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What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

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