do is to wait for the country to fall to pieces, and we are the country. I feel sad because instead of advancing we are going backwards. Public education is weak, health services are worst and I do not need to comment about violence.”

Opinion 4: “I feel things will get worst. I am worried. The new government did not receive the votes from the people and they will govern wrongly. ‘We will have to pay the price in the future.’”

Below, some of the memes they are circulating.

meme bahia

It says: “In the Senate, Bahia is the only state that voted unanimously against the impeachment…”

meme temer

It says: “In his speech, Temer [the new president] says he will not tolerate to be called a coup leader”.

meme golpe

It says: “Gleisi: Be strong, Dilma. She is facing the second coup of her life today.”

meme

It says from top left: “Home of the mayor, home of the city councilmen, home of the secretary. HOME OF THE VOTERS.”

On the Brazilian crisis, Pentecostalism and thinking out of the bubble

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 26 April 2016

pentecostal

Pentecostal service in the Brazilian field site. Photo by: Juliano Spyer

Brazil is in the midst of a heated national debate between people in favour of, and those contrary to, the impeachment of the president. Because of social media, the sharing of different political views is also causing divisions in the private domain among friends and among family members. But a glimpse at the Facebook timelines of low-wage Brazilians demonstrates how millions of Brazilians are actually not interested in this debate.

A text written by a dweller of Morro do Viradouro, a shantytown in Rio, explains why the low-income population is not concerned with the national political debate. The idea that the impeachment is a coup d’état does not convince favelados, he argues,  as for them the institutional killing and torture of the military regime (1964-85) never ended. Another low-income group is also not using social media to learn about or share points of view about politics: the evangelical Christians.

The lack of interest displayed by affluent Brazilians for this group appears in a piece by The Economist that circulated broadly in Brazil. It presents how Brazilian congressmen and women justified their vote during the session about the impeachment, highlighting the stereotypical carnivalesque aspect of the event and missing the opportunity to note that many of the reasons for the vote for impeachment referred to family, religion and God. These are relevant topics to 25% of Brazilians who are evangelical Christians.

Market analysts use the expression to ‘think out of the box’ to refer to creativity. An ethnographic version of this expression could be to ‘think out of the bubble’; in the case of Brazil, the bubble is social class.

Among the educated middle-class, evangelical Christians are seen, at best, as religious fanatics, but more commonly as backward, ignorant, and even evil conservatives. Having lived for 15 months conducting anthropological research in a working class settlement in the state of Bahia, I had a more nuanced experience of this group.

Firstly, I saw that although they are morally conservative, evangelical Christians are not stupid or intrinsically dishonest as the stereotypes dictate. Their broad ambition to achieve financial success is, in most cases, a desire to be part of the same world of consumption that the affluent have access to. But beyond that, their contributions to society are almost completely unacknowledged.

Their religious organisations are often more present and active in the lives of socially vulnerable people than the government. Let us not talk of spiritual support to avoid discussing faith and religion. Pentecostal organisations actively promote literacy and also intermediate the contact of church members with specialised services including doctors and lawyers. And by ‘recycling the souls’ of drug addicts and criminals, they provide an unrecognised but priceless service to society – much better than the police could ever hope to offer.

I am not denying that they possess conservative views regarding themes such as abortion or gay rights, but I am offering a more ethnographically-grounded view. There are 100 million Brazilians (half of the country’s population) that belong to the deemed ‘new middle class’ (actually, an emerging working class), and Pentecostalism has an undervalued contribution to this process of socioeconomic change.

The difficulty that more affluent Brazilians have in relating to evangelical Christians is maybe because this group, though generally struggling financially, do not identify themselves with the clichéd and victimised image of poor people. They are improving in spite of social stigmas and the legacy tied to the historical inequalities of Brazil. They are often depicted as fanatics in the media and yet their embracing of education is not mentioned. They are seen as morally conservative but nobody points to the reduction of domestic violence and of alcoholism in evangelical Christian families.

In this regard, affluent Brazilians need to step outside of the class bubble and look at evangelicals with more generosity and interest, and with less prejudice. Then they might be better equipped to understand why evangelical Christians are missing from the debate about politics on social media.

