WeChat Ethnography: New Practices and Limits of an Emerging Research Method

Pascale Bugnon

Yali Chen

Collecting online data through social media has become a widely used methodology in ethnographic research in the past decade. Scholars have addressed both the prospects and drawbacks, limitations and moral concerns in conducting online research (Côté, 2013; Fiesler & Proferes, 2018, among others). Compared to “traditional” ethnography, online ethnography offers greater flexibility in terms of time and the variety of information that can be obtained. Additionally, it ensures that researchers are constantly engaged and interactive during their fieldwork. In fact, social media has become an ethnographic field in its own right, where scholars spend significant time gathering, observing, engaging and interacting with diverse actors (Svensson, 2017). As a result, the notion of “being in the field” has completely been transformed. However, researchers in online ethnography face increased complexity and uncertainty with regards to confidentiality, anonymity, informed consent, privacy, and the risk of harm. In particular, research ethics remain a significant challenge, as no official guidelines have been established for conducting online ethnography. Since we cannot just focus on Western social media platforms, we have to pay attention to other cultural contexts and social media platforms. It is obvious that the social, cultural and political contexts affect the ethical issues.

In the context of China, WeChat is now the most popular social media platform. With its widespread use in China and beyond, WeChat has also been utilized by researchers to conduct fieldwork across a range of topics and disciplines. WeChat ethnography has become a new research method, particularly visible during the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions for scholars’ fieldwork. Indeed, as conditions in the field have become more precarious, the practice of remote ethnography using digital technologies has become increasingly important and has become an indispensable part of the toolbox for China scholars. However, well before the pandemic’s restrictions, some scholars already began to look at online practices in general and WeChat in particular, exploring how the Internet is transforming Chinese religious practices (Palmer, 2004; Xu and Campbell, 2018; Harris and Isa, 2019; Travagnin, 2020), economics (Yu, 2017; Loubere, 2017), health (Huang, 2017), along with consumerism and commercial exchanges (Woronov, 2016; Wang and Sandner, 2019). As social networks continue to grow, others have sought to study the maintenance of social interactions (Xie, 2008; Meng, 2020), the ability to create new spaces for community building (Huang, 2016; Tu, 2016), and transnationalism (Chen and Chang, 2020; Sun and Yu, 2022).

Although social media and remote ethnography offer unparalleled access to a vast pool of information that might otherwise remain beyond the reach of a non-insider such as the researcher, conducting fieldwork from afar is tainted by the challenges posed to participant confidentiality, anonymity, informant consent and more generally, the “do no harm” principle by which researchers abide. While these considerations are not new, they take on a new dimension in the virtual sphere. Since the 2020s, several workshops have been organised looking at methodological and ethical issues about China, like “Conducting China-related research in the context of COVID-19” (2022)[1], “China just a click away: practising social sciences from afar” (2022)[2], or “Remote Ethnography of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (REMOTE XUAR)” (2023)[3].

These debates and scholarly concerns point to the need to initiate a discussion on the methodological and ethical issues raised by this increasing importance of online ethnography in social sciences, especially in the case of China (Helland, 2005; Carlson and Duan, 2010, Stockmann, 2010).

WeChat Ethnography Workshop (2022-2023)

In this context, we have organised an international workshop on “WeChat Ethnography: New practices and Limits of an Emerging Research Methods” in two sessions on  October 7th 2022 and February 9th and 10th 2023. The aim of this workshop is to exchange, share and reflect with other researchers from different disciplines on the means and results of ethnographic practices via WeChat. The interest of this workshop lies not only in the exchange of different experiences presented by advanced researchers and young researchers, but also in bringing together researchers who study and use WeChat as fieldwork in different research topics such as human mobilities and migration, gender issues, ritual practices and religions, ecological issues, censorship and netizens communities in different contexts, etc. Several studies privilege data collection, some discuss digital production through research conducted on WeChat, many others deal more specifically with methodology and cultural transformations and modalities of scientific practice in social sciences and anthropology, as well as questions about the methodological limits of WeChat and ethical issues.

Among the 22 presentations, certain themes were addressed by several researchers, which allowed us to multiply the case studies and empirical examples.

  1. Migration

Xun Zhou‘s presentation on WeChat ecology and Chinese international students in Melbourne seeks to understand how the WeChat ecosystem continues to play a significant role in the lives of these young user groups. It questions why Chinese students in Melbourne continue to use WeChat despite its strict censorship regime and all the other social media platforms available. The research of Natalia Ryzhova and Iulia Koreshkova introduces the concept of migration infrastructure and how WeChat plays a crucial role by offering a digital space of trade in the mobility of goods during COVID. The presentation analyses the commodities delivery system as an “interconnected technological structure” and reveals how during COVID restrictions “system builders” became indissociable to digital infrastructure. Using WeChat ethnography, the researchers obtained the unique date for triangulating findings drawn about closed groups or sensitive topics. The access of date may also raise the question of date comparability. The two researchers also point out that as ethnographers, they become almost equal participants in WeChat groups, which gives rise to numerous ethical dilemmas. In addition, Yali Chen explains how she firstly employed WeChat as a tool for recruiting participants in order to collect their life stories in her research about gender and Chinese migration women in Switzerland. But then she conducted online observation of her participants’ WeChat moments by combining physical interviews with them. Her presentation discusses how the practice of the mixed fieldwork method of face-to-face interviews and online observations makes ethnography legitimized within research in social science. This presentation also opens up a reflection on the ethical issue of online ethnography, particularly with regard to the observations of moments on WeChat and the use of scientific data drawn from these online observations.

