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A methodological case of comparative anthropology

JulianoAndrade Spyer8 June 2015

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Image Courtesy Quinn Dombrowski (Creative Commons)

I hear from colleagues in our department that completing a PhD can often be a solitary experience. Anthropologists tend to accept the fact that social lives are so particular and rich that comparison becomes a dangerous affair. Doctorate students typically have such specific topics of research (such as boredom in rural Romania or wrestling in Bolivia) that it is hard to attract a general interest and they often have to rely on favours from peers to get feedback on their work.

By contrast the research team involved in our study of social media did not experience such academic loneliness. This post summarises the methodology we used to study the impact of social media on our nine field sites around the world. It also shows a possible alternative way of conducting anthropological research that benefits from regular and ongoing feedback and comparison between researchers collecting similar material from very different field sites.

Two broader choices led our team to come to four main decisions regarding how to conduct our qualitative comparative research.

The broad choices were:

  1. All the researchers worked on the same topic. In our case, the impact of social media in each field site.
  2. However, the actual research maintained the importance of long term participant observation. Each researcher immersed themselves in the social life of their field site, where they lived for 15 months.

The consequences of these guiding principles then became the following practices:

  1. During the preparation of each one’s project proposals, we read and discussed collectively the literature about social media. We incorporated the results in the individual projects that included a literature review of specific aspects for each field site.
  2. During the preparation, we also scheduled common themes (e.g. politics, gender) for the reports we agreed to write during each month of fieldwork and a survey questionnaire to be applied collectively during the same period.
  3. We read each other’s reports throughout fieldwork. Since returning from the field we have continued to read each others’ book chapters. Each person receives detailed feedback from at least one other colleague (though often several).
  4. These readings then provide the context for monthly meetings: initially through video conferencing, but now in person.

In our case, social media was the link to very different realities and places. It gave us a shared point of departure in terms of bibliography and of research questions. But anthropology also enhanced collaboration as our impressions from the field often arrived framed in terms of gender relations, politics, kinship, etc.

The result of this routine will be eleven books to be launched during 2016. Two will be comparative and the other nine will be monographs that are interconnected both by this practice of collaboration and by a common structure – each book will have the same chapter  themes but are based on each particular ethnography.

Though many assume that giving our time to others’ work means less time and especially less attention to our own work, the collaboration in this project taught us the opposite. Often, seeing what the others were doing and thinking helped us to individually experience particular aspects of each field sites, in addition to deepening our engagement with our own.

Nell, our researcher in Chile, summed this up rather well in a recent conversation, when she remarked: “Reading the other chapters is sometimes even better than getting comments on my own chapter. Those are constructive, but reading the other chapters gives me creative inspiration. And it makes me realize important things I’ve left out.”

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.

What would happen if Facebook disappears tomorrow?

RazvanNicolescu30 March 2015

Women explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A friend explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This quite obvious question kept coming up during my fieldwork in southeast Italy for different reasons. First, the transitory nature of Internet-based platforms and services is a big challenge for anthropologists; so we had to adapt our research methods and dissemination strategy to respond to this. Secondly, people in Grano themselves put this question in different ways as many recognized that Facebook started to be part of their everyday lives. Finally, many people were quite anxious about Facebook because they could not see any alternative to this service.

The vast majority of people I talked to agreed that the short answer to the question in the title is… ‘Nothing!’ – they would not be affected in any way if Facebook would disappear some day. This seems to also be supported by the second comparative questionnaire from the research. For example, 82% of the respondents answered the question: ‘Has using social media made you a) happier, b) less happy, c) no difference,’ by indicating variant (c).* Motivations for this option were usually related to the fact that Facebook was perceived as a nice and attractive gadget or accessory that could hardly be related to the sources of happiness or personal satisfaction with their lives. These sources were located in very precise places inside and outside the individual, unlike Facebook that few people had a clear idea of what really is and how it functions.

At the same time, only 34% of Facebook users think their use of the service is becoming less frequent, while almost 50% think their usage remained the same. The nature of our research could not identify trends, but the quantitative data confirms the key finding that even if most people in Grano do not see social media as too important and revealing, they nevertheless use it increasingly more. But the intensity of the usage is not limited to more frequent use or interaction on one single platform, such as Facebook, but mainly to continuously finding alternative platforms on the horizontal: such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Twitter for example.

