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Questions I get asked everyday…

TomMcDonald20 July 2014

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) the questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) lots of questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

For the past 14 months I’ve been living in this rural town in north China, conducting ethnographic research on how social media is affecting life here.

However, many people in the town have never had a foreign friend before, let alone one that can speak Chinese. People are extremely inquisitive about me and life in the UK, and I generally spend much more of my time answering their constant questions than I am able to ask them my own research questions and hear their answers.

Below are the questions I tend to get asked on an almost daily basis here in the town. I’ve decided to publish them on this blog partly because even though I am really bored of having to answer these questions again and again, they remain interesting both because they reveal some commonly held ideas that many people in the town hold regarding the rest of the world, while also helping us to learn about some of the important concerns of rural Chinese life (food, family, work, history, politics).

  • Why are your eyes blue?
  • Why is your skin white?
  • Why is your hair yellow? Is it dyed?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do westerners just eat bread and drink milk?
  • Do westerners always eat raw meat?
  • Are you unable to eat Chinese food?
  • Wow! How come you know how to use chopsticks?!
  • What religion are you? Do all westerners believe in Jesus?
  • How much is your salary in a month?
  • What is the average house price in the UK?
  • What is the area/population of the UK?
  • Can you get used to living here?
  • Do you miss home?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Why aren’t you married?
  • Do you like Chinese girls? Are they pretty?
  • Why don’t you get a Chinese wife?
  • How many children are you allowed to give birth to in the UK?
  • Why does Britain always invade other countries and do whatever America does?
  • Do you think the Diaoyu Islands are China’s [territory]?
  • Why are you here?
  • Are you a spy?
  • What cars do you drive in the UK?
  • What is the weather like in the UK?

While some people may interpret these questions as showing that people in my fieldsite know very little about the rest of the world, I think the questions make a lot of sense and actually show how interested in the outside world my friends here are.

In addition, the incredulous looks my friends give me when I ask some of our research questions in our interviews, such as ‘does social media increase or decrease your interaction with people who are significantly richer or poorer than you?’ sometimes makes me think us researchers are the ones who are asking the stupid questions.

But then maybe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Almost anything you ask can help start a dialogue which will end up helping you to learn more about the people in your fieldsite. As the old adage goes: ‘one can but ask…’.

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.