Mosaic ethnography: Puzzling lives together between online and offline China

Tuesday, 23 May 2023, 3:30pm (HKT) at CVA 1022 and on Zoom (mixed mode)

Qualitative research presupposes researchers are able to get intensive as well as extensive access to their fieldwork site and participants, yet the reality tends to be very different. Most academic ethnographers engage in exactly one major bout of fieldwork, namely the lengthy period of fieldwork that is part of their PhD studies. During this time, ethnographers typically gather vast amounts of data on a wide range of topics far beyond what can be used in a thesis and that serve as a reservoir of data from which to draw while getting established as an academic. Ethnography takes time and presence, yet (young) academics cannot spare countless months engaging with a local community in a proverbial village, nor are academic peers (or funding agencies) particularly interested in additional narrative data from qualitative fieldwork. The continuing demands of academic employment, family life, and other social commitments preclude in most cases the repetition of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork. 

Through the lens of the author’s own research into the digital practices of Chinese people, this chapter will argue that ethnographers are often forced to piece together a mosaic or bricolage (Derrida, 1978) of data points from their original fieldwork, short holiday visits, online contacts, media reports, targeted interviews or even data gathered by their students to approach (theoretical) topics of interest. The validity of the resulting studies rests on the agreements and linkages established in rhizomatic fashion (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) between widely divergent sources of data – in time, place, researcher, and original research agenda, as well as on the researcher’s dialogic engagement with participants (Bakhtin, 2013; Emerson, 1996) and the intensely (self-)reflexive process of working through the data during write-up.

DAVID KURT HEROLD obtained both his Bachelor and his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, UK. He has lived and taught at universities in China and Hong Kong since 2000. He has published widely on the Chinese Internet and on crossovers between online and offline life. He is currently employed by the Xi’an Jiaotong – Liverpool University in Suzhou, China.

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Organised by Centre for Media and Communication Research, School of Communication