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Nostalgia for a field Christmas

JolynnaSinanan21 December 2015

Image courtesy of shanzmataz

Image courtesy of shanzmataz.

It’s the first time I’ve been away from Christmas in Trinidad since I started fieldwork there in 2011 (oh wait, I was home briefly in 2013). December to February is about the slowest three months of the year for working in Trinidad in the lead up to Christmas and the lead up to Carnival, but it’s the best time of the year for an anthropologist whose job it is to hang out with people and do what they do, meet all the people who are important to them and do what they enjoy.

Christmas is a more than a religious festival to many Trinidadians. It’s celebrated by most people in the town, regardless of religious background, as a time to invest in the family and the home as a project. By contrast to living in Melbourne where there a mad rush for shopping for presents and preparing elaborate meals, in addition to these in Trinidad, there’s staying up for most of the night to scrub walls with sugar soap, apply a fresh coat of paint and change curtains. Of course, all of this is done with several relatives dropping in and out between their own home projects so the accompanying food and socialising turns Christmas day into a month of festivities.

When the house is spotless and could pass for a new home with freshly painted walls, the decorations go up. The tree is only the beginning: there are table runners, wall hangings, figurines and plenty of multi-coloured twinkling lights. The many philanthropic organisations in the town collect food and clothes for hampers for older people and those who are less well-off in the community. Home is not only the immediate house that a family lives in, home is also the greater town to be just as cultivated and taken care of.

Social media profiles are adorned in the same way in December. From wearing a pair of earrings shaped like Christmas wreaths to playing Santa in the local church or primary school, several profile photos from my fieldsite are of people in Christmas-themed outfits. Prior to Facebook, the circulation of Christmas cards was a time consuming activity, but now instead of sending Hallmark cards people populate the profiles of their loved ones by sharing photo collages with candy-cane or angel embellishments or posting memes.  

For those who can’t be home for Christmas, it’s becoming more common to Skype in and sit, propped up in a common space such as in the kitchen or the dining table through a tablet or smartphone over Christmas day, into the evening. I hope this year I might be the disembodied head, beamed in through webcam to enjoy Trini Christmas from afar. 

Normativity and social visibility

JolynnaSinanan14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.

Social media as hyper-visibility

JolynnaSinanan7 May 2015

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

 

After an intensive few months of hiding away finishing our books (and neglecting this blog), we have come back together to work on our comparative book. With nine people already having written a book each on social media, surely taking the lead on one chapter should be a more manageable task. But with nine countries and one book that deals with the big-picture impacts of social media, on education, on commerce and on humanity, among other themes, this book is also becoming an epic compendium.

If social media has provided (just) one form of unprecedented social change, it is that people can now self-craft, self-present and disseminate on a large scale, in real time. That observation is not new, these anxieties are revealed in conversations almost every day with “Did you see what so and so posted” and “I shared this really interesting thing” are all to do with the consequences of extended social visibility. A sociology of social media as hyper-visibility has come from doing more classical anthropological study through ethnography. From a small place, we can perhaps make wider generalisations.

We have been fortunate enough to give presentations and papers on our findings from our individual field sites now, and I usually start my presentations by talking about Trinidadian Carnival. Audiences tend to assume that Carnival is a fascinating and exotic event with little importance elsewhere outside Trinidad. But the point to emphasise is that, although Carnival is beads, feathers and bikinis, it is a festival that was born out of resistance to slavery- where people were physically oppressed from having the means to express their identities and values through bodily freedom. Although Carnival has transformed today, to varying degrees the logics of visibility from Carnival are resonant in Trinidadian society all year round.

Which brings me to social media, it is difficult to study any aspect of Trinidadian society without considering social visibility. It then seems inevitable, when looking at social media in Trinidad, to link its uses to the logics of Carnival and applying a term such as hyper-visibility. Carnival is about showing the truth of who you are on the body through masquerade and performance- it is a time and space to amplify how you see yourself. Trinidadians have a well understood vocabulary around appearance and its implications, so much so that the rest of the world is perhaps only catching up. The concern with what we show on social media and what it says about us is parallel to what Trinidadians have always understood about visibility: it is how we cultivate truth that makes us subject to the judgement of others. The multiple judgments of others then reinforces norms and acceptable values.

