Xiakou: A Case Study in Digital Ethnography

  1. 1. John Flower

    Sidwell School, Washington, D.C

  2. 2. Pamela Leonard

    Independent Scholar

  3. 3. Worthy N. Martin

    Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) - University of Virginia

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Xiakou: A Case Study in
Digital Ethnography
Flower, John
Sidwell School, Washington, D.C
Leonard, Pamela
Independent Scholar
Martin, Worthy
Institute for Advanced Technology in the
Humanities, University of Virginia
This story begins in a small Sichuan village over
fifteen years ago as a historian (John Flower)
and an anthropologist (Pamela Leonard) began
their study of the cultural landscape of a
contemporary Chinese village. The story evolves
as they strive to pioneer
digital ethnography
and later, in collaboration with The Institute
for Advanced Technology in the Humanities
(IATH), build interactive presentation of
focused, long-term fieldwork research results
in the form of an online monograph, media
archive, and information repository, entitled
Moral Landscape in a Sichuan Mountain
Village: A Digital Ethnography of Place
The original and ongoing field study explores the
histories, beliefs, livelihoods, and local identities
in Xiakou Village, located in the mountains
of Ya'an County, in western Sichuan Province
of the People's Republic of China. The goal
of the project is to understand Xiakou Village
as an evolving
cultural landscape
, defined as
the interwoven field of physical environment,
historical memory, and moral agency, in which
particular places gather a people’s sense of
themselves and serve as sources of belonging
and identity. This understanding attempts to
establish a basis to consider questions such as:
What does it mean to belong in a place? How
do people understand who they are in terms
of where they live? What is the relationship
between history and place? How do memory
and landscape inform the ways in which people
define their communities?
The ethnography uses the new possibilities of
digital technology to create interleaving essays,
primary source multimedia artifacts, and GIS
maps. The purpose of this digital form is
to render more transparent the relationship
between source and interpretation, to open
up non-linear narrative paths through the
ethnography, and therefore to more vividly
reveal the interconnections among different
dimensions of village life that are the core
content of the project. Indeed, we revisit
the village study model to highlight the
overlapping fields of interaction that link the
village to broader regional, national, and even
transnational identities.
Another fundamental aim of the project is to
reframe modern Chinese history away from
the big narrative of the nation and toward
local stories of the grassroots. How do the
villagers of Xiakou understand their history?
What memories and meanings from the past
still animate their place, and how are they
remembered and explained?
Moral Landscape in a Sichuan Mountain
is multidisciplinary, using the
perspectives of history, anthropology,
economics, folklore, and religion to try to
understand the interconnected facets of life
expressed in the village landscape. The common
thread running through the ethnography is the
idea that the landscape holds moral values.
When people in Xiakou talked about place and
history they were talking about what was good
and bad, right and wrong.
We understand digital ethnography to be an
online interactive monograph with integrated
archive and database. This digital format
of the ethnography evokes an understanding
of place through interactive essays that
localize the broad trends of China's modern
history in the lived experiences of Xiakou's
villagers. The interactive essays are the project’s
main narrative tissue, interconnected by a
searchable archive of digital artifacts. These
artifacts consist of multimedia information—
photographs, scanned documents, audio and
video recordings, GIS maps—contextualized
in a thick setting of related metadata, and
shared across essays. The project’s digital
format is essential for realizing the rich
potential of the ethnographic and historical
content of the research: a central database

