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Global Social Media Impact Study


Project Blog


Social networking and social relations

Razvan Nicolescu10 April 2013


Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Epistemologically, this project is starting from the premise that ‘social networking’ is not something new. In the project proposal I suggested that the science of anthropology was founded on the belief that societies should be described as complex social networks, rather than as aggregations of individuals. In such social networks, individuals occupied different roles, which were put into evidence by the ethnographers in relation to their particular interests within the discipline, focus on kinship, economic relations, political organization, and so forth, as well as to the different paradigms they were actually working in.

At the same time, anthropology is a peculiar discipline when it attempts to understand the whole by a minutiae description of the particular, or of the partial. In other words, as Danny put it during our group discussions, anthropology often tends to become a partial aggregate of rather disparate detailed descriptions. Positivist methodologies or holism represented different kinds of ways in which anthropologists attempted to grasp the totality of a culture. They did so by employing a vast array of techniques, be they methodological, writing or interpretational.

This project aims at restoring this epistemological shortcoming. The eight simultaneous ethnographies in seven countries could formulate unique universal claims on the nature of social relations. The aim is not to recuperate terrain from other social sciences, such as sociology or geography, but rather to give an anthropological understanding to some of the common grounds on which anthropologists are working anyway.

The opportunity given by ‘social networking’ resides mainly in the fact that with the advent of digital technology, the human social networks tend to be encapsulated in something with true universal pretentions. At the same time, for the average user of online social networking, this does not necessarily correspond to any particular ideological or economic imposition. One may argue that these impositions could be obvious at other levels, such as at the level where the dominant Western world imposes its classificatory categories or tastes, but this research attempts to demonstrate whether this is actually true.

For example, whether new media technologies are created by egoistic entrepreneurs, or, by contrary, by idealistic activists, I suggest that they actually end up in being used by people in ways which are consistent with their respective social contexts. In particular, thinking about my fieldsite, I suspect there is a clear expectation from people in Italy who belong to a particular class and political ideology that they should behave in a particular way on a particular social networking site. The expectation does not stem necessarily from any imposition created by technology itself, or by its perpetrators. Rather, I suggest that new technology grants people freedom to work towards what they actually want to be. In my work, I suggested for a dialectical process in which, on the one hand, the individual, and, on the other hand, society, press people into particular kinds of persons. Throughout this process, technology seems to act as a sort of mirror (as Strathern suggested) in which people recognize themselves and the society they are part of. I am excited to explore these issues in the field.

Forming groups

Tom McDonald5 October 2012

Our team of researchers

Studies of how people form groups is something of a staple of the anthropological diet. In this context, the coming together of our team of researchers to work on the new comparative study on social networking has been an interesting process on which we might reflect, least of all because it will inevitably affect the nature and focus of our research. Befitting of the study, we ourselves have actually been using social networking platforms such as Skype and Facebook to get to know each other and formulate ideas for the project before it had even officially started. Despite the fact that we were located around the world, with researchers drawn from Brazil, India, China, Australia, Italy, Romania and the UK, we found it incredibly useful to meet regularly online to discuss our ideas for the project, and how we might want it to progress.

Now that we have all finally converged on the UCL Department of Anthropology in London, it is great to encounter the same people face-to-face, and we are now gathering as a group frequently for intense discussions on the precise nature and scope of our research questions, the methodologies we will be employing, and how we will work together as a group and disseminate the findings of our research. Our spatial co-presence means that the relationships between us are becoming strengthened and the animated discussion relating to our project frequently spill-over into our after work time, where we continue our conversations together in the collectively effervescent situation of the pub, as is typical of the British working tradition.

This group-style of working has led to some particularly exciting ideas, that are quite different from more established ways of carrying out anthropological research we are familiar with, which typically focus on long periods of lone research by a single ethnographer. Undoubtedly  too, working as a team might also bring elements of compromise. In that context it will be to see how our project, and the relationships between us, will develop for years to come.