A A A

Quantitative data: Our figures take shape

By Daniel Miller, on 13 April 2015

Student in maths class

Getting to grips with the numbers (Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY 2.0)

There is sometimes an assumption that while anthropology represents a unique commitment to qualitative research, with all our studies consisting of 15 months fieldwork, we somehow have an antipathy to quantitative data. Yet the very reason we spend so long in the field is testimony to our commitment to the highest level of scholarship and the sheer determination to accurately portray that population. For which purpose all information that helps us towards these goals is welcome, and most anthropologists do collect some quantitative materials.

But in a way the accusation is correct. We generally feel that quantitative data alone is deficient. Partly because the answers people give to survey questions may not reflect what they actually do. More because figures need to be interpreted in order for us to properly understand what they mean. Without that deeper knowledge of context they may mislead rather than illuminate. So we are suspicious of quantitative ‘news’ which often takes the form of correlations (for example, a population’s weight or life expectancy set against one aspect of their behaviour). Often this could be the result of dozens of different ’causes’ or combinations of behaviours other than the one claimed. We prefer to use quantitative data which comes from within ethnographic study, where we can hope to make an informed interpretation.

All our projects included three types of quantitative material: an initial survey of at least one hundred people at the beginning of fieldwork (Questionnaire A), a second survey of a different minimum one hundred people at the end (Questionnaire B), and whatever additional surveys each researcher found useful. Because of the importance of context, we will release our quantitative results alongside our eleven volumes of qualitative reports on 4 February 2016. But currently we are looking at the integration of these results. What follows is a sample of the kinds of results we will eventually publish.

In the case of my study of our English site – The Glades – my main additional survey was one of 2,496 school pupils at four secondary schools in the area. One of the intentions was simply to find out what which social media platforms these pupils were present on (see Table ‘Top of the class’). It was striking that these six stood out, with no other platforms emerging at above 10% overall.

 

Since this was also a response to my earlier blog post suggesting English schoolchildren were using Facebook, but that it was no longer ‘cool’, we also asked students what their three favourite platforms were. We found only 12.7% picked Facebook as their favourite social media, 8.4% as their 2nd favourite and 9.7% as their 3rd favourite. As an example of Questionnaire A, we asked each person to identify the three people they most often contacted on some of their main communication channels, using the six different kinds of relationship categories (see Table ‘Phoning families’).

 

Questionnaire B, by contrast, will be mainly released as a comparison across all of our nine sites.

These are illustrations of what is to come. Generally though, we would rather be patient and consider these in relation to our qualitative findings before we formally publish them.

Normativity on social media in Northern Chile

By Nell Haynes, on 7 January 2015

As many entries in the blog affirm, local cultural aspects are often reflected or made even more visual on social media. As I have written before of my fieldsite, there is a certain normativity that pervades social life. Material goods such as homes, clothing, electronics, and even food all fall within an “acceptable” range of normality. No one is trying to keep up with Joneses, because there’s no need. Instead the Joneses and the Smiths and the Rodriguezes and the Correas all outwardly exhibit pretty much the same level of consumerism. Work and salary similarly fall within a circumscribed set of opportunities, and because there is little market for advanced degrees, technical education or a 2 year post-secondary degree is usually the highest one will achieve academically. This acceptance of normativity is apparent on social media as well.

One particularly amusing example of this type of acceptance is especially apparent from a certain style of meme that overwhelmed Facebook in October of 2014. These “Rana René” (Kermit the Frog, in English) memes expressed a sense of abandoned aspirations. In these memes, the frog expresses desire for something—a better physique, nicer material goods, a better family- or love-life—but concludes that it is unlikely to happen, and that “se me pasa,” “I get over it.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.52.19 PM

Similarly, during June and July of 2013 a common form of meme contrasted the expected with reality. The example below demonstrates the “expected” man at the beach—one who looks like a model, with a fit body, tan skin, and picturesque background. The “reality” shows a man who is out of shape, lighter skinned, and on a beach populated by other people and structures. It does not portray the sort of serene, dreamlike setting of the “expected.” In others, the “expected” would portray equally “ideal” settings, people, clothing, parties, architecture, or romantic situations. The reality would always humorously demonstrate something more mundane, or even disastrous. These memes became so ubiquitous that they were even used as inspiration for advertising, as for the dessert brand below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.55.50 PM

For me, these correspondences between social media and social life reinforce the assertion by the Global Social Media Impact Study that this type of research must combine online work with grounded ethnography in the fieldsite. These posts could have caught my eye had I never set foot in northern Chile, but knowing what I know about what the place and people look like, how they act, and what the desires and aspirations are for individuals, I understand the importance of these posts as expressing the normativity that is so important to the social fabric of the community.

WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2015

3063220201_29035044d1_o

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.

 

Does Facebook produce reality?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.

It’s all in the comments: the sociality behind social media

By Nell Haynes, on 2 December 2014

autoconstrucion boys

boys in the fieldsite hang out after school and look at Facebook on a mobile phone

As I begin to write my book about social media in Northern Chile, it’s great to see little insights emerge. One of the first of these insights is that interaction is essential to the ways people in my fieldsite use social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are the most widely used, with 95% of people using Facebook (82% daily), and 77% using Whatsapp with frequency. But with other sites or applications, use falls off drastically. The next two most popular forms of social media are Twitter and Instagram which are used by 30% and 22% of those surveyed respectively.

So what makes Facebook so popular but not Twitter? My first reaction was that Twitter doesn’t have the visual component that Facebook does. This was partially based on the fact that many of my informants told me that they find Twitter boring. Yet Instagram is even less well-used than Twitter. And as I began looking more closely at the specific ways people use Facebook and Twitter, I began to see why they feel this way.

People use Facebook most frequently because they are most likely to get a response on that platform. In fact, this forms a sort of feedback loop in which people perceive that others use it more, so when they want the most feedback they use Facebook, which in turn keeps others coming back as well. As this cycle continues, people know that if they want their friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and even enemies to see something, Facebook is the place to put it. This is also what attracts older generations to use Facebook—if they want to see what is going on with younger generations, they join. But as their age-peers join for the same reasoning, they begin interacting with them as well. In essence, Facebook is the most truly social of the social media for people living in Alto Hospicio.

This desire for interaction is exemplified by the fact that far more important than writing statuses, or even posting photographs, memes, videos, or links to websites of interest, is the commenting in which people engage. It is not unusual to find a single sentence status update that has more than twenty comments. Many comments are positive and supportive. When a young woman posts a new profile picture, it will usually receive more than ten comments essentially expressing the same thing: “Oh [daughter/niece/ friend/cousin] you look so pretty and happy!” When someone expresses a complaint, like neighbours playing music too loudly, comments usually range from “How annoying!” to “Do you want to borrow my big speakers so you can show them your music is better?” These comments generally serve a function of staying in contact and supporting friends and family by simply reminding them that you are paying attention and care about them.

This type of cohesion has impacts beyond social media as well. Many friends of friends actually get to know one another through such comments on social media, so that by the time they end up meeting in person at a party or group outing, they are already familiar with one another, friendly, and if they’ve interacted enough on the same posts, may have already added one another as friends on Facebook. Thus, Facebook is not only a space for interacting with old friends, but making new ones as well.

Aside from helping me to understand how important sociality is to people in my fieldsite, this realization also serves as an excellent example of the ways quantitative and qualitative research support one another. Quantitative data from my survey alerted me to the fact that Facebook was popular not just for it’s visual uses. But I had to go back to my qualitative research to find out why exactly this might be. As I continue to analyze and write, I find that I keep bouncing between the two, reassuring me that without both aspects, this project would not have been complete.

For more on the confluence of qualitative and quantitative data, here are examples from England and Brazil.

Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

‘Writing up': social media, disconnection and writing ethnography

By Tom McDonald, on 26 October 2014

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Our entire team have now returned from the field and are already stuck into the process of turning our research into books, which we plan to publish in January 2016.

For me it’s an enormously strange to transition to go from the excitement of village life to the relative sedateness of a life spent largely in the company of Microsoft Word everyday.

You could be forgiven for thinking that living in a rural Chinese town would be a positively tranquil experience, but looking back on my 15 months of fieldwork in the town from afar, it all seems to condense into one single blur. My friends in the town seemed to always be unexpectedly arriving at my door, endlessly calling me on the phone, inviting me out to impromptu dinners, or for walks around the countryside, trips to places, or to join in at local events and festivals. By contrast, life in London is comparatively tranquil: with more time to finally concentrate on writing articles and publications, combined with the familiar rhythm of academic life in the department.

But it’s not that all my friends from the town have disappeared completely. My phone receives a constant trickle of messages from my friends in the town. Contrast this with the early days of anthropology, where leaving the fieldsite really meant leaving the fieldsite, and anthropologists would bid farewell to the tribe the had been studying in some far-flung corner of the world and had little expectation (or indeed way) of remaining in touch. Even if I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so. Keeping in touch with my participants and hearing from them the latest news about their lives, relationships, exam successes, etc., means that there is always more information to be added to the ethnographies, and also speaks volumes with regards how much social media is fundamentally changing the experience of anthropological fieldwork itself.

