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Thinking of writing cultures

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

By Tom McDonald, on 12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

It’s not what we find, it’s what you learn that counts

By Daniel Miller, on 1 September 2013

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

I have now completed two fieldsite visits. I will be visiting six more over the next five months. But already there is one issue that I am becoming increasingly anxious about. Anyone reading this blog regularly would understand why even after five months, which is one-third of our fieldwork, I would predict that this study will surpass even our wildest ambitions in terms of what should be our main criteria, that is the level of original insight this will bring to our understanding of the impact of social and new media on the world today. But that is just the half of it, because I feel the extraordinary richness of engagement at each and every site means that these nine studies should give us a depth of engagement with the wider lives of ordinary people across our contemporary world that is unrivalled.

The two site visits that have confirmed this feeling. In both cases I find the material revelatory. This is partly because the sites are so well chosen. The Indian case of 200,000 (soon to be 700,000) IT workers plonked into the middle of villages creating a radical juxtaposition is symptomatic of the transformation of India. In Brazil I had been very sceptical of this term ‘new middle class,’ because I could not see how you could apply this to the level of domestic cleaning staff and construction workers that populate our fieldsite. But now I have seen how squatting has turned into a strategy for long term property investment, and met the children who go to University and aspire to do post-graduate work abroad, I can see how this site also is perfect for understanding the future of Brazil.

So why I am anxious? It is because I learnt so much from actually visiting the sites themselves. In this project we do a good deal of internal reporting. Both Shriram Venkatraman and Juliano Spyer have already each written around 45,000 word descriptions of their projects. Both have long experience in writing in previous commercial employment and some journalism, and write unusually well. Having seen their sites I don’t see how they could have done a better job of conveying them. Yet to be honest there were so many things I didn’t really get until I actually visited them. The problem is that no one, other than me, will visit all these sites. We hope to gain a huge popular audience for our findings, but none of these people will be able to experience the sites as I have done. The ultimate point of research is not what the researchers have learnt, but what they succeed in conveying to the readership they attract. Even if they both write superb academic and popular books, which I fully expect they will do, it’s just not the same as actually being here.

All of which means that we have to do something else, to bridge that gap, if the project is to deliver as we intend. One possibility is that we learn from online behaviour as to how to use the online to convey academic findings more effectively, whether that be film, user generated content, animation, cartoon, clever graphics or photos, or some interplay between these. I am not sure I have yet seen an ethnographic work that quite managed this. It will be the topic of Sheba Mohammid’s contribution to the project which is a plus. But until this is accomplished, I am going to remain anxious about how we will manage to achieve this ambition. Also I feel very aware of a final contradiction. Since I will have visited all the sites, I will never be able to recreate the naïve state of pre-visiting. So how would I even know if we have succeeded in adding that extra dimension to our dissemination? Hopefully, the answer will lie in the reception of the results by others – hopefully.

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.

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.