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Quantitative data: Our figures take shape

DanielMiller13 April 2015

Student in maths class

Getting to grips with the numbers (Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY 2.0)

There is sometimes an assumption that while anthropology represents a unique commitment to qualitative research, with all our studies consisting of 15 months fieldwork, we somehow have an antipathy to quantitative data. Yet the very reason we spend so long in the field is testimony to our commitment to the highest level of scholarship and the sheer determination to accurately portray that population. For which purpose all information that helps us towards these goals is welcome, and most anthropologists do collect some quantitative materials.

But in a way the accusation is correct. We generally feel that quantitative data alone is deficient. Partly because the answers people give to survey questions may not reflect what they actually do. More because figures need to be interpreted in order for us to properly understand what they mean. Without that deeper knowledge of context they may mislead rather than illuminate. So we are suspicious of quantitative ‘news’ which often takes the form of correlations (for example, a population’s weight or life expectancy set against one aspect of their behaviour). Often this could be the result of dozens of different ’causes’ or combinations of behaviours other than the one claimed. We prefer to use quantitative data which comes from within ethnographic study, where we can hope to make an informed interpretation.

All our projects included three types of quantitative material: an initial survey of at least one hundred people at the beginning of fieldwork (Questionnaire A), a second survey of a different minimum one hundred people at the end (Questionnaire B), and whatever additional surveys each researcher found useful. Because of the importance of context, we will release our quantitative results alongside our eleven volumes of qualitative reports on 4 February 2016. But currently we are looking at the integration of these results. What follows is a sample of the kinds of results we will eventually publish.

In the case of my study of our English site – The Glades – my main additional survey was one of 2,496 school pupils at four secondary schools in the area. One of the intentions was simply to find out what which social media platforms these pupils were present on (see Table ‘Top of the class’). It was striking that these six stood out, with no other platforms emerging at above 10% overall.

 

Since this was also a response to my earlier blog post suggesting English schoolchildren were using Facebook, but that it was no longer ‘cool’, we also asked students what their three favourite platforms were. We found only 12.7% picked Facebook as their favourite social media, 8.4% as their 2nd favourite and 9.7% as their 3rd favourite.

Questionnaire B, by contrast, will be mainly released as a comparison across all of our nine sites.

These are illustrations of what is to come. Generally though, we would rather be patient and consider these in relation to our qualitative findings before we formally publish them.

Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

TomMcDonald27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook profile

DanielMiller29 October 2013

Knife and tomotoes on chopping board

Photo by Iñigo Cañedo (Creative Commons)

‘How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook Profile’
By Chef Daniele Milieu

(This is a version of an old Breton recipe I learnt from my grandmother.)

First catch your QQ/Facebook profile.

I will assume that you have all already landed some nice fresh fat profiles to work with.

The Equipment:
The specific tool I have used for this work is called Evernote. There is a premium paid for version, but as a cheapskate I used the free download, until that was full (now I pay for it). Once it is downloaded then when you go on to Facebook/QQ and use the ‘add to evernote’ function to select images and/or text. I tag them with details of the informant and with keywords.

Thus began a several page case-study in how to analyse postings. This was sent to the team a month back as the start to a group discussion about methodology. The reason was as follows. As a nine-site comparative project we are trying to undertake much of our work in a coordinated fashion. So for most of the time fieldworkers are concentrating on the same topic across the various sites. The plan this month has been to work on the analysis of what we can see online. Which is why we needed an agreed methodology. Obviously for a study of social media we need to engage with the actual things that people post. As qualitative rather than quantitative workers the public are often highly suspicious of our findings as ‘unscientific’ While we may not count many things we often do choose to be quite systematic. We are clear that we don’t just want to give impressionist accounts, that claim our informants post mostly jokes or pose with cars. We want to ensure that we carefully determine what they do post and not just what we think they are posting. So what followed in these ‘gutting’ instructions was several pages about how to work on the last 20 posts of each profile, and how to ‘sample’ photographic materials so that we felt comfortable that we were dealing with what they actually favour and not our guess work. These methods were further developed in conversations around the team. They raised many issues? For example it would be good to know the language terms they use in describing their friends postings, but how can we record this so as to see which postings they are describing at the time?

One might think that analysing online content is something we could do once we go home. It’s a waste of valuable ethnographic time to do this while we are still in the field. But our reasoning is that looking systematically at actual posting will lead to further questions that we will want to discuss directly with the informants themselves. So this seems a sensible thing to do as we move towards our half-way mark of fieldwork. It’s too late to gain these insights once we have finished. We need to look closely and carefully at actual postings now, so that we are forced into a more honest acknowledgment of their content and can use these to engage in further and hopefully deeper discussions with our informants. At present I have worked on a selection of profiles from The Glades and also from our Trinidad fieldwork. The differences are highly instructive and seem to reinforce our hope that material posted online can complement traditional ethnography as means of trying to characterise comparative society and the values and forms that we try to account for in our analysis.