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‘We-media’ a step forward in anthropology studies

Author  :  Duan Danjie     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-11-01

With the large-scale rise of “We-media,” anthropology as a discipline that focuses on culture and daily life should examine the role of We-media in shaping the age.

In every era, knowledge is created by different means. “We-media,” known to Western audiences as “user-generated content,” is creating new phenomena for anthropologists and ethnographers to study.

On Oct. 15 and 16, the third 21st Century Anthropology Forum was held in Beijing. Scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Peking University, Zhejiang University, China Academy of Art and 30 other institutions discussed these issues under the theme “WeChat ethnography: The We-media era of knowledge production and cultural practice.”

Cognitive reform

Popularization of We-media has changed the temporal and spatial characteristics of cultural products. Ethnography reshaped the development trajectory of anthropology in the form of We-media dissemination.

Zhao Xudong, dean of the Institute of Anthropology at Renmin University of China, said that anthropology, a discipline that focuses on culture and daily life, should examine the role of We-media in shaping the age. In future anthropological practice, ethnographic experiences will become more developed, and these experiences will become shared knowledge, inspiring researchers to reexamine their studies from a wider context with continuous feedback.

Fang Lili, dean of the Institute of Art Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Art, argues that in the Internet age, anthropology should emphasize cultural creativity. With the rapid development of society, anthropology is moving from research on physical human spaces to the study of virtual space, and from the study of social organizations and symbolic systems to studies of the human spirit, personality and behavior. “We are facing the fourth industrial revolution. Technological integration and interaction between several major fields, such as physics, biology and computer sciences, indicate that this revolution and the previous industrial revolution are essentially different, which will inevitably lead to an adjustment of human cognitive ability. Future society will be more humanities based, relative to the IT-centered community that came before,” Fang said.

Diverse expression

In anthropology, ethnography is a relatively broad concept. It explores the lives of cultures alien to the scholars’s own after gradual investigation based on fieldwork. Zhao said that traditional ethnography emphasizes observation on the spot, while research on today’s We-media outlets like WeChat represents another form of ethnography. This kind of ethnography tends to be fragmented in general: It is a momentary glimpse rather than a long-term field observation, a process of experience rather than a structural norm.

Zhu Xiaoyang, a professor of sociology at Peking University, said that for traditional ethnography, field surveys aim to obtain the primary materials of ethnography, and now We-media can complete this anthropological task. Through online interaction and the participation of multiple parties, ethnographic material can obviously contain more diverse voices. This is caused by the publicity, promptness and interactivity of networks. In addition, Zhu pointed out that the ethnographer is still central to knowledge production. “Ethnographic stories need to rely on anthropologists’ narration to maintain diversity and openness,” Zhu said.

Field everywhere

With the large-scale rise of cyber society, cyberspace, though essentially a conceptual space, demonstrates a strong sense of reality. Liu Shaojie, dean of the Center for Sociological Theory and Methodology at Renmin University of China, pointed out that cyberspace is formed by information exchanges and discourse communication through WeChat, Weibo and other We-media.

Liu said it is not a virtual space separated from reality, but a real world full of details about people’s daily lives expressed via new media tools. In addition to its practical features, cyberspace has also brought about flexible and diverse new groups of people, creating new dimensions of human society.

Liu Zheng’ai, a research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at CASS, said that in the Internet age, human existence has undergone fundamental changes, and anthropology has to think about the changed situation. Nowadays, the anthropological field is almost everywhere. The change of field investigations from specific geographical spaces to cyberspace is not a simple transfer, but mutual transformation and shuffling between cyberspace, real space and geographical space. She suggested that the means of knowledge production in the We-media age has also changed. Although there has been innovation in the model of communication between researchers and their research objects, participation in anthropological observation is still indispensable,” she said.

Editor: Yu Hui

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