and interconnected xml content enable the
transparency, connectivity, and interactivity
that comprise the key innovative characteristics
of this form of narrative. Transparency means
that the ethnography will reveal not simply
"what we know" but also "how we know it," by
providing the reader access to primary source
materials in the database. The architecture
of the interactive interface will also use
the database to encourage connections across
thematic categories, making it possible for the
reader to explore alternatives to a set, linear
2. Ways of belonging: new village
studies and mapping the cultural
What is a village in China? A wide range
of scholarship has addressed this central
question, from the perspectives of regional
systems analysis (Skinner 1964) to cultural
landscape studies (Knapp 1992, Feuchtwang
1997). Our approach tries to give priority to
villagers' conscious representations, analyses,
and understandings of their relationship to
"their place". The resulting geographical scope
goes beyond the village itself to encompass the
communities along the North Road and, under
some conditions, extends to include the broader
eight county Ya’an region.
Moral Landscape in a Sichuan Mountain
we advocate a return to the ethnographic
tradition of village studies, but using new
tools of the digital humanities that emphasize
the ways in which place is not simply a
fixed and unchanging location, but rather a
nexus of evolving relationships and historical
connections to other places. Thus, one of
our goals is to highlight the multiple,
overlapping fields of interaction that link the
village to broader regional, national, and even
transnational identities.
We see our project as complementary to the
much larger and comprehensive initiatives
that aim to create complete datasets, such as
the China historical GIS project (Bol 2006).
In contrast, our project does not attempt
to be comprehensive, but rather celebrates
the particularity of place. We hope that our
qualitative interpretation of landscape will
provide the kind of unique local portrait of place
from which comprehensive projects can create a
more vivid broad tableau of China as whole.
3. Beyond Revolution: an
inductive approach to local
Another fundamental goal of our project’s
landscape approach is to reframe modern
Chinese history away from the master narrative
of the nation and toward local stories of
the grassroots (Duara, Prazniak). How do the
villagers of Xiakou understand their history?
What memories and meanings from the past
still animate their place, and how are they
remembered and explained? How does that local
understanding of history reiterate or differ from
historical narratives based on the nation-state,
China, as subject? While there are excellent
village-based histories (e.g. Chan, Madsen,
Unger 1992; Selden, Friedman, Pickowicz 1991)
that focus on the local impact of national events,
particularly the Chinese revolution, in
Landscape in a Sichuan Mountain Village
we try to adopt a more localized, inductive
approach. The historical scope of our project
thus largely corresponds to the way villagers
mark the turning points in their past, based on
their personal experiences in local places and
marking events that fall within their horizon of
Methodologically, we understand that the essays
and artifacts represent
our synthesis
of a
dialogue with local villagers and with local
historical source-materials on the topic of social
and environmental change. In confronting the
subjective reality of fieldwork and analysis,
anthropologists have emphasized the need to
be transparent in presenting the politics of
the research encounter. We believe digital
technology allows us to go further in meeting
this aim.
4. History, environment, and
agency in the moral landscape
In trying to understand the significance of the
environmental changes that have taken place
in this valley, we frame issues of environment
and economic development within local cultural
practices and historical knowledge. How do local
people draw on their historical understanding
of place in adapting to economic development

policies introduced from outside? How do those
development policies in turn influence their
livelihoods, and change their understanding of
the landscape?
5. Structure, content, and logic of
the digital ethnography
The structure of the ethnography’s online
monograph comprises eight chapters: History,
Landscape, Belief, Folklife, Authority, Work,
Gazetteer, and Biography. Chapters are not
airtight divisions, but rather groupings that
highlight the dominant themes of the essays
within them. There are three main types
of content within this chapter structure:
essays, interactive maps
, and
. Essays
are the basic interpretive building blocks of
the ethnography and are accessed through
the chapters. The interactive maps under
the Gazetteer chapter will offer spatial
representations of sites in the cultural
landscape, dynamically presented through GIS
layers, sorted by kind and historical period.
Both the maps and essays are illustrated and
documented by "artifacts", i.e., foci of evidence
that link to multimedia content—photographs,
video and audio recordings, image maps,
diagrams, supplemental texts, primary source
documents, and field notes. The artifact frames
this multimedia content within supplementary
metadata and highlights thematic overlaps and
interconnections within the ethnography.
The essay/artifact structure allows us
to experiment with different approaches
to conceptualizing and presenting the
ethnographic research. These artifact-centered
essays are intentional inversions of the more
familiar text-driven narrative presentation, and
they point the way to readers who want to engage
the ethnography more interactively. To enable
that level of engagement, our goal is to code
each artifact and each essay subsection with
selections from a finite set of keywords, making
the whole site fully searchable through the site’s
integrated information structures.
6. Proposed Presentation
We will discuss the information structures
in which the base materials are created and
maintained. Then we discuss the interactive
interface through which those materials are
accessed by scholars and the general public.
Finally, we will justify our claim that
these techniques embody the methodologies
expressed above.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None