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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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

Green public spaces: unique satisfiers for multiple human needs in the cities of South and Southeast Asia

[:fr]Marlyne Sahakian

The significance of green public spaces towards sustainability is well-documented in relation to social inclusiveness, human health and biodiversity[1], yet the relation to human wellbeing is less understood. The project Green Public Spaces in the Cities of South and Southeast Asia (GRESPA) sought to uncover 1) how green public spaces satisfy multiple human needs in different contexts and cultures, 2) how people use and practice green public spaces in everyday life in relation to wellbeing, and 3) the role of different stakeholders in promoting more inclusive and environmentally-sound public spaces today and in the future.

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Culture, Genre et Globalisation


Les 11 et 12 octobre 2018, l’Institut Confucius de l’Université de Genève a eu le plaisir d’accueillir un atelier d’études genre intitulé « Culture, Genre et Globalisation ». Cet évènement a réuni des spécialistes internationaux provenant de Suisse, de France, de Chine, d’Autriche, d’Irlande et de Corée du Sud, issus de différentes disciplines comme la sociologie, l’histoire, les sciences de la communication, la sociologie de la culture et bien sûr, des études genre. Continuer la lecture

From technocracy to citizen science: The nature of expertise and the place of experts in our societies

[:fr]Ozan Sahin

This article reports on the 11th annual meeting organised by researchers working in the field of Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEESHOP11). The workshop was hosted by the Confucius Institute of University of Geneva and was held on 20-21 May 2017 and continues a series that has included meetings in Cardiff University (UK), University of California (US), Arizona State University (US) and University of Waterloo (CAN). During the workshop, which was held in the Confucius Institute’s dazzling 19th century villa Rive-Belle, we hosted a total of 19 researchers from social science, humanities and law faculties around the world. This article is a brief report of this event and how it is related to Chinese studies and the works of Confucius Institute. Continuer la lecture

L’interprétation des arts martiaux chinois

[:fr]Pierrick Porchet

Du 4 au 6 novembre 2016, l’Institut Confucius de l’Université de Genève a organisé une série d’activités autour des arts martiaux chinois que l’on désigne communément, en République populaire de Chine, par le terme générique wushu 武术. Une conférence publique a été organisée, et celle-ci a été suivie d’un stage en la présence d’un maître de bajiquan. Continuer la lecture