A methodological case of comparative anthropology

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 8 June 2015


Image Courtesy Quinn Dombrowski (Creative Commons)

I hear from colleagues in our department that completing a PhD can often be a solitary experience. Anthropologists tend to accept the fact that social lives are so particular and rich that comparison becomes a dangerous affair. Doctorate students typically have such specific topics of research (such as boredom in rural Romania or wrestling in Bolivia) that it is hard to attract a general interest and they often have to rely on favours from peers to get feedback on their work.

By contrast the research team involved in our study of social media did not experience such academic loneliness. This post summarises the methodology we used to study the impact of social media on our nine field sites around the world. It also shows a possible alternative way of conducting anthropological research that benefits from regular and ongoing feedback and comparison between researchers collecting similar material from very different field sites.

Two broader choices led our team to come to four main decisions regarding how to conduct our qualitative comparative research.

The broad choices were:

  1. All the researchers worked on the same topic. In our case, the impact of social media in each field site.
  2. However, the actual research maintained the importance of long term participant observation. Each researcher immersed themselves in the social life of their field site, where they lived for 15 months.

The consequences of these guiding principles then became the following practices:

  1. During the preparation of each one’s project proposals, we read and discussed collectively the literature about social media. We incorporated the results in the individual projects that included a literature review of specific aspects for each field site.
  2. During the preparation, we also scheduled common themes (e.g. politics, gender) for the reports we agreed to write during each month of fieldwork and a survey questionnaire to be applied collectively during the same period.
  3. We read each other’s reports throughout fieldwork. Since returning from the field we have continued to read each others’ book chapters. Each person receives detailed feedback from at least one other colleague (though often several).
  4. These readings then provide the context for monthly meetings: initially through video conferencing, but now in person.

In our case, social media was the link to very different realities and places. It gave us a shared point of departure in terms of bibliography and of research questions. But anthropology also enhanced collaboration as our impressions from the field often arrived framed in terms of gender relations, politics, kinship, etc.

The result of this routine will be eleven books to be launched during 2016. Two will be comparative and the other nine will be monographs that are interconnected both by this practice of collaboration and by a common structure – each book will have the same chapter  themes but are based on each particular ethnography.

Though many assume that giving our time to others’ work means less time and especially less attention to our own work, the collaboration in this project taught us the opposite. Often, seeing what the others were doing and thinking helped us to individually experience particular aspects of each field sites, in addition to deepening our engagement with our own.

Nell, our researcher in Chile, summed this up rather well in a recent conversation, when she remarked: “Reading the other chapters is sometimes even better than getting comments on my own chapter. Those are constructive, but reading the other chapters gives me creative inspiration. And it makes me realize important things I’ve left out.”

Why do eight comparative ethnographies?

By Daniel Miller, on 8 December 2012

Photo: Ed Schipul (Creative Commons)

I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simulteneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitment of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the indiviudal who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in give other place are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusion. It is possible there is another fator: a common sense of modernity say that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of disussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simulteneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea…

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.