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Categorising relationships through QQ’s friend lists, or, the problem of where to put one’s wife?

By Tom McDonald, on 26 March 2013

A list of a user's different groups of friends on QQ's Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A list of a user’s different groups of friends on QQ’s Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Listing the social connections of a research participant is a somewhat foundational methodological tool for any anthropologist. In times gone by, the ethnographer was expected to head off into the tropics, preferably dressed entirely in white, to painstakingly assemble kinship diagrams that indicated how members of a particular group were related to each other.

China’s most popular social networking service, QQ, is particularly notable in this respect, because it’s instant messaging client, in the same manner as a somewhat uncouth anthropologist interrogating his participants, forces users to categorise relationships by assigning their online friends to specific groups.

The above photo provides an example of a male office worker in his early 30s living in a small city in China. The names of the groups are as follows. The number of friends assigned to each group are included in brackets

  • My friends 我的好友 (99)
  • Highschool classmates 高中同学 (50)
  • Friends and colleagues 朋友同事 (30)
  • University classmates 大学同学 (45)
  • Wife 老婆 (1)
  • Universal (this is a pun where the user has replaced the one of the characters with a synonym that means ‘auspicious’) 普吉 (10)
  • Enterprise good friends 企业好友 (1)
  • Strangers 陌生人 (82)
  • Blacklist 黑名单 (0)

It should be noted that the ‘My friends’, ‘Strangers’ and  ’Black list’ are all default categories for the instant messaging client, although users are able to rename them if they wish. Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about how the Chinese are categorising relationships at this stage, I would expect that we will see groups of school classmates to be a common theme throughout our participants. This perhaps tells us something about the importance of education in China and the endurance of classmate bonds throughout life.

Also of interest is the number of ‘Strangers’ who have added themselves to this person. I think this will emerge as another important theme as ur research progresses, and it leads me to believe that the friending of strangers might be an important element that distinguishes QQ from western social media platforms.

A final note on the exceptional category ‘Wife’. The fact that this user dedicates an entire list to his spouse may well set him apart as a ‘model husband’ (mofan zhangfu 模范丈夫), but perhaps it could also be indicative of the fact that he doesn’t know where to put his wife amongst all his other friends? I recall an incident from my previous research in China, when one of my informants, upon adding me as a QQ friend, realised that he didn’t have a suitable list to put me in, so after much deliberation, he created a new list, populated solely by me, called ‘Foreigners’.

Maybe I should have stuck with the white outfit after all.

Comparative research

By Elisabetta Costa, on 30 October 2012

A comparative research about social networking sites! Wow! I am really excited. The portrait of the researcher, the lone adventurer, travelling alone in far-away countries is probably part of the imaginary of many young students who decide to undertake studies in Anthropology.

However the individualistic attitude of the anthropologist is not just a figment of our imagination.

Drawing on my own experience so far, anthropology has been a very individualistic science. Starting from the first year of my PhD, when I had to deal with the massive literature about specific topics or areas, then in the fieldwork, finally in the writing up of the research’s outcomes, anthropologists are alone for most parts of their work.

I think that one of the most worthy aspects of anthropology is its reflexivity. What intrigues me most about anthropology has been its ability to understand the world through the ethnographic encounter between the researcher, the informants and the social and material world they live in. Not reducing the observed phenomena to pre-existing categories or models is what makes anthropology unique. The continuous dialogue between ethnographer’s categories, informants’ discourses and practices observed in the field is what appealed to me.

But what happen if eight researchers have to investigate on the same topic in eight different countries? How can we cling to the principles of the ethnographic research and at the same time producing comparable data?  After all, the main goal of anthropology has always been a comparative understanding of cultures and societies. From the late 1960s the emergence of reflexivity as a central concern of anthropology somehow led to the neglect of comparative research. And this is such a shame! I do not aim to not take into account the effect that the anthropologist has on the research outcomes, but I firmly believe that this awareness doesn’t have to stop us from working on comparable data and findings.

Thus, making a good comparative and collaborative work whilst not losing a deep ethnographic understanding is probably the most ambitious goal of Anthropology. And this is what we are aiming to. But how can we achieve this?

So far the first step has been the continuous dialogue among the research team members, which has lead us to define our topics of investigation, to find out the best way to investigate on them and to formulate our research questions. We are succeeding in having a collaborative attitude and in sharing our skills and theoretical background. We have been meeting for the last two months at least two times a week and I can truly say this is the most exiting team I’ve been able to work with! And this is only the start. During the fieldwork we will have one Skype meeting every month during in which we will discuss our findings. We will meet for an intense month discussion after the first year of fieldwork. Moreover, we will always be in touch through Facebook, Email, Skype, Twitter, Google Plus and Dropbox. So, let’s see where the investigation will take us!

Might one of our research outcomes be the finding of a new collaborative way in carrying on ethnographic researches? It might be. And I really hope it will.