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…

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.