Regulating the body in Chilean cyberspace

By Nell Haynes, on 22 September 2014

no desnudes

Last week, a friend here in Northern Chile posted on his Facebook wall a stylized drawing of a woman’s body with the words: “Don’t show your naked body on social networking sites. Gain the admiration and respect of your contacts and friends by showing your qualities as a person. What makes you sexy and beautiful is not your body, but your personality. Women and girls deserve respect.”

This was not the first time I had seen such a post. I have seen such memes circulating for several months, posted by grandmothers, mothers, and young men and women. But this post made me pause because my friend Miguel was the one who posted it. A few months into my fieldwork, Miguel was showing me a funny meme his friend had posted. As he scrolled down on his Facebook feed, he passed a post from Playboy Magazine that showed two women in bikinis. “Oh, those are my ugly cousins!” he joked. As he scrolled down there were several other posts from Playboy and he told me “My cousins post pictures of themselves a lot.”

Since the subject had been breached, he seemed to feel comfortable discussing semi-pornographic posts with me and I took advantage of the situation by continuing to ask questions. He told me all about “the new thing” of pictures of the underside of women’s breasts rather than their cleavage. He switched to Whatsapp and clicked a link a friend had sent him to demonstrate. There I saw “50 of the Best Underboob Shots on the Internet,” mostly taken selfie-style either in the mirror, or up one’s own shirt. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or confused.

With this previous discussion in mind, in which, quite openly he discussed how he enjoyed seeing overtly sexy pictures that women take of their bodies, it seemed strange that he would post such a meme chastising women for doing this very thing.

Of course, there is a big difference between the women who are likely the intended recipients of his message and the women who are displayed on Playboy’s Facebook page. That is: he expects his female friends to read his Facebook wall. He does not expect Playboy models, or even the women whose reverse cleavage pictures are floating around the internet to be his followers on Facebook. In essence, his Facebook activity is revealing of something anthropologists have long known; we treat friends and acquaintances differently than we treat strangers (for example see Simmel’s essay on The Stranger and our own blog about chatting to Strangers in China). In this case it is acceptable to objectify the bodies of strangers, but he hopes that the women he knows personally will not openly contribute to their own objectification.

In looking through my own female Facebook friends from Northern Chile, I don’t see any pictures that are overtly sexual and show body parts that one wouldn’t reveal on a hot summer day. However, in my “you might know…” suggestions, I do see several such profile pictures for accounts based in this city. Miguel, along with other friends—both male and female—assured me that these profiles were fake (see also controversies of fake profiles in India and Turkey). “They say they’re from here but I’ve never met any of these women. They’re definitely fake profiles.”

To me this suggests two related points about the ways the regulation of bodies and nudity are happening online. The first is simply that these “Don’t show your naked body” memes represent a way of surveilling and controlling what others do with their bodies. They use straw-women as a warning, suggesting that showing too much body on social media will result in people losing respect. This strategy seems to have worked as well. Young women in northern Chile shy away from showing their bodies in contexts connected to their public personality. Yet the pictures still appear in the form of anonymous or fake profiles. Using fake names and profile pictures, they still post faceless photos exposing body parts fit only for a very liberal beach.

While this in some ways may be seen as a victory for young women’s self-worth based on traits not connected to their sexuality or bodies’ likenesses to those featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the surveillance and judgment of their online activity represents another issue—regulation that denies young women agency over the representation of their own bodies. This is one thing when coming from mothers and aunts, but young men like Miguel present a double standard in which their social networking activity elevates the bodies of strangers—from swimsuit models to unknown women taking risqué selfies, while condemning their own peers for similar self-representations. It’s not hard to imagine then why fake profiles might be a good option for young women trying to find self esteem about their bodies and their own ways to fit into the world of social networking.

In the end, what this tells us about social networking sites in this context, is that they are still very closely connected to the body. The internet is not a haven for free-floating identity, disconnected from our physical form, but is a place where bodies may still be seen as a representation of an individual, may still be regulated, and may still be a site of agency or repression. Rather than actually showing the respect that “women and girls deserve,” these memes further regulate women. Much as catcalls on the street regulate women’s bodies in physical space, memes that tell women what is acceptable for their bodies do so in the space of the internet.

If you are interested in themes of surveillance and control, see also Caste Related Profiles on Facebook in India, Facebook and the Vulnerability of the Self and Love is… in Turkey, and Social Media and the Sense of Autonomy in Italy.

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.

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.