  • Gender Issues

Jiannan Shi presents his ethnography in WeChat digital spaces and identifies how gay men in Shanghai paradoxically and tactically created queer spaces. He defends that the social and digital layer of quanzi empowers queer sociality, but problematizes gay men’s public engagement and visibility in contemporary China. In the ethnographic study of Cai Chen about the interrelationship between migration and sexuality amongst Chinese gay students in France, he finds out that WeChat enables Chinese queer diaspora to construct an Internet-based community across borders, embed transnational identity beyond geographic distance and express queerness in online and offline worlds. He also presents some methodological reflections on benefits and challenges of using WeChat as a digital tool to research Chinese queer diaspora. He argues that researchers should constantly navigate between physical and virtual social worlds to critically account for the ongoing, increasingly digitally mediated, social interactions and practices amongst the Chinese queer diaspora.

Read Cai Chen’s contribution: « WeChat and the Chinese Queer Diaspora »

  • Methods

Zhenwei Wang shares her research experience of observation of WeChat moments and defines WeChat Moments as pieces of a self-reported interactive dairy. She also discusses the (dis)advantages as well as the difficulties of doing WeChat ethnography. The ethical issues of online observation in terms of covert/overt observation, anonymization, and reciprocity in research relationships have been highlighted in her presentation. In her research about the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Mengke Zhang did a number of interviews through WeChat, including video, voice, and text interviews, as well as informal chats. She presents the problems she encountered in terms of how to conduct effective virtual interviews, how to find useful informants, and how to communicate more deeply. Through her research, she confirms that WeChat is an infrastructure, which penetrates into people’s everyday life, and is unavoidable if we want to do research in/related to China. Jie Shu presents her research about different space modalities of Chinese academies in terms of the relationship with modern society. She explains how she uses WeChat to collect data at distance during the pandemic period and her experience in analysing the results. She also brought some reflections on the methodology of WeChat ethnography.

  • Ethics

Michela Bonato presents her research on communication between teachers and university students on WeChat during the pandemic. She discusses the role of digital ethnographers in online participant observation and highlights the importance of considering the Chinese digital world as a space of compromise, resistance, censorship and consequently, self-censorship. Her research illuminates distinctive aspects of power dynamics within digital communities and individuals’ attempts to exert agency beyond the digital realm.

Read Michela Bonato’s contribution: « Digital ethnographer as a (perhaps) forgotten guest: the case of a teacher-student chat during Covid-19 lockdown in China »

Tami Blumenfield shares her experience about doing fieldwork through WeChat during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her virtual fieldwork involved both observing discussions and participating in conversations. She also discusses how to navigate ethical obstacles within social media fieldwork, how to proceed carefully given the highly sensitive nature of some situations, and how to theorize these situations within the broader context of an increasingly intense state-individual relationship. In the presentation of Mette Thunø and Yiwen Wang, the reconfiguration of territorial relations between Chinese overseas and their homeland by using WheChat has been highlighted once more. They also discuss methodological constraints due to ethical aspects of privacy when conducting WeChat ethnography related to semi-official WeChat groups with sensitive data. Ningjie Zhu discusses how users mobilise different means to circumvent censorship by using WeChat to talk about sensitive international or domestic topics. He shares his research using interviews with scholars who focus on the study of China and have experience using WeChat as a research site to discuss the hurdles and difficulties of social media ethnography under the platform’s censorship. He attempts to sort out feasible solutions to balance the situation the Chinese scholars face.

Read Ningjie Zhu’s contribution: « Utilizing WeChat as a Research Instrument: The Interplay Amongst Censorship Policies, Self-Censorship Behaviors, and Anti-Censorship Tactics on the WeChat Platform« 

  • Technicality

In her presentation “WeChat Ethnography: From Hype to Reality Check Haiqing”, Haiqing Yu makes reflections on the technological, cultural, and political affordances and limitations of WeChat ethnography in comparison with Twitter and other Western social media based digital ethnography. Her presentation is based on her ethnographic experience of and through WeChat in different projects over ten years. Her discussion is put in the context of Western scrutiny and distrust of made-in-China platforms for their surveillance and censorship practices. She underlines the practicality and necessity of the platform as an ethnographical site and tool for qualitative research, typical methods of data collection and analysis, as well as the hurdles and shortcomings in conducting WeChat digital ethnography. Kun Han explores the involvement of ethnographers in online fieldwork and the feasibility of WeChat ethnography for research purposes. As a WeChat ethnographer, he assumes a role within the team and engages with interviewees in WeChat groups to establish trust and circumvent sensitive queries pertaining to the ethnographer’s role as an “invisible” participant observer in online fieldwork. Huishu Deng presents her research on user-generated content in WeChat Channel by analysing Beijing 2022 Big Air Venue through publicly posted photos, short videos, and text comments with the keywords: Shougang, Big Air Venue, and Park from this platform.