As I will detail in a future post, these platforms function so that each sustains or complements the use of the others so that there is actually no overlapping between platforms. And in particular, Facebook acts as a common kind of reference for all other social media. In this context, the ethnographic material suggests that not Facebook itself, but the kind of new public visibility that this service introduced is destined to not disappear. While Facebook could be replaced, outclassed, or rebranded it is what people have discovered about themselves by using Facebook that will stay there a little longer.

And this is why nobody in Grano would really mind if Facebook would disappear one day: they had already gained a new technology. This is established by the totality of social media people use and not by any one platform in particular.

P.S. – Facebook, as indeed all Internet giants, are already aware of this; and the way they fight their own ‘fear of disappearance’ is by continually transforming themselves and inventing new horizontal markets. This is simple marketing but what economic reality proves is that even these basic methods are extremely volatile in the Internet market. It is relatively easier to transform and invent in the domain of communications than when you are stuck in an Internet-based version of a conventional business, for example, and at least another 9 anthropologists who studied social media around the world also know why.

* This data is preliminary. Accurate data based on the quantitative questionnaires will be provided in June 2015.

Comparative ethnography: Local and global levels

NellHaynes12 February 2015

For the first year of my fieldwork, I lived in Alto Hospicio, Chile, a city considered marginal and home to the working poor (as the US class system would call them). I spent the year chatting with neighbors in my large apartment building, kicking balls back to children playing in the street, shopping at the local markets and grocery stores, buying completo hot dogs from food vendors, walking along the dusty streets, and taking the public bus to and from Iquique. Now, for my last few months of fieldwork, I am living in Iquique, the larger port city, just 10 km down the 600 m high hill that creates a barrier between the two cities.

iqq beach 1

Photo by Nell Haynes

This project is based on comparative ethnography, but usually this means comparison across continents, hemispheres, and language barriers, at least. Yet, I have learned a great deal from comparing Iquique and Alto Hospicio, even in just one short month. Iquique is more lively, with a US-style shopping mall, many bars and restaurants, more variety in terms of grocery stores, a beach, a casino, and the sort of variety of different jobs and services available in mid-sized cities across the world. By comparison Alto Hospicio seems bare, even barren. There are no billboards there advertising the latest Tommy Hilfiger perfume (available in the TH shop in the tax free import zone of the city). There are no Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurants, or even cuisines like vegetarian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, or Italian alone. There is no theater, no yearly film festival, and—perhaps most disappointing for me last year—bars with happy hour deals on mojitos.

But what I know of Alto Hospicio, is that while there is less investment in infrastructure and commercial activity (or even advertisement), it is still a lively place. Neighbors chat, people take Saturday trips to the beach with their family, and friends gather to pass time or celebrate special occasions. But in many ways the lack of commercial activity gives Alto Hospicio a homogeneity that one does not encounter in Iquique. As I’ve written before, from the very shape of the houses to the clothing people wear, the spectrum of aesthetics is limited. People work in mining, in service industries, or own small businesses such as a corner store. And everyone knows that for “once” (pronounced own-say), the evening tea, the table will be equipped with bread, margarine, sliced cheese, and sandwich meat to accompany the hot tea. And most people seem quite content to share these things in common with their neighbors.

aho mirador

Photo by Nell Haynes

I wrote last month that the acceptance and even pride surrounding normativity is reflected on social media. But in looking at the social media in Iquique this becomes even more apparent. Foreign newspaper and magazine links are much more prominent. People post pictures from events they attended or even displaying the new throw pillows they’ve purchased for their couch, while in Alto Hospicio photos taken inside the home are rarely are intended to demonstrate the interior decoration. And the percentage of funny memes is much much higher in Alto Hospicio.

None of this shocks me. Coming from a middle-class US background, Iquique feels more like home, and Facebook usage from those residing here looks much more like what my friends at home post. But what this reminds me of is the ways that homogeneity may be working as the world becomes more and more connected. Iquique begins to look and feel like the Midwest of North America (well, with the added bonus of a Pacific Ocean beach), while Alto Hospicio remains very locally focused. That is to say, perhaps certain places are more or less likely to be both homogenized by social media, and have that homogeneity reflected on social media, given their figurative proximity to the global centers (in terms of economics, aesthetics, consumption, services, education, and work opportunities). By looking across all 9 sites of the Global Social Media Impact Study, this may become more or less apparent. We may find that those places that remain on the global “periphery” remain peripheral on social media as well. There may only be a 10km highway separating Alto Hospicio from Iquique, but the differences seem continental.

