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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.”

Questions matter, and the way you ask them matters too

XinyuanWang15 October 2012

Man walking infront of question mark

Photo: An untrained eye (Creative commons)

I always think that it is the strong and inherent curiosity about people that has lead me down the academic path of anthropology. In the past five weeks, working with a group of passionate, intelligent, and curious people has been such an enjoyable experience for me. I can not tell exactly how many potential research questions we have posed, but it feels like a huge amount, much more than we can hope to answer for the moment. However, even this makes the project more exciting and worth studying.

The current eight week intensive discussion tends to build up collective “common sense” for every researcher on the project before they go off to their individual field sites. This should help to make sure that we will all come back with comparable data, which will help to constitute a ‘big picture’ of the global appropriation of social media. To that extent, we decided to have a “to-do” list of questions that everybody is supposed to work on whilst carrying out their fieldwork.

This list comprised, first of all, of basic questions, such as “How many SNS accounts do you have?”; “What phone do you have and what plan?” or “How many SNS friends do you have?” These questions are short and concrete, making sure that ethnographers will collect basic statistics.

“Clever question” comprise the second level of questions, which means addressing a particular research question in a clever way. The way a question is presented to the participant will significantly affect the answer that they give. To put it in a simple way, the questions you want to ask matter, and the way you ask them matters just as much. For example, instead of asking people vaguely ‘what do you think of online privacy?’ a more specific but ‘purpose-hidden’ way of asking might be ‘what kind of information you will never post online?’ or ‘do you want your mother to be your Facebook/QQ friend?’. These questions are more likely to reveal a more nuanced truth. Clever questions can be very open ended, which are likely to lead to more detailed inquiries and in-depth discussions.

Built on ‘clever questions’, the third level of questions is even more profound and comprehensive given the possible situation that there will be several key informants with whom the ethnographer spends a huge amount of time and has abundant opportunities to conduct participant observation whilst in their company. In which case, these questions will not be confined to the previous structure and go deep into either specific issues, or develop into more portrait-like stories of the informant.

We have been amazed at the diversity and richness of the three-level questions everyone in the group has been contributing, which not only inspires each other but also guarantee the depth and width of our collective thinking. Generally speaking, anthropologists don’t have much reputation in ‘team work’. A lonely wanderer in an alien place is more like to exemplify an archetypal anthropologist. Also, some would argue that participant-observation of anthropology does not necessarily require any question. However, given the scale of this ambitious project we feel it would be useful to apply a well-organized framework and think about questions seriously to guarantee a comparative structure, whilst still retaining a degree of individual autonomy for each fieldworker.