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WeChat offers research fields for ethnography

Author  :  PAN YUEFEI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-06-04

We are in an era of social and cultural transformation. The rapid development of information technology has multiplied the ways in which people connect, often based on instantaneous sharing that transcends space and time. With the rapid development of “we-media,” WeChat offers a platform on which people perform and express themselves, forming a new form of cultural writing. Scholars consider these fieldwork texts and observation records of internet-based space or the WeChat community as WeChat ethnography.

Zhao Xudong, a professor from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China, said that based on the social context, for anthropological reasons, it is necessary to focus on the influence of current platforms, such as WeChat. Through these platforms, scholars can examine the lives of Chinese people and the society as a whole. When more people use WeChat to present, analyze, understand and express themselves, a social force is gradually brewing. We especially need to be aware of the generative logic of this force and its impact on society and culture. At the same time, it is necessary to notice that some of the fields of anthropology have also begun to change from being offline to online, and have been transformed into voice and video chat. Though the offline fields are still firmly established, we cannot ignore the fieldwork opportunities and possibilities provided by WeChat, Zhao said. 

Tang Kuiyu, a professor from the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law of Harbin Institute of Technology, said WeChat ethnography provides a good medium for recording social memory, or life history, for the study of online social structures and virtual social life. It brings together discourse interactions, text exchanges, and field journals among friends, strangers and acquaintances, updating and supplementing the fieldwork methods in traditional social and cultural anthropology. Also, the emergence of WeChat ethnography as an anthropological fieldwork method has added a narrative dimension based on human subjective memory apart from individual and social perspectives.

Tang added that the most notable areas worthy of investigation include the social anthropological research objects, significance, concept interpretation and methodology of WeChat ethnography, and its relationship with the quality of social development. The “we-fields” phenomenon, in the view of anthropologists, is first-hand material of the original knowledge production and the materialization system of daily life. 

Some scholars believe that with the development of we-society and we-life, research on WeChat ethnography will extend to more comprehensive, deeper, and more refined self-media networks. WeChat ethnographies of overseas communities, public communities and private communities will all enter the research field of we-world daily life.

Zhang Jijiao, a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the WeChat ethnography generally deals with dispersive case studies. He said that it is necessary now to bring together these case studies. On the surface, WeChat provides a new method of communication, but in fact it also provides a new social structure and social relations. More research emphasis should be laid on the formation of this new social structure. 

Tang pointed out that in the coming period, the development of WeChat ethnography will depend not only on the promotion of anthropologists at home and abroad within the discipline, but also on the external promotion characterized by extensive communication and cross-convergence of sociology, communications, psychology, history, literature and culture. At the same time, it also depends on the comparative study of current WeChat ethnographic research and the traditional realistic human ethnography as well as historical human ethnography. The study of WeChat ethnography in the future should also look at the overall structure and fine lifestyle of we-society and we-culture. In this way, we can better understand and grasp the nature and evolution of we-society.

Zhao said that active participation of academics is indispensable to the promotion of WeChat ethnographic research. At present, more and more scholars are aware of the importance of we-media for social science research, and there has emerged a crossdisciplinary perspective. At the same time, a large number of field surveys based on we-media are also needed to provide rich and valuable information for WeChat ethnographic research. 

In addition, scholars can collaborate with internet companies to learn more comprehensive knowledge and information about we-media applications. Of course, under the current background of strong emphasis on cybersecurity, research is also inseparable from government support. In short, we look forward to joining forces in the anthropological study of WeChat ethnography and we-media, so that disciplines, academics, and knowledge can better respond to social life and cultural transformation in the new era, Zhao said.


(Edited and translated by SUI JINGJING)









Editor: Yu Hui

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