A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

XinyuanWang18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institution

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institute

It is always good practice to exchange knowledge and ideas with scholars from other fields, as it adds immense value and vision to the research at hand. New Media and Social Media are fields that attract scholars from various other areas of study. The bridging of interdisciplinary ideas that this area of research induces is phenomenal. For example, while social media can be approached from an anthropological point of view, it can at the same time also be approached from a Big Data perspective. In a previous blog post Xinyuan talked about the difference between ‘Big Data’ and digital ethnography.

A couple of weeks ago, two of our researchers (Shriram and Xinyuan) were invited by Professor Ralph Schroeder, a Big Data theorist, from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to give a talk on social media in China and India, from an anthropological perspective. This opportunity, which is one of our earliest since our return from our intense 15 months of fieldwork provided great value in understanding and evaluating aspects related to disseminating our research results.

One of our first significant points of contribution was to address the need to study social media in a more traditional anthropological way. This also flowed from the strength of ethnographic evidence that the nine field sites generated over the last 15 months. Ethnographic evidence needs to be presented in a context based ‘thick description’, which anthropology does, allowing researchers present the field site in a rich descriptive and detailed format. This allows the readers/audience understand the situation/context better. The process of communicating such detailed description also brought us another opportunity to transition to a multimedia based approach. Xinyuan showed a 4.5 mins documentary film clip about her field site, Good Path town, a small factory town in southeastern China and the way she did ethnography among Chinese rural migrants who work and live in the factory town as factory workers. The result of using a visual platform to describe one’s field site was extremely positive. When the audience really saw the population and the field in the short clip, the subject no longer stayed as alienated or abstract but became far more humanized and engaging. The positive feedback received has also further encouraged us in our long-term dissemination plan for the project, which also involves a multimedia approach to report on our analyses and findings.

The discussion section was also inspiring. The questions varied from censorship in China to the influence of gender in the use of social media in India; and a few questions touched the very core issue of this comparative project, which was on how to draw conclusions from the ethnography of nine different sites.

Even from the two field sites (India and China), let alone the total nine field sites of the whole project, our audience had already strongly acknowledged the huge differences in the way people use social media as well as the impact of social media usage in local peoples’ daily life. Though the presentations were not intended to be comparative, the format in which they were delivered played a role in giving rise to a few interesting questions that leaned towards a comparison of general issues between China and India. For example: after listening to our presentations, students found that the use of social media in India was strongly influenced by the reality of offline life, however in China among Chinese rural migrants, social media offered a platform where people can simply set up a new world where they can enjoy an ideal life where their offline lives (including their social status are largely irrelevant. Although it’s always risky to over-generalize claims of totally different uses of social media by lower socio-economic groups in India and China, the ethnographic evidence gathered from our 15 months field research allowed our study to showcase the diversity of social media usage in different cultures and societies. Social media itself is by no means a unified or universal concept and its meanings are way more diverse than we can imagine. In short, this opportunity helped both the parties (OII and GSMIS scholars) to explore and understand social media in a much deeper context through an anthropological perspective that is contextually and fieldwork based.

Social Media – Just stop that and behave.

DanielMiller30 October 2014

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

I am just finishing a chapter of my monograph on social media in England in parallel with the other eight team members who are simultaneously writing theirs. At the moment the biggest problem I am finding with writing about social media is perhaps not surprisingly the social media themselves. They just refuse to behave decently, by which I mean in ways conducive to being written about in an academic text.

The chapter I have just finished has been trying to explore the impact of the wide variety of platforms that are currently available to people in The Glades. That in and of itself is not a problem. The theory of polymedia comes in handy because it was devised to deal with a situation where, instead of a single or a dominant media, we have many potential platforms such as Snapchat and Tinder and Tumblr and Twitter. These start to express social differences, moral choices, differentiated relationships and so forth – thus polymedia. The next stage would be for academics to explain why people might prefer this or that social media for some particular purpose. For such explanations we are indebted to some excellent writings, of which the clearest is probably Nancy Baym’s book on Personal Communication in The Digital Age.