Read Huishu Deng’s contributionn: « Discovering common perception of Beijing 2022 Big Air Venue through photos from WeChat Channel & Weibo: A computer-assisted approach »

Xiaoxin Wang also presents WeChat as a virtual fieldwork site in her research on operatic music videos. She points out that the amounts of likes, favorites, and forward of these videos uploaded on WeChat platform play a decisive role in WeChat’s algorithm. Haina Jin presents her study on machine translation (MT) in WeChat through online ethnography. She explains the reasons why users use MT in WeChat, how they use MT in Wechat, their assessment of MT in WeChat, along with their expectations of MT in Wechat future.

  •  Life Space and Family

As anthropologist, Xudong Zhao presents his reflections on cultural transformation and defends that a new life space of decentralization is coming up after the popularity of WeChat and it is led to fragments of time and space because of the motion interconnection in our life space. WeChat ethnography is unavoidable in research and changes the normal way of knowledge production. Min Zhang presents her WeChat ethnography by exploring how “migrant grandparents” who provide care for adult children and grandchildren in Shenzhen, use WeChat to adapt to the unfamiliar circumstances in an unfamiliar city and to maintain connection to the people in the community of origin. Ting He explains how he takes WeChat ethnography as a window to interrogate the transformation of Chinese society. He examines changing modes of long-distance, parents-children intimacy along with the emergence of WeChat.

  • Ethnically Centered

Based on her data collected from Muslim minorities, particularly in south-eastern China, Pascale Bugnon questions the analysis and use of her data collected online during her fieldwork, which is considered sensitive and confidential. Aurore Dumont presents her research about the evolution of nomadism and the ritual practices of the Mongol and Tungus minority groups living in Northeast China by using Wechat to collect data. She questions how WeChat platform, as an online sharing tool and an instrument of control, may be used as a digital foundation to conduct remote research on nomadic and ritual practices. She addresses the different ethical and methodological issues related to research in the peripheral and ethnic areas of the People’s Republic of China.

Conclusion

Our workshop has covered a wide range of research topics in social sciences, trying to operationalise the use of WeChat ethnography through several questions such as: May we use or reproduce a private chat conversation to support an academic argument? How to deal with pseudonyms and identity markers to protect the participants? Whose permission should we seek for the publication of an image publicly shared online? How to credit users for their creations while respecting their privacy? How to deal with the respondents’ intimacy? Although WeChat ethnography can have different meanings depending on the author, we all concluded that we need to reflect more on the limits and the challenges of WeChat ethnography. Firstly, we must consider that these questions may manifest in different ways depending on the research theme and the targeted data for the research. This is also why we will not be able, for the moment, to define unique criteria concerning the question of research ethics in WeChat ethnography. Secondly, we need to reframe old methodological and ethical issues like the questions of anonymity and confidentiality, the boundaries between private and public, and informed consent. While these considerations are not new, especially in the social sciences, WeChat ethnography, as well as any practice of remote ethnography, ‘creates new types of daily routines, ethnographic practices, and relationships with informants’ (Postill & Pink 2012; Pink et al. 2016). In addition, scholars leave many digital footprints on the internet and social media, and the benefits and possible dangers in an authoritarian society such as China should be questioned. Therefore, during the workshop, all participants called for explicit reflexivity and for more systematic discussions on how digital technologies are changing research practices in and about China (Svensson, 2017).

Although WeChat is a promising platform, WeChat ethnography may also be critical. As we couldn’t cover all the topics within the two workshops, we strongly suggest deeper research on other themes such as communication and media studies, digital studies, development studies, or economics to add complexity and enrich the operationalization aspect of this methodology. Computer sciences and technical issues of this platform, in particular, would be an interesting perspective as we are all dealing with different versions, sometimes the Chinese one, Weixin, and sometimes the global one, WeChat. These differences, which may seem trivial, in fact, produce consequential differences in the data produced and therefore in the analysis proposed. WeChat ethnography remains ethically challenging and needs constant reconsideration.

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[1] https://www.admscentre.org.au/conducting-china-related-research-in-the-context-of-covid-19/.

[2] http://www.inalco.fr/appel-communication/chine-portee-clics-pratique-sciences-sociales-distance.  

[3] https://www.remote-xuar.com/.


This contribution has been reviewed by Steve Barela

Pascale Bugnon et Yali Chen « WeChat Ethnography: New Practices and Limits of an Emerging Research Method ». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Lien permanent: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=1542, consulté le 04/13/2024.