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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

Thinking of writing cultures

RazvanNicolescu15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Why start with death?

DanielMiller8 October 2012

Holding the hand of an elderly person

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.