On Facebook in Trinidad, you are what you show, whether that is lifestyle through food posts, ideology through political postings or moral commentary through sharing memes. You can show yourself as very global through posts of holidays or opinions on Game of Thrones, or very local, with humour that only Trinidadians would understand. Throughout the 3-year study, there was a general decline in the usage of Facebook by individuals for showing themselves, although it is still the dominant social media platform in Trinidad. Because of the consequences of being hyper-visible, individuals are starting to curate themselves more to cultivate an exact and consistent image by which they want to be seen.

A (Pre- ) Theory of Non-Usage

JolynnaSinanan12 March 2015

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Now that we are heavily into writing our individual books on social media, it’s the time to think about the original insights we have gained from our fieldwork in relation to wider themes and issues. This month, I want to deal with non-usage. Generally, Trinidadians are keen to be up to date; with fashion, pop culture and uses of new media. Trinidadians were very enthusiastic to embrace using the internet generally (see Miller and Slater, 2000) and similar to their use of Facebook, internet usage was more of a product of social norms and perceptions than it was a product that was exported from Silicon Valley.

I can appreciate that even the term ‘using the internet’ is outdated, I’m ‘using the internet’ throughout the whole process of writing and publishing this blog post but accessing the digital ether has become so normal and ubiquitous that we wouldn’t think of checking our email on our phone as ‘using the internet’.

I want to deal with an aspect of non-usage that I have called ‘digital resistance’. As resistance implies, there is a wilful refusal to something that is an imposed (or forced) expectation. There are two main reasons that drive digital resistance that came out of my fieldwork. The first is that people refuse to adopt technology for more social communication because their lives are already socially saturated, meaning that people already have too many face to face relationships (mostly family and extended family) that are demanding of people’s time. There are already enough expectations, obligations and negotiations digital resistors have in their lived social relationships that they don’t want to ‘keep up with the times’ or ‘get on board’. New communications media add yet more modes of conduct that they have to negotiate and strategise and learn for their relationships. They feel they become more mediated.

The second reason has a lot to with the first. For people who ‘opt out’ of using new media beyond a basic mobile phone for personal communications, social media not only represents an increase in mediation in already complicated relationships, but it also represents a lifestyle that directly or indirectly opposes their immediate way of life and values. There are gender, age and class dimensions that are intertwined with the values of people’s immediate way of life and why they would not want to be associated with using new media. For example, there were research participants who have the latest smart phones or keep up trends because they enjoy a lifestyle of having the newest fashionable things. The other side is that for people consider themselves as being more ‘traditional’, keeping up with technological trends and adopting social media means that their way of life, where they see face-to-face communication as more authentic, becomes less valued. Their social circles, for example, groups of mothers who are housewives, or farmers where all their friends are farmers, are made up of people with shared circumstances and values. These participants often frame not using social media as ‘not having the need’, but it is also that they don’t associate with groups who see social media as central to their social lives.

When we think about people who don’t use the internet regularly, or who don’t own smartphones, their reasons might not be so straightforward, or even easy or obvious for them to explain.

On doing anthropology on activism and social media

JolynnaSinanan4 November 2014

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Although I left my field site in Trinidad on August 29, I have only just returned to Melbourne in the last week after nearly a year of being away. Last year, a large portion of field work was following the national issue of the large scale development project of the construction of a highway in the south of the country and the disputed section which will connect the areas of Debe to Mon Desir. My involvement started with covering the hunger strike of University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Kublalsingh, which lasted for 21 days. I watched this unfold by going to where Dr Kublalsingh was protesting, in front of the Prime Minister’s office, by following it on social media and by discussing it with informants in my field site, some 100kms away from where the highway is being constructed. Dr Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike when the Prime Minister agreed to reassess the decision to build that part of the highway and the Joint Constitutive Council (JCC) was funded by the government to review all the documents and agendas for and against constructing the section of the highway that would culminate in the Armstrong Report.

