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‘Writing up’: social media, disconnection and writing ethnography

TomMcDonald26 October 2014

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Our entire team have now returned from the field and are already stuck into the process of turning our research into books, which we plan to publish in January 2016.

For me it’s an enormously strange to transition to go from the excitement of village life to the relative sedateness of a life spent largely in the company of Microsoft Word everyday.

You could be forgiven for thinking that living in a rural Chinese town would be a positively tranquil experience, but looking back on my 15 months of fieldwork in the town from afar, it all seems to condense into one single blur. My friends in the town seemed to always be unexpectedly arriving at my door, endlessly calling me on the phone, inviting me out to impromptu dinners, or for walks around the countryside, trips to places, or to join in at local events and festivals. By contrast, life in London is comparatively tranquil: with more time to finally concentrate on writing articles and publications, combined with the familiar rhythm of academic life in the department.

But it’s not that all my friends from the town have disappeared completely. My phone receives a constant trickle of messages from my friends in the town. Contrast this with the early days of anthropology, where leaving the fieldsite really meant leaving the fieldsite, and anthropologists would bid farewell to the tribe the had been studying in some far-flung corner of the world and had little expectation (or indeed way) of remaining in touch. Even if I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so. Keeping in touch with my participants and hearing from them the latest news about their lives, relationships, exam successes, etc., means that there is always more information to be added to the ethnographies, and also speaks volumes with regards how much social media is fundamentally changing the experience of anthropological fieldwork itself.

Thank you, people from Grano!

RazvanNicolescu14 October 2014

A newly-wed couple from Grano preparing for a photo session at the steps of the church

A newly-wed couple from Grano preparing for a photo session on the steps of the church (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

I have been living for 15 months in a beautiful place in southeast Italy in the region of Apulia in the southernmost part of Salento and almost a year of that time was with my family. I have been conducting ethnographic research for the Global Social Media Impact Study, which also consists of making dozens of close friendships, participating in local life quite intensively and listening to hundreds of stories.

My wife Gabriela, who is an anthropologist too, started to look into the absorbing world of migrant care workers, my elder son ended up speaking Italian much better than myself as a result of a fruitful combination of thorough nursery training and random football playing and my small daughter developed a special evening relationship with pizza calzone, saving her first words for when we returned to London.

Some days, I worked on the project for just a few hours in the evening and other days, I worked continuously for 20 hours or so. After the first few months in Grano I noticed that my daily cups of tea were replaced by more than a few cups of coffee, breakfasts became smaller and smaller, and dinners slowly migrated towards midnight hours, especially during summer. We are not the same after fieldwork and we definitely do not see the world as we used to.

It is impossible to really thank to all people who helped me with this research. In my writing, the simple fact that for ethical reasons I will have to anonymise the place and individuals makes any attempt for acknowledgement somewhat useless outside the community I worked in. However, I sense that one way I can accomplish some of this enormous task is by writing the amazing stories I have collected in my field work in a truthful and unpretentious way, so that others may understand Grano the way that I did. The fact that our group is committed to open access, to the systematic use of colloquial language for more accessible reading, to popular multimedia content, as well as to the translation of most of the material in local languages represents just a small reassurance that whatever we will publish will be available to larger audiences, and most importantly, the communities we worked with.

However, here is a brief list of the people to whom I am most indebted to for their help during my stay there: Agnese B, Agnese D, Alessandra, Alfredo D, Alfredo E, Alfredo P, Analisa, Anna, Anna Lena, Antonella, Barbara, Biagino, Bruno, Cosimo, Daniela, Eira, Emilia, Flavia, Gabriele, Gianluca, Giuliana, Manuela, Maria Grazia, Maria Luisa, Marina, Mary, Luana, Nunzia, Ornella, Paolo, Pina, Raffaella, Rolando, Santo, Vito and their wonderful families. With them as with many other friends from Grano, I am happy to share the belief that friendship is more about sharing than about debt.

I should also say thank you to the hundreds of other people who contributed to this research, in a variety of different ways, even with short conversations that seemed at the time to be completely off-topic, but eventually have added-up to my understanding of Grano.

But for now, I should continue writing so I can start to pay off some of my debts…