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Snapshots from the field: using social media in the Italian fieldsite

Razvan Nicolescu26 November 2013

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Sandra is a 34 year old lawyer and considers herself to be quite successful. She lives with her parents in a big house near the centre of the town. She is expecting a baby sometime next year. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her fiancée decided to get married and build a ‘real’ family. At the same time, the two renounced using Facebook. This was quite simple as they were using the same Facebook account. The two enjoyed the fact they had no secrets between each other and could share the same friends and tastes. Therefore, they thought it would not make sense to use two separate Facebook profiles. However, when they decided to get married they also decided they would not need Facebook anymore. The main reason for this change was that people ‘gossip a lot’ and they do not need to see that online. They sensed that the intimacy of their couple was enough for them and they really had no intention to share this with people other than their closest friends.

Helena is a 28 year old shop assistant. About one year ago she split with her fiancée. This was a quite difficult moment for her as they were together for more than six years and she was still in love with him. The first thing she did when she realised they had really broken up was quit Facebook. She did not want to see her fiancée anymore and most of his male friends. Helena decided to dedicate her time to work. She also went out with her friends and sisters much more rarely than she used to do before. A few months ago she decided to create a new Facebook account. She thinks the new profile is ‘cleaner,’ mainly because she very carefully selected each person she friended. She actually decreased the number of friends from more than four hundred to just over two hundred. Helena thinks she is totally different on Facebook now than she used to be one year ago. She does not advertise much about herself and does not write too much text. However, she ‘shares’ a lot of content uploaded by other people and ‘likes’ up to 15 times a day. She is always connected on Facebook via her Smartphone and also spends a few hours each evening on this social media at her family’s computer.

Tony is an engineer for civil works. He just finished University and is unemployed. He used to collaborate on several small projects in his branch and accumulated some experience. He is trying to find some stable work although he recognizes this is very difficult. He does some volunteering work for one ecological association in the region. He finds Facebook useful for relating with his friends, but rather useless for the things he is most interested in, like finding a job and building a career. Most of his friends are unemployed too. Just around half of them have Smartphones. When they meet in a café or in the square they rarely check their phones for updates or messages. Tony agrees that Facebook is to be checked out at home, and not when you spend time with your friends.

Andy is an IT engineer. He works from home for a big Italian company and also develops software applications as a hobby. He is a technology enthusiast: he loves new IT gadgets, powerful cars, and pieces of software that he could re-assemble and use in complete new ways. Andy is well connected on several different social media: he consistently follows about a dozen blogs and he is quite active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He reads a few journals online and comments whenever he feels he should. He watches movies online, sometimes a few in a row without pause. He does so many things online that his girlfriend rarely sees him. They do not live together and she says it is difficult to get him out of the house after work any time other than when he is walking his dog. Andy seems quite happy and, as he told me, one important reason for this is the freedom he senses when he realizes he could do almost anything he wants from home.

And we, as anthropologists, should put all these together…

How ‘English’ is social media?

Daniel Miller1 August 2013

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Many of the pioneers of social anthropology such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown worked from England, and helped define the discipline as the study of the ‘other’. This is probably one of the reasons why there has been some neglect with respect to the anthropology of Englishness. Certainly there are research projects based in the UK, but many of them deal with topics such as English racism or specific issues such as class or gender. So the levels of generalisation that might be made about groups such as The Nuer or The Trobriand Islanders are rarely attempted here. It took something of a maverick in the form of Kate Fox to more directly address the issue in her hilarious and insightful book Watching the English.

But if I want my study of social media to be directly on a par with all the others, I must then address the question of ‘How English is Social Media in England?’ This means also thinking about wider questions of how The English have more traditionally created patterns of sociality and communication. As it happens my fieldsite which, from now on, I propose to call The Glades shocked me in that although it is not far from the highly cosmopolitan and multicultural world of London, it has only around a 1.5% migrant population, making it highly and homogenously English. So even if this hadn’t been the plan I would perforce be studying Englishness. Kate Fox who is consummately English used that very trait to create her work. She tackles the topic with teasing humour and exaggeration and irony. For example she identifies as the core to her findings something she calls the English ‘social dis-ease’, that is their lack of ease with socialising. ‘It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field (minefield) of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings’ (2004: 401).

