UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Freebies and socioeconomic indicators

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 July 2013

    Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons

    Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons)

    The use of socioeconomic indicators in surveys is well documented. While conducting a sample survey in the Indian field site (Tamil Nadu), it slowly emerged that some variables used as socioeconomic indicators were going awry. Even in the most poor localities, almost every house had two television sets, a grinder, a mixie (a mixer), and if the household had a member in college or higher secondary school, it had a laptop and everyone had a mobile phone (though at least this was not too surprising after reading the book The Cell Phone Nation)

    What was available only to the middle class 5 or 6 years ago and was a luxury to the poor was now with the poor too. It seemed like a puzzle and the answer lay in the election manifestos of different political parties which promised (and to a certain extent delivered) ‘freebies’ if elected to power in the state of Tamil Nadu. It seemed like a competition between which party could promise the most free stuff. Though, several articles had appeared in journals/newspapers speaking about the effect that all this had created, the survey served as the right opportunity to witness this first hand.

    New socioeconomic indicators seemed to be needed now to assess the real conditions in the field site. The thought of reassessing the field site with newer advanced socioeconomic indicators soon emerged and it was exactly like putting together a puzzle until one crucial and basic/foundational piece fitting all of these together was missing and that crucial piece turned out to be electricity - the electricity needed to run/operate any of these electrical products. Everything else seemed to be in place except for the electricity supply, which was either missing for several hours of a day or was fluctuating constantly, sometimes even killing some of these electrical products.

    The lesson we can ear from this is to never assume basic necessities are in place just by seeing all the paraphernalia.

    This is not a user study

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 October 2012

    Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

    Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

    Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

    What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

    For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.