They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

Teenagers on social media in southeast Italy – quantitative data

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 14 December 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 11.35.56

In this blog post I will take a look to the quantitative data from my fieldwork, discussing some findings from a questionnaire I conducted with students in their final two years of secondary school in Grano. 539 students participated, mostly aged between 17-19 years old.

More than 90% of respondents were actively using Facebook and 80% WhatsApp. These impressive numbers reflect that in Grano the two services were seen as two complementary facets of sociality: the former being extremely public and the latter more private and personal.

In contrast, most young people did not have a clear idea about what to use Instagram and Twitter for: relatively more students used Twitter primarily to be in contact with friends than to follow celebrities (45 vs. 30%) and many used it to talk to their colleagues, family members, and partners (22%). While Instagram was more clearly used to establish relationships based on shared interests, still many used it primarily to stay in contact with school colleagues (18%) and friends from their hometown (14%). For example, those who were commuting to study in Grano used Instagram to share images from their hometown with school friends and share image from school and Grano with friends from their hometown. Most of the parents and older relatives did not even bother to ask their children what they did on Twitter or Instagram, even less to actually try and log in to these platforms.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 11.37.14

86% of students owned a smartphone and 99% owned or shared at least one computer with their family: 83% owned some sort of mobile computer as opposed to only 16% who owned only a desktop. These figures correspond to a recent OECD report that shows that 65% of Italian families with at least one child have a computer at home, while on average there are just six PCs for every 100 students in Italian schools. In my forthcoming book, I explain how these figures reflect the particular importance of home education in Grano.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 11.39.07

Most children receive their first smartphone at 10-12 years old and parents try to resist decreasing this age further. This is the age when many children also start to use social media, including more controversial platforms such as ask.fm. Throughout their adolescence their mobile use and online presence is constantly diversified as their universe continuously expands: many participate in secondary education away from their hometowns, start romantic relationships, and gain increased autonomy from their families. In a separate questionnaire on the use of social media, 82% of respondents felt that that children should only start using social media after the age of 14 years old, the main reason being that younger children are not considered to be adequately mature to establish relationships in such a public environment.

In contrast, my ethnographic qualitative data suggests that despite the relative unease of parents and teachers regarding their children’s use of mobile phones and social media, they actually encourage this use as many see it as compulsory for assuring young people a good future. This is a good example of how quantitative data was balanced by ethnographic insights in the Why We Post project.

Note: Thanks to Shriram Venkatraman for helping with statistics and graphs.

Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 25 November 2015

 

The Why We Post project is now moving into its final stages at full speed, gearing up for our public launch on February 29th 2016. On this date we will release the first three of eleven open access books, a free e-course, and an interactive website. You can now register for our course on FutureLearn (English language version) and on UCLeXtend (in Chinese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese).

Over 4,300 people have signed up to the course within the first week, sparking discussions around the research which are absolutely fascinating and encouraging to see. Students come from all over the world and range from having a general interest in social media, to being professionally invested in it, from people who have never heard of anthropology, to those who are doing PhDs in the subject. The breadth of learner backgrounds is extraordinary and will no doubt contribute to the vibrancy of the course.

The course consists of a range of learning materials including texts, images, video lectures, and video discussions. There are further materials on our website for learners who want to dig even deeper, including around a hundred films made in the fieldsites and many stories which bring our research to life.

If you want to help us transform global research into global education, then spread the word. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and tweet with the hashtag #whywepost.

Sign up for the free e-course Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media. We can’t wait to meet you!


 

Promotional film by Cassie Quarless.

What ordinary Chinese people post on social media after the Tianjin Blast

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 August 2015

For two days, my WeChat news feeds has been awash with all kinds of articles and images about the Tianjin blast. But after merely two days, the routine on social media came back, food photos, holiday photos, kids photos, articles teaching you how to deal with the relationship between you and your mother-in-law all came back. People seemed to forget about the disaster already.

A week after the appalling blast in Tianjin, China on 12th August, Zhou, a free-lance journalist and photographer, who I got to know when I was doing field work in Southeast China last year, told me her feelings concerning Chinese social media reaction to this event. She could not hide her disappointment.

