Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at University College London.
This blog celebrates useful data on how people use new media or employing communications to support policy initiatives. But could research that is entirely qualitative contribute equally to these same goals? Our project, based at the Department of Anthropology, University College London and funded by the European Research Council, is aimed at exactly these goals.
But we don’t count things—so do we count? Our team consists of anthropologists. We have just begun eight simultaneous ethnographies, each of which will last 17 months. Two of our sites are in China, and we have one each in Brazil, India, Italy, Trinidad, Turkey and the UK. Every researcher, or participant, has taken up residence in a small town within that country. They will examine many forms of social media such as QQ, Google+ WhatApp and Facebook in contexts that range from religion and politics to parent-child relations. We will share certain foci across all regions, such as use by the elderly and impoverished, issues of privacy, diasporas, and the memorialisation of the dead. Each participant also has his or her own topic: One is looking at the world’s largest migration—rural workers to factory sites in China. Another is exploring how social media connects family and work in India, and a third participant is focused on the new middle class in Brazil.
The reason we don’t count things is that instead we hope to use ethnography—that is, living among people to gain unparalleled depth via countless stories and openness to entirely unexpected uses. It’s the sense of humanity and the poignancy of aspiration and frustration that means most to us. Much of the work is academic but we also want to create innovative forms of popular dissemination in local languages with strong visual elements. For example, my own volume, Tales from Facebook (Polity 2011), uses genres from short story writing to show the impact of social media on the lives of individuals.
At the same time, we feel such research can be just as valuable for practical and policy purposes. We were asked by a leading hospice near London to consider how they could improve their services to terminal cancer patients. Most of the hospice work is with people still living in their own homes so communications are a core issue. After a six-month investigation of both patients and staff we were able to identify many opportunities as well as bottlenecks. For example, we discovered that concerns about confidence had become a barrier to the exchange of medical information. The report and its twelve recommendations can be found here.
In the future we will look at other applied projects such as diabetes and e-education. Our project's blog is here, where you can see each of the contributors discussing their projects.