My involvement then deepened to the level of contributing to this state-sponsored review. I conducted a preliminary social impact assessment in the area and reviewed the reports from when the decision was made to go ahead with construction (in 2006) which I submitted to the Council. I concluded that no adequate social impact assessment had been conducted at the time and one should be, not just for that area, but for any area in which a large scale development project such as the construction of a highway is to take place. The JCC included at least five of my quotes in their final report.

Back in my field site, a town I have given the fictional name of El Mirador to protect the identities of the people who participated in my research, I was looking at how people were engaging with the issue on social media. Through my work with Dr Gabrielle Hosein, also from the University of the West Indies, we concluded that for those who aren’t in more ‘typical’ activist circles, of university students, musicians, artists and other urbanites, and more so, for those in country towns, being visibly, politically active and seriously engaging in national issues has social consequences of ridicule and alienation. It is very unusual for your average person in El Mirador to be politically active on Facebook.

Today, at the time of writing this blog entry, in Trinidad, Dr Kublalsingh is bedridden on day 47 of his second hunger strike, which he began on September 17. His reasons for this hunger strike is that the Prime Minister has not upheld her promise to adhere to the findings of the JCC report, undermining the council she assisted in founding and thereby undermining the efforts to build good governance in Trinidad. I have seen nothing on social media about Dr Kublalsingh or his second hunger strike on social media, apart from posts by the activist group he represents, the Highway Reroute Movement.

This situation is consistent with mine and Dr Hosein’s second insight that came out of the events of last year. A hunger strike is spectacular action, which makes the body a spectacle as an extreme form of resistance. But the power of the spectacle is in its transience, it holds power for only a short amount of time, a finite amount of time in which it disrupts the normal order. Similarly, Facebook is a spectacular space, a place to make things hyper visible. How many social media spectacles of causes gone viral can we name? Kony 2012? That video about sexual harassment? But the life of posts on social media are also finite. Sure, they exist in digital space forever, but people only care about them for a short amount of time. This obviously has bleak implications for Dr Kublalsingh’s actions.

A few members of the activist group have contacted me and implored my continued support. A few informants in El Mirador are wondering why I have kept silent this last month, when they know I have worked with and am friends with Dr Kublalsingh. My silence has been a mixture of having commitments to our project, which requires me to distance myself in order to adhere to the task of writing about the field and of having my immediate reality ruptured from being in Trinidad to being in Melbourne again.

The position of any anthropological researcher is not without contradiction (Sanford, 2006: 8). If we choose to take up Bourgois’ challenge ‘to venture into the ‘real world’ not just to ‘interview’ people but to actually participate in their daily life and to partake of their social and cultural reality’ (1990:45, quoted by Sanford, 2006: 6), we return with a mess of realities and experiences to come to terms with; our own and those of others. I will probably not see Dr Kublalsingh again. I feel an ethical obligation to uphold my integrity to the research in El Mirador but also to uphold my contribution to the Armstrong Report. This blog post has been a messy and inadequate attempt to do both.

 

References:

Bourgois, Philippe. 1990. ‘Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America’, Journal of Peace Research, 27.1: 43-54.

Sanford, Victoria and Angel-Ajani, Asale (eds). 2006. Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press

All in the pose

JolynnaSinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

“It ain’t ova till its ova”: Spectacular sports and social media – the World Cup in El Mirador

JolynnaSinanan27 June 2014

The town I have called El Mirador is the gateway to one of the most remote regions in Trinidad. Just ten minutes from the town centre, you are surrounded by bush, farming land and fishing villages. Most of the year, it’s a quiet sleepy place. The town is hub; just as many people work outside of the town as the amount of people that work in the town, in local businesses or in the public sector. As an area that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, it also has more of a mixed population than other parts of Trinidad. Like many country towns around the world, normative views are fairly conservative. Political opinion is split fairly equally between the largely East Indian-supported party the UNC and the mostly African-supported party, PNM.

