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Is QQ uniting the many different Chinas?

By Tom McDonald, on 19 November 2013

A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: "I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them." (Original author unknown)

A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: “I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them.” (Original author unknown)

China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.

I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.

By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.

To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.

Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.

It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.

If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?

If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.

Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

By Daniel Miller, on 1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.

Facebook and the threat to individual expression

By Elisabetta Costa, on 12 August 2013

Photo: Elisabetta Costa

Again the topic of privacy seems be central in my field-site that I call here “Dry Rock Town”. During the first few months in Dry Rock Town, I’ve already noticed a pattern that can bring me to make a simple generalization: people do not usually update their status on Facebook. And on the occasions when they do update their status, they quote the sentence of some famous writers, poets, singers or actors, or they write some famous proverbs. Comments on private or public life, observations about politics or about food, general thoughts on everyday life, expression of feelings and emotions are never publicly expressed on the Facebook wall. I met guys that were using Facebook many hours a day, sharing hundreds of posts and making thousands of “like” every month, buy they have never written a thing on their wall. It’s not because people don’t like to write on Facebook. Indeed the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually make a lot of comments on their friend’s posts or pictures. And it’s not even because people are not well educated and thus not able to write properly: many of my informants have high-school or university degrees. It is not because people do not want to give information about their private life: people love to post pictures portraying them on holiday or at dinner out with families or friends. And it’s not even because people are afraid to expose their ideas. People usually share a lot of political posts.

But the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually do not write on their wall what they think. How can we understand this data?  Defending one’s own reputation is the most important thing here and the public expression of personal thoughts can become a very dangerous practice. It exposes the person to the judgment and to the critics of others and consequently to the loss of reputation.  It’s more convenient to express personal opinions through the words of authoritative others that can not be so easily criticized.  People do not usually write comments on topic of public interests. They just share a quotation, news or pictures. And this point can be very interesting as it contradicts the conclusion of the main literature on the impact of new media in the Middle-East, that emphasize the role of digital and social media in promoting a greater role of the individual against established authorities (among others see Eickelman and Anderson 2003, Hofheins 2011, Lynch 2007). Indeed I believe that in a highly normative and conformist society, Facebook is having the opposite effect as it constitutes a continuous threat to the respectability of the people by making public, visible and permanent what does not necessarily adhere to the social norms. And as reaction people try to follow even more the established social norms and authorised discourses, wherever they come from, the government, the political parties, newspapers or Greek philosophers.  If nobody writes comments on topic of public interest, at the same time nobody writes comments about private life. Here the clear division between private and public sphere typical of Muslim societies is self-evident. Facebook makes the private public and thus it constitutes a continuous threat to the honour of families in a society where honour killings are frequent and alive.

I really believe that in the next months I will investigate more on the role of Facebook in promoting daily-life practices that adhere to instituted social norms and to established authorities, far from creating a sphere where individual are more free to openly discuss issues of public or private interest. But the most interesting thing is that this Facebook ‘s effect goes parallel with the opposite one: publicly the inhabitants of Rock Dry Town follow and reinforce established social norms, but privately and secretly they are involved in private communicative practices such as chatting and flirting between men and women, that are totally new, different and that subvert old social norms.

References:
Eickelman, D. and Anderson J. 2003. New media in the Muslim world. Indiana University Press.
Hofheinz A.,  2011 Nextopia? Beyond the revolution 2.0, International journal of communication.
Lynch, M. 2007. Blogging the new Arab public. Arab Media and Society.

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.

Questions matter, and the way you ask them matters too

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 15 October 2012

Man walking infront of question mark

Photo: An untrained eye (Creative commons)

I always think that it is the strong and inherent curiosity about people that has lead me down the academic path of anthropology. In the past five weeks, working with a group of passionate, intelligent, and curious people has been such an enjoyable experience for me. I can not tell exactly how many potential research questions we have posed, but it feels like a huge amount, much more than we can hope to answer for the moment. However, even this makes the project more exciting and worth studying.

The current eight week intensive discussion tends to build up collective “common sense” for every researcher on the project before they go off to their individual field sites. This should help to make sure that we will all come back with comparable data, which will help to constitute a ‘big picture’ of the global appropriation of social media. To that extent, we decided to have a “to-do” list of questions that everybody is supposed to work on whilst carrying out their fieldwork.

This list comprised, first of all, of basic questions, such as “How many SNS accounts do you have?”; “What phone do you have and what plan?” or “How many SNS friends do you have?” These questions are short and concrete, making sure that ethnographers will collect basic statistics.

“Clever question” comprise the second level of questions, which means addressing a particular research question in a clever way. The way a question is presented to the participant will significantly affect the answer that they give. To put it in a simple way, the questions you want to ask matter, and the way you ask them matters just as much. For example, instead of asking people vaguely ‘what do you think of online privacy?’ a more specific but ‘purpose-hidden’ way of asking might be ‘what kind of information you will never post online?’ or ‘do you want your mother to be your Facebook/QQ friend?’. These questions are more likely to reveal a more nuanced truth. Clever questions can be very open ended, which are likely to lead to more detailed inquiries and in-depth discussions.

Built on ‘clever questions’, the third level of questions is even more profound and comprehensive given the possible situation that there will be several key informants with whom the ethnographer spends a huge amount of time and has abundant opportunities to conduct participant observation whilst in their company. In which case, these questions will not be confined to the previous structure and go deep into either specific issues, or develop into more portrait-like stories of the informant.

We have been amazed at the diversity and richness of the three-level questions everyone in the group has been contributing, which not only inspires each other but also guarantee the depth and width of our collective thinking. Generally speaking, anthropologists don’t have much reputation in ‘team work’. A lonely wanderer in an alien place is more like to exemplify an archetypal anthropologist. Also, some would argue that participant-observation of anthropology does not necessarily require any question. However, given the scale of this ambitious project we feel it would be useful to apply a well-organized framework and think about questions seriously to guarantee a comparative structure, whilst still retaining a degree of individual autonomy for each fieldworker.

Forming groups

By Tom McDonald, on 5 October 2012

Our team of researchers

Studies of how people form groups is something of a staple of the anthropological diet. In this context, the coming together of our team of researchers to work on the new comparative study on social networking has been an interesting process on which we might reflect, least of all because it will inevitably affect the nature and focus of our research. Befitting of the study, we ourselves have actually been using social networking platforms such as Skype and Facebook to get to know each other and formulate ideas for the project before it had even officially started. Despite the fact that we were located around the world, with researchers drawn from Brazil, India, China, Australia, Italy, Romania and the UK, we found it incredibly useful to meet regularly online to discuss our ideas for the project, and how we might want it to progress.

Now that we have all finally converged on the UCL Department of Anthropology in London, it is great to encounter the same people face-to-face, and we are now gathering as a group frequently for intense discussions on the precise nature and scope of our research questions, the methodologies we will be employing, and how we will work together as a group and disseminate the findings of our research. Our spatial co-presence means that the relationships between us are becoming strengthened and the animated discussion relating to our project frequently spill-over into our after work time, where we continue our conversations together in the collectively effervescent situation of the pub, as is typical of the British working tradition.

This group-style of working has led to some particularly exciting ideas, that are quite different from more established ways of carrying out anthropological research we are familiar with, which typically focus on long periods of lone research by a single ethnographer. Undoubtedly  too, working as a team might also bring elements of compromise. In that context it will be to see how our project, and the relationships between us, will develop for years to come.