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Internet anthropology: lens to perceive society

Author  :  WU YONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-09-27

Internet anthropology is paying more attention to subcultures, such as comic and TV series fandoms. For example, cosplaying is popular among fans of comics, who like to dress upon their favorite characters.

With the rapid development of internet technology, the flow of people, materials and information has grown at a dizzying speed. Internet technology promotes the evolution of human society while reconstructing the original social development pattern. Some anthropologists have turned their research focus to humans and online culture, leading to the emergence of new subdisciplines of anthropology, such as the internet anthropology or network anthropology.

Beyond boundary

Because there is a huge gap between social authenticity in the real world and online, it might not be adequate to use traditional anthropological theories to interpret social relations in virtual space. This is why internet anthropology is conducting new theoretical exploration of the issue.

Ji Guangzhou, a research fellow from the Migrants and Ethnic Group Studies Center at Sun Yat-Sen University, said in an anthropological sense, the internet reflects public demand for social evolution. “Social reality” in the internet age is no longer confined to the physical world. The establishment of context happens both online and offline: the virtual world is becoming a new social reality. 

The emergence and development of internet anthropology offer a broader, newer disciplinary perspective to understand society, while providing a platform that integrates various anthropological resources, which promotes communication between anthropologists and the public.

Ji said that as the internet enters the age of “Web 2.0,” interactive digital forums have begun to flourish online. In these spaces, members of the community and users could lead the formation of content and significance, leading to more open communities. The sharing and publishing of information are no longer controlled by a single leader of a community, and online and offline interaction has become more and more frequent. In this period, some researchers no longer view the virtual and real world as two independent spaces. 

Social cultural changes

Compared with overseas studies, Chinese internet anthropology has set a research foundation while demonstrating new development trends.

According to the 40th Report on Statistics of the Internet Development in China issued by the China Internet Network Information Center, by the end of June, the number of Chinese netizens had reached 751 million, representing one-fifth of people online around the world. In addition, the popularization of the internet in China is around 54 percent, 4.6 percentage higher than the world average. Among Chinese netizens, more than 96 percent use smartphones to access to the internet, showing the dominance of mobile internet. With the constant upgrading of mobile internet platforms and technology, people’s daily lives and mobile internet are becoming increasingly integrated. 

Ji said that within the transformation from a geographical to an internet-based society, the expansion of internet technology has played a key role. The flow of population broke the basis on which traditional Chinese regional society functioned, while leading to big changes in the form and content of interpersonal communication. “Netizen” has become a more adequate expression of people’s identity today. In other words, on the one hand, individuals continue to work and live in their own organizations, families and broader neighborhood; on the other hand, they enter the internet community with an identity the same as or in conflict with their real world persona, and engage in the community extensively. Internet anthropology in China has undergone the exploration from “society” to “human.”

Liu Huaqin, a professor of sociology from Nankai University who began research on internet anthropology in 2003, said the development of the internet has affected individuals and society in positive and negative ways. Anthropologists should pay more attention to these issues, he said. In recent years, the research subjects within internet anthropology have been expanding. In addition to established social organizations, some “subcultural” groups such as “fun groups” and “comic groups” have drawn much attention. In terms of research methodology, new technologies such as big data upgrade the diversity of data and materials. Thus images, videos, words and emoticons have become important materials for research. 

As for the development of internet anthropology, Liu said the vitality of a discipline is determined by whether it can observe various emerging phenomena and give sufficient explanation. A discipline aimed at exploring uncovered culture, anthropology cannot ignore social changes and cultural phenomena brought by new information technologies. Internet anthropology should have a research focus closely related to the use of new technologies in people’s work and daily lives.





Editor: Yu Hui

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