In a usually un-extraordinary place, the town comes alive around events; religious holidays, Christmas and Carnival. Shop fronts transform, local up-market bars and eateries hold themed nights and the World Cup is an additional reason to do what Trinidadians know best: have a good time.

In the first ten days of the World Cup, which ended with a national long weekend of the Corpus Christi and Labour Day public holidays, I watched matches in three family homes, one restaurant and two bars in the town. Facebook is the dominant social media in El Mirador and out of the 250 Facebook friends I have accumulated as part of the Global Social Media Impact Study, 13 posted about the World Cup regularly, as it unfolded. These informants were aged between 17 and 23. For informants in their late 20s and above, the World Cup didn’t seem to impact on how they post. An additional 26 people were tagged in posts and through conversations with informants and, to use the local term: through ‘macoing’ (looking into other people’s business) profiles on Facebook, those tagged watched a game or two in a group with the person who tagged them. I took note of 53 posts and all together, there were more than 100 comments, usually banter, commentary, jokes or discussion, 17 memes and 4 videos. 3 of the local bars I followed advertised World Cup screenings and 3 chain businesses had World Cup promotions.

Advertisements by local bars on Facebook

Advertisements by local bars on Facebook

After the first week, commentary died down a little and since Trinidad isn’t competing this year, the favourite teams appear to be Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile) and African competitors (Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon)

Facebook posts supporting South American and African teams

Facebook posts supporting South American and African teams

If we follow Tomlinson’s idea that how people view global sports can be better understood if we understand a site’s economic and political dimensions (2006: 2), Trinidad’s history and geographical location can explain the popularity of these teams. There is absolutely no interest or support for the English and US teams but I would only be speculating the reasons why at this point.

When I look closer at the comments and memes, the social media trend in El Mirador in respect to the World Cup becomes clearer, the event is appreciated as a spectacle. The temporary nature of the event attracts attention and fascination, which is probably why even though the competition is getting more intense at it draws towards the finals, the attention on social media is waning. lthough the second week may have just dipped in posts and will increase again towards the finals. How Trinidadians experience temporality and transience has been explored in quite a lot of depth (Birth, 2007, 1999, Miller, 1994) as well as the spectacular, which culminates at the time of Carnival (Ho, 2000). The build up to the event is often enjoyed as much as the event itself, as we see for example with pre-Carnival parties (‘fetes’) which start after Christmas and end the weekend before Carnival Monday. The widest advertising for those is not on mainstream media, but through Facebook events with open invitations.

The nature of posts reflect Trinidadian social life characterised banter and hanging out. The matches are something to comment on and talk about with no particular reason than just to enjoy socialising.

World Cup banter on Facebook

World Cup banter on Facebook

Memes appeal to humour and skill and precision of sportsmanship is appreciated in its moment, as a spectacle.

Some of the funny memes circulated on Facebook

Some of the funny memes circulated on Facebook

Commentary and posts are funny, good natured or used to start a conversation with others, although there was an odd racially-based or post with more political commentary.

World Cup posts with racial and political slurs

World Cup posts with racial and political humour

Clockwise from top: World cup screening in a local bar, a couple enjoy the game in a restaurant, a proud Messi supporter, an outdoor World Cup ‘lime’, Hindu prayers with a match in the background

On weekends in particular, the ‘lime’ (a Trinidadian term for hanging out) moves from social media and watching matches at home, to watching them with others in their homes or in public bars or restaurants.

In the upcoming weeks we will see if commenting on the World Cup on social media will decline or intensify as the competition heats up. It will then be school holidays and judging from the long weekend where there were less World Cup posts, Trinidadians in El Mirador may leave World Cup sociality on social media to being out more and enjoying the World Cup in the company of others.

References

Birth, Kevin K. Bacchanalian sentiments: Musical experiences and political counterpoints in Trinidad. Duke University Press, 2007.

