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‘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.

On what a blog can do

By Tom McDonald, on 2 May 2012

Woman wearing veil using smart phone

Photo: Ikhlasul Amal (creative commons)

It is incredibly exciting to write the first post for the blog for the UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project, not least of all because with this blog, just like with this project, we have little idea of what it will develop into. Of course, it is our intentions and ambitions that have propelled us to create this space in the first place, so we have formulated at least some initial thoughts of what this blog might become.

We would like to think that the blog would provide a commentary and analysis of some of developments in the Anthropology of Social Networking as they occur, presenting particular papers or findings to those interested in this topic. Hopefully it would provide a valuable addition to the website in terms of a place where researchers could gather new ideas and inspiration for their own research.

The blog might also give us the opportunity to disseminate social networking research in new ways. Many people, whether  or not they happen to be anthropologists, have somewhat of an inkling of the tremendous effect that social networking is having on humankind. As we enter a period where disseminating research to wider audiences becomes ever more important, we may be able to ask how blogging might provide an opportunity to share our results with people who may not otherwise come into contact with anthropology? While traditional media outlets appear to be in a state of decline (and typically gave little affordance to anthropological studies anyway), and academic anthropological journals (with some notable exceptions) remain accessible only by means of expensive subscriptions or through university libraries, could it be that blogs offer a useful in-between space through which we can experiment with different kinds of writing to reach out to audiences?

Also, a blog could be considered as a form of social networking in and of itself. This blog will have the opportunity for readers to leave comments and we of course welcome debate and feedback to posts. There are fast-developing plugins and interfaces that link blogs with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. One could envisage that blogs might open up parts of the research process that remain hidden from many: meetings, solitary fieldwork or discussions. Research is often a collaborative endeavour, could blogs provide an opportunity to throw problems or discussions out to an altogether different set of people to solicit further opinions, helping to iterate and develop our research?

Finally, maybe a blog could just be a place to share. Claude Levi-Strauss commented that “anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations”. Undertaking anthropological research is an all-consuming, exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting, tear-jerking, laugh-making and life-affirming endeavour, and if a blog could encapsulate at least some of those feelings we personally think it would be no bad thing.