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Fieldwork kit

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 23 January 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

I have started packing for my last long field work stint in Trinidad. It also might be because it’s the start of the year and I’m about to leave, doing the last social rounds in Melbourne for the year and packing up my apartment, that there is sort of a retrospective playing in my head on what I’ve needed to take to the field, how that has changed over the years and how doing offline and online ethnography has affected what I need to record data, both every day and on social media.

In 2009, for my first long fieldwork for my PhD, the only equipment I really needed was my camera, a voice recorder and a note book. The laptop for backing up notes was a luxury and I didn’t have or need the internet at home. That fieldwork was also based in Cambodia, where I was looking at people who worked with NGO programs, so sitting in people’s homes or in interviews with a new flash laptop or iPhone wasn’t really appropriate.

This year, I feel like I need a set of infrastructure set up in Melbourne, London and Trinidad to get and store all the data for my part of this comparative project. Trinidad also has a bit of a different feel from Cambodia in terms of what is appropriate to use when sitting in front of or in the homes of informants. Most people are in front of me with phones much better than mine, from which we end up looking at their WhatsApp, Facebook or BBM. The voice recorder on the phone is a more comfortable, less intrusive way of recording interviews as people are used to seeing phones on the table anyway (I still rely on a small voice recorder for back up nonetheless). A fast, small laptop and external hard drive is a must, and the first thing I look for in accommodation after a shower with good water pressure is a reliable internet connection. I’m pretty lucky because, in my town in Trinidad, 4G has just been introduced and there are also a number of public wifi hot spots. The local population’s desire to be connected greatly helps my research set up, even though the town itself is in the more underdeveloped part of the country.

I have two cameras ready, a small, every day point and shoot and my larger one for events. One cannot understand Trinidad without appreciating what visibility means in Trinidad, so being part of creating visibility in Trinidad has been an ‘in’ into networks I otherwise would not have been a part of (like documenting a hunger strike in protest of the building of a highway in front of the prime minister’s office and masqueraders at Carnival). My phone’s camera has also been a quick and easy documenting method on the spur of the moment, especially when someone says “I have a story for you for your Facebook research.” They can open their Facebook page and I can screen capture and record what they’re showing me then and there. Danny and I are starting to look more deeply at what people post and what others think about them. I’m using an easy visual format of photos on a tablet screen, so I could discuss them with informants anywhere, from inside a home, to the mall, to the beach, without the need of wifi.

But the most important research tool also reflects a massive theme in doing anthropological research. More than any of my technological bits and bobs, I need something that Levi Strauss, Malinowski and Strathern had a lot of. We need the trust of our informants so we can stick around long enough to understand their everyday lives. I then need my informants to trust me enough to accept me as a Facebook friend, WhatsApp contact, or BBM contact without restricting their privacy settings so I can see their everyday ‘online’ lives (something I suspect Levi Strauss et al. didn’t have much of a problem with). What makes our project different to other studies of social media as Danny has reminded us, is that this is not simply looking at social media. We then get to go back to the informants and contextualise the uses of social media in the wider context of ethnography. This points to a polymedia of doing research, where the choices of what media to use in what research situation is also framed by the relationships and rapport we have with informants. But for now-data first, theorise later.

QQ & WeChat: a threat to marriage in China?

By Tom McDonald, on 24 September 2013

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Writing in the 1970s, Margery Wolf noted the pressures faced by rural Chinese women when they married. Women would typically leave their home village, where they were well cared for by their own family, and move into their husband’s village. As outsiders in this new place, women were positioned at the very bottom of society. They had no social network and were faced with the very difficult task of having to form social connections with other women in the village who they believed they could trust in order to survive.

This old social phenomenon has taken a somewhat different spin with the advent of new social media in the small town and villages that make up our North China fieldsite. I have noticed that many women report their communication networks get smaller in adulthood. Particularly worth emphasising is that in many of the responses to our questionnaires, young women told me that they moved away from social networking once they got married. I have a hunch this may have something to do with important aspects of female morality and forms of exclusion from the public sphere. For example, it was very rare for women in our fieldsite to use their own photos as their avatars or in their QZone profiles, and many women practiced ‘locking’ access to some or all of their QZone albums (QZone does not offer the same fine-grained privacy controls seen in Facebook) with a security question to test their familiarity, such as ‘What is my name?’.

One such example came from Mrs Hu, a 30 year old married woman with a young son, who runs a shop in the town. She explained to me that social media use carries with it certain dangers. There was an occasion when one of her male ‘online friends’ (wangyou) sent her a QQ message saying: ‘I have changed a QQ number, add my other QQ number.’ She asked him why he wanted her to add the other number [havng a second QQ account can be a cause for suspicion]. He replied that it was ‘because my wife knows’ (yinwei wo laopo zhidao). She explained to me that this made her angry, because she had never met the man, and she told me she sent the man a message saying ‘I have no special connections with you, what does it matter if your wife knows?’. Following this occasion, she became far more careful with who she became friends with via social media, and even went to the trouble of reassigning the gender of her QQ and WeChat profiles to male in an effort to detract male strangers from ‘friending’ her.

While women in the town have tended to opt to more carefully control who they communicate with following marriage, and to limit their visibility on social networks, the situation is somewhat different for men – instead we tend to see a larger amount of social networking and media use amongst men once they get married.

Part of this may be down to a traditional expectation that men are supposed to earn money for the family, and therefore be spend more time outside home. There is a saying in Chinese that ‘women live on the inside, and men live on the outside’ (nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai). There is a common perception in my fieldsite that men need ‘connections’ (guanxi) and a wider set of connections in order to achieve this. Men are expected to be somewhat more ‘overtly expansive’ in relationships than women.

This is where social media comes in. It is becoming clear to me that one of the main differences between Chinese social media (QQ, WeChat) and their non-Chinese counterparts (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is that the Chinese social media appears to be much more strongly oriented towards making new friends, especially with strangers. However, as well as this fitting into the accepted ideal of socially extravert males, it also seems to be conducive to extra-marital affairs.

An example of this comes from Mr Wang, also in his thirties. I had heard from others that Wang was a particularly ‘chaotic’ person. One day I bumped into him sitting and chatting in a store. We became friends and added each other via WeChat’s ‘shake’ (yao-yi-yao) function. He told me that he only uses WeChat during the day, and avoids using it at night-time. “If my wife knows I use WeChat she will smash my phone” he told me with a smile.

In a society as concerned with marriage as China, it goes without saying that social media is having an enormous impact in transforming this social institutions. The two cases I have provided here are extreme ones, but I would say that here in the North China fieldsite many people seem to believe that social media can be especially damaging to marriage. Perhaps this is most forcefully proved by the fact that relatively few of our participants seem to communicate with their spouses via social media, instead preferring to call or even more rarely, text.