Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.6: Dave Paulson, "Livestream in the Context of Ethnographic Fieldwork: A New Media Literacy"

The recent mosque shootings in New Zealand broadcast live on the Internet have sparked widespread debate concerning online video streaming. While livestream technology has been widely available on major social networks for years, only recently have academics and the general public taken a more critical stance on the implications of these digital streaming practices. For scholars working in ethnography, and especially those situated in a rapidly changing Southeast Asia, media practices of livestreaming are becoming increasingly ubiquitous across different fieldsites. I argue that this changing media landscape requires a critical (re)examination of how such technologies affect the processes of research, as well as their various meanings within local communities and across sociocultural contexts.

My research is on the descendants of Champa in Vietnam and focuses on the multiple literacies associated with language endangerment. I investigate how traditional forms of reading and writing are reproduced and transformed in a changing world, and this requires a careful examination of emergent media practices and their role within the processes of cultural and linguistic revitalization. Among the Cham community, livestream is meaningful in a broad sense as it facilitates international connections among the global Cham community. An estimated two million people make up the Cham diaspora around the world—the majority of whom live outside of Champa’s ancestral homelands in modern-day Vietnam (Weber 2016). Livestream technology, however, helps to circulate events and experiences of the Cham community in ways that transcend geographic, socioeconomic, and political boundaries.

The first generation born in Vietnam after the American War are also considered the first “television generation” with widespread access to audiovisual mass communications (Nguyen-Thu 2018). This generation and the millennials that followed are responsible for the recent popularization of livestreaming in Vietnam, whose virtual ubiquity emerged during the course of my fieldwork from 2014–2018. During that time, I have witnessed, and in many cases, been a part of, hundreds of livestream videos among members of the Cham community. And as media studies scholars emphasize, it is imperative to be reflexive and examine our positionality when we “slip into the digital habits” of people in places where ethnographic research is conducted (Holton and Harmer 2017).

Livestream, at first, appears to be a digital banality among people in the Cham community as it is used to record mundane activities like eating food together or singing karaoke. Video streamers interact with audiences in real-time and will often directly address viewers as they provide reactions and use the comments section. This unique interactional space combines live television with participatory social media, and helps to connect people across temporal and spatial boundaries through the distinctive incorporation of oral, textual, visual, and semiotic (such as emojis) communicative practices. Following 24 months of ethnographic research in south-central Vietnam, I have identified a number of salient themes in the everyday uses of this technology and examined how such communicative contexts affect the processes and products of ethnographic fieldwork.

Livestream inspires rethinking the notions of access and accessibility with respect to research on the indigenous communities of Vietnam. Generations of anthropologists have described the complicated and sometimes disappointing experiences they have had obtaining government research permission and authorization to participate in the everyday lives of local communities (Bonnin 2010, Nakamura 1999, Taylor 2008). Nevertheless, communication technologies are changing the ways that people’s everyday experiences are digitally mediated and shared among different publics. During my fieldwork I was exposed to countless Cham traditions, rituals, and customs that would have otherwise remained unknown to me had it not been for livestream. Questions about the locations, purposes, and histories of these heritage practices were solicited by viewing audiences, and this new media platform effectively worked as a space for the socialization of others into knowledge about traditional Cham heritage. Rather than the top-down epistemological process of moving from the state to local communities, livestream has inverted the processes of knowledge production concerning Cham heritage where members of the community are becoming primary authors of visual texts about cultural and linguistic traditions.

As I developed fluency in this new media literacy, I learned to use digital spaces as productive resources for the topical content of my doctoral dissertation, and as a medium for disseminating research findings. Attending research conferences over the last two years I have livestreamed my paper presentations, and this new-media approach has circulated my work with more people than the total number of attendees each of these events (combined). Livestream, in this way, has the potential to assist anthropologists fulfill our professional obligations to disseminate research information, especially among the communities who participate in ethnographic studies, as well as others without the resources to participate in the privileged spaces of academic conferences.

In addition to generating connections among a global diaspora, livestream has also served as a space for the Cham community in dealing with major events like the loss of an important community leader. The recent funeral of Po Dharma (1945–2019), who was the most beloved and prolific Cham researcher of the last half century, was livestreamed and viewed over 10,000 times in the span of thirty-six hours. The collective viewing of this event became a space for people to share fond memories of Po Dharma, and express their love and gratitude for someone who had played an invaluable role in the understanding of Cham civilization. In this sociocultural context, new media in Vietnam becomes a medium for the descendants of Champa to collectively reflect on the past while, simultaneously, looking towards the future of heritage, cultural tradition, language, and the spiritual worlds that embody their civilization. Livestream in the context of ethnographic fieldwork helps to generate critical thinking about new media literacies as they not only inform approaches to research, but also have an intimate place in the everyday lives of people in contemporary Southeast Asia. I maintain that livestream, in particular, deserves a more critical examination as a distinct social practice in the contexts of ethnography and other scholarship located in this changing region of the world.

Bibliography

Bonnin, C. (2010). “Navigating fieldwork politics, practicalities and ethics in the upland borderlands of northern Vietnam.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 51(2), 179-192.

Holton M, Harmer N. (2019) “‘You don’t want to peer over people’s shoulders, it feels too rude!’ The moral geographies of using participants’ personal smartphones in research.” Area, 51:134–141.

Nakamura, R. (1999) “Cham in Vietnam: Dynamics of Ethnicity,” PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

Nguyen-Thu, G. (2018). Television in Post-reform Vietnam: Nation, Media, Market. Routledge.

Taylor, P. (2011). Minorities at large: New approaches to minority ethnicity in Vietnam. University of California Press.

Dave Paulson (dave.paulson@temple.edu) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Temple University. His doctoral research examines multiple literacies in the context of language endangerment among the Cham community in Vietnam. Dave has spent over two years conducting ethnographic fieldwork abroad, and has been supported at different stages by the Temple University Global Studies Program, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the U.S. Fulbright Fellowship Program in Vietnam, and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Further information about Dave’s work, and the academic scholarship of others working in Cham Studies, can be found at: Chamstudies.net.

robert shepherdComment