Zhou’s remark accords with my own observations of my informants’ posts on both QQ and WeChat, the two Chinese dominant social media platforms. And like Zhou, I heard the news for first time from my personal WeChat. Social media has become the main (if not the first) channel for access to various kinds of information. But unlike traditional channels, social media presents these different kinds of information from news to a whole range of personal conversation together without curation. This clearly contributes to Zhou’s feelings about information fragmentation on social media where significant news becomes diluted by the huge amount of the ‘daily life’ content on social media.

But what exactly ordinary Chinese people post on their personal social media profiles vis-a-vis the blast? After the completion of  15 months fieldwork, I continued to follow two groups on social media on a daily basis. One comprise the rural migrants in a factory town where I did most of my field work (50 persons), and the other one a control group with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in Shanghai (30 persons). The table below shows how remarkably different the Tianjin blast related social media performance are of these two groups of people (All the people in Shanghai use WeChat, and the majority of rural migrants remain with QQ). Taking the four days following the blast (from 13 August to 17th August), on all 80 social media profiles, 44% of postings (42 postings out of 95) were related to the blast, of which almost 53% were posted the day after the blast. In general, there are five themes: News about the blast (36%), Prayers for Tianjin (26%), Hero stories (20%), in-depth analysis (9%), and patriotism postings (9%).

chart_blast

 

The News postings were straightforward, usually news reports with photos and very simply comments by people who shared it, such as “It’s shocking!”, “How terrible!” or “I am so sorry for Tianjin”. 60% of those news-based stories shared on social media came from people in Shanghai.

The ‘Prayers for Tianjin’ postings are those memes with text like ‘pray for Tianjin’  (see screenshots below). Some postings shared on people’s profiles went even moralized by claiming “Tonight we are all from Tianjin and suffer the same suffering, if you are Chinese please share this!”, a bit like “We are Charlie”. The majority (64%) of those memes come from rural migrants.

屏幕快照 2015-08-18 下午8.08.49

The ‘hero stories’ are also widely shared on people’s social media profiles where both people from Shanghai (50%) and rural migrants (50%) seems to show similar interests in stories like how firemen sacrificed their own lives, running into the fire when everybody was fleeting away; or how sniffer dogs worked day and night in order to save human beings.

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.09.00

In-depth analysis refers to editorials focusing on the cause of the accident. Articles of this kind were only shared only by people from Shanghai, who had education at master-level and above. In one of the articles the government and disaster relief system is strongly challenged. There is explicit criticism of the way that after a disaster people only share ‘pray for ***’ memes on social media, rather than really asking for the truth behind the disaster.

In contrast to the situation of ‘in-depth analysis’, rural migrants contributed all the ‘patriotism’ postings.  One typical ‘patriotism’ (see screenshots below) started with a list of Chinese celebrities and companies who had donated money for the disaster relief, followed by the list of foreign celebrities and companies (such as south Korean stars, Samsung and Apple) who didn’t donate any money for this Tianjin blast. In the end of the article, it was urged that Chinese people should love the state since only the Chinese army can protect them and people who are big fans of foreign stars and foreign products should feel ashamed of themselves. Though I happen to know that one such person, a factory worker, had just spent on whole month salary on a iPhone prior to a blind date with a girl arranged by one of his fellow villages,

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.49.45

A close inspection of this pattern of posting on social media is revealing then not just about reactions to a disaster, but also key issues in contemporary China, such as the differences created by education and the appeal of nationalist ideology.

Using storytelling to build online courses

By Tom McDonald, on 21 July 2015

The project team filming a video for our online course

The project team filming a video for our online course

Recently we have been filming a new online course on the anthropology of social media that will be available on a major online platform.

Putting together such an online course has been a real challenge. I am sure this would be the case for any such course, however it is especially so in the case of the our own offering, which will draw heavily on this research project.

Our initial attempts made us realise how difficult it is to combine findings from our nine different field sites and nine different researchers into a single coherent experience for learners.

The concept of learning through storytelling has been quite useful in this connection, helping us to think through how the individual points we hope to teach link together and build on each other throughout the course. In turn, this has helped us to decide which bits of our incredible range of discoveries and insights should be included or excluded.

It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.