Birth, Kevin. “Any Time is Trinidad Time”: Social Meanings and Temporal Consciousness. University Press of Florida, 1999.

Ho, Christine GT. “Popular culture and the aesthetization of politics: Hegemonic struggle and postcolonial nationalism in Trinidad carnival.” Transforming Anthropology 9.1 (2000): 3-18.

Miller, Daniel. Modernity, an ethnographic approach. Berg Publishers, 1994.

Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young, eds. National identity and global sports events: Culture, politics, and spectacle in the Olympics and the football World Cup. SUNY Press, 2006.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Fitting In: Real methods in anthropology

JolynnaSinanan20 May 2014

By Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xin Yuan Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Most disciplines have formal methods for collecting data. By contrast the critical issue for ethnography is the task of transforming ourselves into the kind of person we need to be in order to conduct successful fieldwork. Someone people in the area feel comfortable with, would wish to make friends with and have confidence in. Since our method is in essence the cultivation of good relationships with our informants. Each of us has had to learn this sensitivity to the field and often change their appearance and behaviour accordingly.

For example Shriram found that when he started his fieldwork in South India he wore a t shirt and jeans. Practically no one would speak to him. But when he tried to go to the other extreme and conduct fieldwork wearing a formal shirt and trousers, he found that most people thought he was trying to sell them something. In one case after patiently explaining to a school the nature of our project and the research he would like to conduct the school teacher apologised but said firmly that the school was not really interesting in purchasing this `anthropology.’ Eventually he took further measures. He pierced both his ears and started wearing hand spun kurtas and `intellectual wear’ to clearly position himself as an academic. After which the fieldwork went just fine.

Juliano has found his fieldsite to be a split between evangelical Christians and others, and he needed neither to look like a `person of God’ or `person of the world’ so instead of dressing like either of these, he went for a European look that managed to be a neutral ‘gringo’ look that meant he could talk with people from both sides. Jolynna, by contrast had to take off most of her clothes, and adorn Carnival costume before those associated with the creation of Carnival camp that she wanted to study would speak to her. Elisa found that she had to shave her legs and underarms more carefully than usual since even to show a single hair where the legs or arms are not covered could be seen as shameful in this part of Turkey. She also found she had to keep the house immaculately clean.

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Tom suffered from the quantity of strong alcohol he was expected to drink in local ‘feasts’ since that was the basis of male solidarity and commensality in the village where he lived. Danny found that he had to retreat from the more participatory nature of ethnography to more formal interviews since that was what people in England seemed to expect of him. On the other hand when looking at the subsequent interviews he didn’t find that the teenagers he worked with at schools had talked to him any differently as a middle aged man that to his colleague Ciara Green who is young woman, so the assumption that he should, for example, talk to boys and her to girls, turned out to be an unwarranted `strategy’. Nell got censored for drinking straight rum without a mixer, but also suffered considerable sunburn from having to hang out for long periods outside in the North Chile sun. Xin Yuan found that she had to dispense with the clothes she normally wears and adopt the bright patterns preferred by local people. Finally Razvan found he had to shift his behaviour and demeanour between four groups he was encountering: the students, the professionals, the friends and those for him his being a husband seemed most appropriate.

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

The other area of sensitivity which proved very variable was how we managed our own Facebook/QQ profiles. For example Jolynna at first tried to follow Danny’s advice and adopted a very neutral passive profile in Trinidad. She soon found this was entirely inappropriate and had to replace it with a very active one in which she posts frequently in order to make people comfortable, while, by contrast, the same strategy was correct for our English site where we post nothing at all in order to affirm that this sites exists solely for the purpose of research. Xin Yuan in the meantime blinged up her QQ profile with music and colour but also postings about her life in England in order to make herself look more interesting.

All of which confirms a basic premise of anthropology that methods are not things you start with. Rather it is only when you have learnt about the nature and preferences of the particular populations you are now living with that you can also determine what are the most appropriate ways of interacting with them and at least try to conform to their expectations.

