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.

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Utilizing WeChat as a Research Instrument: The Interplay Amongst Censorship Policies, Self-Censorship Behaviors, and Anti-Censorship Tactics on the WeChat Platform

Ningjie Zhu, Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies, University of Bonn

During the past three years of the pandemic, there has been a decline in physical mobility, accompanied by a rise in political apprehension. The circumstances that unfolded in China during the pandemic have increasingly been characterized as an enigmatic entity, as observed by scholars and within popular discourse (Chen et al., 2023), thus spurring a growing need for alternative approaches to the study of China. On the other hand, ICT technologies have also ushered in new opportunities for exploring novel approaches and means to understand the Chinese reality, with social media representing one facet of this endeavor (McDonald, 2016; Wang and Liu, 2021). China offers a promising environment for engaging in online ethnographic research owing to its substantial population of « netizens”. Yet, in this context, several challenges and risks emerge, notably the pervasive internet censorship that complicates the qualitative data collection and analysis on social media, transforming it into a delicate hide-and-seek endeavor between the censors and the general public.

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Discovering common perception of Beijing 2022 Big Air Venue through photos from WeChat Channel & Weibo: A computer-assisted approach

Huishu Deng, Heritage, Culture and City Group, College of Humanities, EPFL

The photos taken by visitors to the site, defined as user-generated photos, have been used as a direct medium to study how the general public perceives and attaches to a particular place, as the action of taking a photo is triggered not only by the immediate environment, but also by many aspects of place attachment: attention, perceptions, preferences, memories, opinions, etc. (Tieskens, 2018). The anthropologist John Collier (1967) was the first to use photography as a tool to study human perception. Since then, handing out cameras to participants or self-directed photography (Dakin 2003; Markwell 2000) have become widely accepted techniques for assessing perceived/preferred public space. In recent years, the proliferation of photo-sharing on social media such as WeChat and Weibo has opened up the possibility of collecting large numbers of user-generated photos. It is also a way to engage a wider range of visitors over a longer period. Moreover, with the application of advanced computer vision technologies, such as automatic image classification and visual content recognition, it is possible to extract and analyze information from thousands of photos (Vu et al. 2018; Zhang et al. 2020).

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WeChat and the Chinese Queer Diaspora

Cai CHEN, Laboratory of Anthropology of Contemporary Worlds (LAMC), Université libre de Bruxelles

WeChat, functioning both as a digital media platform and an infrastructure (Plantin & de Seta, 2019), transcends national borders and has gained widespread usage among Chinese diasporas (Sun & Yu, 2022), including the queer[1] community. Chinese queer individuals, whether sojourners (e.g., international students) or settled residents in Western countries (e.g., immigrants or long-term residents), may have different migration motives and pathways, but they share a common intrinsic migration aspiration. That is, the yearning for sexual freedom (as discussed in Kam, 2020; Ponce & Chen, 2023 among others). Despite the relatively liberal and tolerant societal environment in Western countries, the Chinese queer diaspora in countries like France has been confronted not only with the marginalisation as a racial minority within predominantly white societies—like their heterosexual counterparts (see Chuang, 2021; Wang et al., 2023)—but also with the multi-layered discrimination as queer migrants of colour (see C. Chen, 2023b). As social norms and cultural values migrate with individuals, Chinese queer migrants find themselves in a dual predicament. On the one hand, they embrace the freedom to be “truly themselves” within the liberal French society, and on the other hand, many continue to conceal their homosexuality from their families in China or their immediate social networks within the Chinese diaspora community (C. Chen, 2023a). This dual minority status places Chinese queer migrants in a unique position, and WeChat plays a pivotal role in their “in-between” social lives.

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Digital ethnographer as a (perhaps) forgotten guest: the case of a teacher-student chat during Covid-19 lockdown in China

Michela Bonato, Università Ca’Foscari Venezia

Social media have been described as a space of possible democratization where the absence of vertical power distribution systems allows the sharing of information and knowledge (re)making (Bruns 2015). This perspective may appear rather utopian when contextualized in the digital ecology of Chinese social space, which is characterized by an intrusion of the party-state in terms of technology, legislation, and media production to achieve internet sovereignty on national branding as a geopolitical leverage (Budnitsky and Jia 2018). Therefore, any attempt at digital ethnography should consider that the Chinese digital setting is a space of compromise, resistance, censorship, and consequent self-censorship. Drawing from this premise, this case study investigates a teacher-student university chat in the WeChat domain, first classified as a learning space and gradually transformed into a normative space of control and distribution of best practices and rules during the pandemic wave that hit China in 2022.