For me this raises the question of how far the English use social media to resolve their dilemmas of trying to have communication while carefully preserving their autonomy and distance in order to keep away from embarrassment. Could social media be a form of reticence? Some evidence came from ethnographic encounters with commercial and service institutions. The idea of getting a balance right between involvement and autonomy seems to have become the key life skill in virtually everything. On one morning I listened to a church official talking about their use of social media. He was concerned whether it was appropriate for the church to text people because they might feel the church shouldn’t be intruding into their private lives. That afternoon I was talking with someone whose work is to market local businesses. His dilemma was that if you fail to engage with people, you cannot promote your business, while if you even once step over the boundary of accepted intrusion into customers’ lives, they will often never return. We were trying to ascertain if Facebook provided a useful modus vivendi in this regard. Even in the private domain we encountered people who saw Facebook is ideal for corresponding with neighbours down the street they live in. It was seen as equivalent to the chatting and gossip that occurs in the public domain, while within the comfort and isolation of one’s own private home. Indeed many of those who were most positive about Facebook legitimated it as, in many different ways, a ‘Goldilocks’ platform that is sociable but under such controls that it was not going to be personally or spatially intrusive (for an analogous case see Alana in my book Tales from Facebook).

A similar example would be students and others leaving the village and seeing Facebook as allowing sufficiency of retained contact while giving them space for growing autonomy, this pertained both to family and their ex-school friends. For still younger informants, platforms such as instagram and snapchat found niches within this frame. For example, snapchat indicated that very small tight group within which you demonstrated that you didn’t mind showing very embarrassing shots, though even these only because they are fleeting (the photos disappear within a few seconds). While instagram meant people could comment on photos without being particularly close. Polymedia, that is the range of platforms, may be giving people choices in degrees of closeness and distance. It is early days yet, but all of this suggests that my study must also become an anthropology of the Englishness of Social Media, and that this may well prove a key to understanding my data.

Class and communication

Daniel Miller1 June 2013

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

I don’t really want to study social class, every researcher on English society seems obsessed with it, as are the general public. Consider the recent reaction to the BBC Great British Class Survey or books such as Watching the English. But after just two months fieldwork in The Groves I am immersed in a whole slew of such differentiations. How far do the people of High Grove look down on those of Low Grove? Is everyone now using the term ‘social housing’ as a proxy for not just lower class but all sorts of problematic behaviour they associate with that class? Can I ignore stories of parent’s weeping when their child fails to get into their chosen school? I would like to have focused on something more original, but the integrity of ethnography starts with ignoring what you would like your study to be about, and going with your evidence.

When I do research on class I find I fluctuate in my perspective. Sometimes I see through welfare glasses where class looks like differential life chances, and the sensibility of fairness. I remain incensed by the degree that it is still the mere luck of being born to lower income families and lower educational expectations that largely determines life’s opportunities and the likelihood of suffering and deprivation. This remains true of the UK where inequalities still mainly stem from chance not ability. But I also see class with other glasses that pick up all sorts of nuances and playfulness of style as social differences which make up a fascinating tapestry of distinctions in clothing music and style, without necessarily meaning a whole lot in terms of objective life chances.

I may have inherited this duality from the French anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Much of his research concerned poverty and the relationship between education and subsequent social mobility. Others, such as his book Distinction are associated with issues of taste. The recent BBC Great British Class Survey is a pop version of the work of Mike Savage which is in turn a pop (or updated) version of Bourdieu. But Bourdieu was less divided since with the legacy of Marxist writing he still saw taste and life chances as two sides of the same coin, which guaranteed the status of class as an object of study.

How will class relate to the study of digital communications? Differential digital literacy may still reflect class as welfare. Other differences are more complex. Some quite hip young people are into Instagram used for all sorts of ‘edgy’ photo effects. But others with a serious interest in photography see this as an inauthentic cheat that devalues photography as art. Maybe this is typical of the democratization of skill? There are early indications. There seems to be a stronger digital presence generally including higher usage of Instagram in High Grove. Does this run parallel with evidence its high street has the delicatessens and art galleries, while Low Grove has few such class markers?

I am suspicious of correlations as evidence of cause. My work with the hospice suggests that it was often high status families who were most reserved and cut off from social communications and ended up suffering social isolation as a result. So higher status may not translate as advantage. Class is cross-cut by gender and age, and Facebook seems to be migrating from younger to older. Also social differentiation fragments into many different competitions. As Bourdieu once put it there is a struggle for hierarchy between the different hierarchies. So things will be complex, but that is the nature of ethnography, and if don’t manage to tease out these tangled threads, who will. Fortunately we have another two years to try and make sense of such things.