This work depends upon the concept of an ‘affordance’ which means more or less, that which a particular platform would seem naturally best suited to do. So we can suggest that Facebook is better for the storage of photos, while Twitter seems good at spreading information. Some media demand simultaneous presence, others are asynchronic, some anonymous and others anything but private. What usually happens is that we assume a platform is `naturally’ that which we have found most people use it for and then look at these various affordances in order to account for that dominant usage.

This is fine for a while, but then as we observe these social media more closely and for a longer period of time, they start to behave not just badly but really quite outrageously. They start to be used for all the things we claimed they were useless for, or for the exact opposite of that which they were doing previously. I look at the data and think `Whoopsadaisy’ that is NOT what is supposed to be happening. To take a very simple example, my generation used email as the breakthrough media in destroying a century of attempts by industry and commerce to separate work from leisure, and I could write happily about the affordances of email that explain this consequence. The trouble is that today young people use email to scrupulously divide their personal communication from work and commercial usage – the exact opposite of what I do with it.

Historically in both Trinidad and England BBM, the Blackberry messenger service, was the place teenagers used to be nasty to each other. I could give a whole list of features as to why BBM was good for this purpose. In Trinidad this genre of usage moved from BBM to WhatsApp which is fine, since WhatsApp is basically a copy of BBM. But in England the genre migrated lock, stock and barrel to Twitter which in several important respects is exactly the opposite of BBM. Twitter is very public, BBM was heavily encrypted etc etc. I read loads of articles about how Twitter is naturally about information or Facebook is ideally suited to the young. Only to find that Twitter is used by other groups simply to banter and Facebook is now mainly used to keep connected with older family members. In fact the entirely different `Twitters’ I have discovered operating just within just The Glades is ridiculously diverse. At which point you realise no, it isn’t especially good for information dissemination. It’s just a short text platform that can, and now is, used for pretty much anything. This is just within The Glades. Once you start comparing our nine sites then it is really hard to claim any kind of consistent behaviour at all. Social media are such an undisciplined and unruly bunch of creatures that they would challenge a zoo let alone a poor academic.

The theory of polymedia and the study of affordances remain essential tools of analysis, and often work perfectly well. But there are clearly a whole lot of others things going on, which my chapter attempts to explain and explore. I think this can be done, and basically has to be done, because we do no one any favours if we ignore the variability of actual usage which is precisely what anthropology is built to discover and acknowledge. But sometimes in this study of social media I just want to teach the little bastards a bit of discipline.

Pin down the questions

XinyuanWang5 September 2014

Construction site

Xinyuan asking questions on a construction site among workers (photo by MF)

You should know that the majority of PhD students feel some regret that they didn’t ask enough questions when they came back from the field.

Danny advised so when we walked past a beautiful bamboo forest last year in October when he came to visit my field site.
At that time, after five-months of fieldwork I was frustrated about the situation that on the one hand, I felt as if I was mining hard on poor ground- there was nothing (no longer) new under the sun! On the other hand, I somehow felt it’s very awkward to ask ‘formal’ questions to the informants who treat  me as a friend and I didn’t want to lose the relaxed atmosphere which I believe allows people to show the ‘true self’.

Well, I see, but I still need some time to figure out HOW” I curled my lip and said.

It is really not easy to ask questions, even though the pre-fieldwork project meeting prepared well HOW to do this. Now, at the last phase of my fieldwork, when I look back and ask myself whether I feel any regrets about ‘asking questions’ during my fieldwork, I think the answer is NO, but with several footnotes.

First, useful questions do not necessarilyhave to be asked in a interview-like formal way or even with a question mark. My strategy is to follow people’s organic conversation flow and ‘harness’ the topic by relevant detailed inquiries or directional claim. That means most of the time my inquiries are impromptu. However, such improvisation is not as random as some laid back chic-chat among friends, it has to point towards the impact of social media. In practice, asking questions in a contextual way to address a research question is a mind-taxing and thought-racing process.