School fights, moral judgments and racial commentary

JolynnaSinanan22 April 2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago's 'Newsday', 19.03.2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Newsday’, 19.03.2014

(note: this blog post contains language around racial categorisation that may be offensive when taken out of context)

In the last month, the circulation of two videos of school yard fights on social media have become the subject of attention by the national news media. The first video, captured on a phone outside a prestigious school in the capital city, Port of Spain, shows a group of girls outside the school yard in a confrontation, which escalates into a fight between two girls, kicking, pulling hair and shoving each other to the ground. The crowd of girls cheers them on, and a passing off-duty policeman tries to break up the fight. Some of the crowd turn on him and yell at him for trying to break up the fight. The second is another group of girls in a high school in the rural town of Toco inside a classroom, one springs off a table onto a girl who has been swearing at her and they struggle on the ground.

Fights between school children are nothing new. They occur in all sectors of society, between boys or girls, between private and public school students alike. The reaction to the fights across the country reflected normative concerns around good versus bad parenting and the decline in morals for kids today. Yet, the stakes are much higher for what these judgement calls imply in Trinidadian society.

The legacy of colonialism is not far away in the consciousness of Trinidadians. From the formation of the society of indentured East Indians and ex-enslaved Africans, there has always been benign (and in periods such as the Black Power movement) overt antagonism between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians. Yet, the country has also been an exemplary one for the potential of a pluralistic, genuinely cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed society to exist cohesively and peacefully. It is quite common for families to be made up of Afro- and Indo- Trinidadians of Hindu, Muslim and various Christian beliefs. Race and class in Trinidad is an extremely complex topic, way beyond the scope of a brief blog post. There is a well-established argument that despite the appearance of antagonism based on race, the real conflict in Trinidad is based on class (Yelvington, 2010, Meighoo, 2003, Singh, 1994,  )

The concern that arises from the circulation of videos such as these resonates with an argument that Daniel Miller and myself raised in Webcam. To summarise, video footage as evidence has a fruitful contradiction. On the one hand, the visible evidence that we see as real-time captured footage on a phone attests to the truth of the event and on the other hand, the truth that appears on film has more potential to be fabricated and false- especially when taken out of context. The hazard of the rapid circulation of such videos is the moral discourse that is generated by the ‘truth’ of what appears in the videos. If taken as evidence, comments such as these, which appeared on Facebook confirm that girls who are in school yard fights are undisputedly certain sorts of girls.

“These little black children!”

“I don’t apologise for my words, but damn shameful disgraceful old n***a behaviour”

“typical poor black ppl children … not an indian child there … child mudda (mother) with bout 6 chilren for bout 5 different man and one child she eh (isn’t) sure who is d fadda (the father) is … black people need to wake d f*** up before its too late”

And the comments go on, each with at least three ‘likes’. But this is Facebook and the people who leave comments have their names (or pseudonyms) and profile picture clearly visible. A quick scan through the commentators’ profiles where few have tight security settings shows that all of the commentators who comment on race are themselves Afro-Trinidadians.

This brief observation speaks to a well-discussed themes in critical race studies, of internalised racism and institutionalised racism. Face-to-face, when racial observations are brought up in everyday conversations, they are more peppered with humour and are generally good-natured, even if they reflect more harmful racial stereotyping. Yet, comments on Facebook redrew the boundaries of what is said and accepted in public. Offline, none of the conversations around the incidents contained the severity of condemnation of the online comments. Symbolic interactionalism based on racial categorisation has a long history in Trinidad and the visibility provided by the affordances of Facebook adds another dimension to deeply messy areas of race and class.

Bibliography:

Yelvington, K. (2010). Producing power: Ethnicity, gender, and class in a Caribbean workplace. Temple University Press.

Meighoo, K. P. (2003). Politics in a’half made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Singh, K. (1994). Race and class struggles in a colonial state: Trinidad 1917-1945 (p. 226). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Visibility in the society pages of social media

JolynnaSinanan19 March 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

*Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.