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[:fr]L’émergence du « patrimoine musulman » en Chine. Quelques réflexions sur les enjeux d’une catégorie non formulée. Suivi de « Listes du patrimoine musulman en Chine au niveau national » (1961-2013)[:]

[:fr]Pascale Bugnon

  1. Introduction

Depuis 1961, la République populaire de Chine s’est engagée dans la production institutionnelle et juridique relative au patrimoine culturel en mettant en place le premier texte législatif de sauvegarde des monuments historiques, accompagné d’une liste de sites à valeur patrimoniale. Si ce premier inventaire prenait en compte essentiellement les sites liés à la révolution communiste et à l’archéologie, peu à peu, ce modèle a été étoffé par l’inclusion des sites historiques et culturels où la composante locale et « ethnique » [民族] entre en considération. Ce nouveau paradigme s’est traduit par un accroissement fort dans l’investissement culturel, revalorisant non seulement les éléments des différents passés impériaux mais aussi ce qui est appelé, dans les termes officiels, les « minorités ethniques » [少数民族]. Dans ce contexte patrimonial inédit, une série de monuments bâtis retiennent l’attention : ceux appartenant au « patrimoine musulman » [伊斯兰文化遗产]. Sans être institutionnellement reconnue sous cette appellation[1], ce patrimoine pose de nombreuses questions notamment sur les enjeux politiques, économiques et sociaux sous-jacents. A travers cet article, je propose quelques pistes de réflexion sur l’établissement de ces politiques culturelles qui conduisirent à l’émergence d’une catégorie non formulée. Continuer la lecture

The locally rooted transmission of Wu Family taijiquan: Seminar on « Internal skills and Mind Process »

Pierrick Porchet

This paper was first published in Chinese on the web platform shukanbao[i] as a transcript of a meeting held on September 6, 2020 in Wu Yuxiang Historical Residence Study Room located in Guangfu Township, Handan City, Hebei Province (河北省邯郸市永年县广府镇武禹襄故居书堂). During the meeting, Master Sun Jianguo (孙建国) – fifth-generation master of Wu Family taijiquan – and six of his disciples discussed their personal experience as taijiquan practitioners and more specifically as inheritors of the Wu Family taijiquan. Continuer la lecture

To Choose is To Renounce. How is cultural diversity taken into account in ICT design and implementation?

[:fr]Basile Zimmermann, Amalia Sabiescu, Yan Zhang

On July 30th, 2020, the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva co-organised a thematic workshop at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, titled “To Choose is To Renounce. How is cultural diversity taken into account in ICT design and implementation?”. The Institute has had a research agenda centered on the study of mundane technological tools in China for several years. This meeting aimed to explore possibilities to further develop existing activities with new collaborations and new directions. Continuer la lecture

Reflecting on Muslim Diversity in China

[:fr]Pascale Bugnon

The diversity of Islam that we observe today in China has its origins in a centuries-old relationship with Chinese society, which has taken many forms and touched upon various political, institutional, cultural or economic issues. While we tend to posit a global Islam that exists as an abstract ideal, we attempt at the same time to remain mindful of the regional variations that make it impossible to reduce the tradition to a monolith. The emergence of new approaches to the study of religion and / or ethnic minorities has challenged previous research methodologies. In the PRC especially, and for more than thirty years already, the presence of foreign Muslims, new conversions to Islam, ethnic blending, or the emergence of new policies to project Islamic cultural heritage, encompass a complex mosaic of accommodation, adjustment, preservation, and, at times, resistance, which reveal new meanings created by communities who attempt to reconcile perceived disparities between Islamic ideals and changing social realities. This Islamic revival is a new phenomenon that complexifies even further the study of Islam in China. In order to report on this, the Confucius Institute, with financial support from the Academic Society of the University of Geneva and the Swiss National Science Fondation, organised the colloquium Islam(s) in China. Reflecting on Muslim Diversity on Wednesday June 26 and Thursday June 27, 2019. Continuer la lecture

An ethnographic survey in Guangfu “Taiji Township“

Pierrick Porchet

This contribution is a short overview of Guangfu’s taijiquan 广府太极拳 practices and the political transformations happening in this town located in the North China region. A first version of this contribution was published in Chinese as an afterword in Sun Jianguo’s taijiquan manual (Sun 2018: 259-261). Master Sun 孙建国­ – a taijiquan master native of Guangfu ­– invited me to write down “what I saw and heard” 所见所闻 during my stay at this site. The original text focused on Master Sun’s views on taijiquan’s recent developments and the political processes framing the local development of Guangfu. Here, I will also share observations of another taijiquan master – Yang Zhenhe 杨振河 – and his group of disciples.
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