For instance, a factory worker informant of mine used to complain about her boyfriend (who is now her husband) in front of me, in such a situation, as a friend, I am supposed to be a compassionate ally who shares the same bitter hatred, rather than a ‘keep-one’s-nose-clean’ researcher who only takes interest in the phenomenon of ‘men keeping ex-girlfriends’ photos on social media’. I had to control my academic inclinations and insert my ‘questions’ patiently among her unrestricted criticism. As a result my questions output is like:

  • Oh gosh, how come? that’s totally outrageous, I just can’t believe it. but..hey you are great, how can you know his password? my boyfriend never told me his!
  • Really?! so…which means he knew you looked at these photos? I don’t get it, what’s wrong with men? why do they think we can accept those ex- bitches…with a big smile?! I just don’t get it!
  • Relax, you are strong, and I hope he will learn a lesson. By the way, did you give him any warning or at least a hint about this?

Framing questions in this way allows people to relate to the topic and express their own opinions. Look at the contrast to more direct research questions:

  • Do you have your partner’s social media password, if so, could you tell me why and how do you get it?
  • Will you remove your ex partner’s photos on social media profile? if so why? and why do you think some people keep their ex partner’s photos on social media?
  • How do you deal with your partner’s ex-partner’s photos on social media?

Furthermore, all my roundabout inquiries are actually aiming to put pieces together of a bigger puzzle, which is the relationship between intimacy and social media usage. Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that such theatrical questioning can be applied in every case- it works only when a researcher has a relatively comprehensive knowledge of his/her informant as well as the circumstance during the conversation.

The funny thing is after just one month when I came back to the same informant and tried to go through some more interview-like questions she appeared slightly uncomfortable and confused about my question with regards to the intimacy and the usage of social media, and asked me why I was interested in those ‘useless’ things and what for. Clearly she forget that’s the reason I was in my field site and I was a researcher which I had told her one-year ago. Her attitude is understandable as for people who have limited education (like many of her fellow workers in the factory she is a middle-school drop-out) and living experience with academic research, words like ‘research’, ‘questionnaire’, ‘interview’, etc are more often than not very alien and sometimes even horrific. Thus it is safe to say the way to ask questions is as important as, if not more, the questions per se.

Secondly, at the closing phase of my field site I started to ‘push the boundary’ and pin down some questions I did not want to ask for the reasons I just mentioned above. The efforts were not in vain. Even though my informants appeared unsurprisingly uncomfortable and couldn’t give me a articulate answer in many cases. They still gave me some valuable information I couldn’t have gotten just by chatting with them, such as do they visit pornographic websites or describe their social media usage situation in the past five years.

Meanwhile, I spent almost one month in Shanghai to do comparative study among urban and rural (or rural migrant) population. Jingwen Fan, a Shanghai-based artist and media researcher, worked with me to conduct interviews among Shanghainese people. Given that we didn’t have enough time to carry out proper anthropological participant-observation, which I was doing among rural migrants in my field site, our interviews targeted personal friends and relatives of Jingwen Fan and I, with whom we have established strong mutual trust and understanding.

The interviews have been ongoing for more than a month and most of the interviews were filmed with consent. We have a list of 24 questions for the interviews (I will post the list of the questions in my next blog posting), which according to my one-year ‘questioning’ experience will lead to some active interaction and valuable data.  So far, the interviews went very well even though I was slightly worried about what Margaret Mead said, ‘What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things’.

We appreciate that most of all of our informants trust us a great deal and actively interact with us by showing us their social media profiles and sharing with us their personal stories without hesitation. And on top of it, the people we interviewed not only expressed themselves very well but also discussed different issues with us passionately. Some of them started an answer by saying “You know what, actually I thought about exactly the same question recently and I also discussed it with my friends…” More often than not, a filmed interview took around three hours.

It is safe to say the difference between the urban and rural population’s performance in formal interviews is mainly due to the difference in educational background and living experience. The average education level among factory workers/ rural migrants in my field site is below middle school, and the average among Shanghai-based informants is university. Given the huge information consumption on a daily basis and the diversity of urban life, the urban population appeared much more confident, open-minded and articulate in talking about the society and themselves. Thus, after conducting the study among different groups of people in China for almost 15 months, I am ready to say that the point of ‘pin down the question’ is not only about ‘asking enough questions’ as Danny advised, but also about ‘asking tailored questions for different informants’

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

TomMcDonald28 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.

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.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

DanielMiller17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.