One of the difficulties of being a historian of South Africa living in East Lansing (or really being a historian of any foreign place) is that, for most of the year, I am over 8,000 miles away from my subject matter. This is not to say that I do not have valuable resources at my disposal here; thankfully, I do have access to an impressive number of archival materials thanks to the stellar collections available through the MSU Library and MATRIX. However, for someone who centers their work on the testimonies and perspectives of South Africans, this distance becomes difficult. Recently, however, I have begun to consider the potential of digital platforms (particularly blogging and social media) to bridge this gap.
Over the past couple of months, I have contributed a few blog posts to my favorite fútbol blog, Football is Coming Home. In “Fandom, Mzansi-Style,” I reflected on my understandings of the dynamics of soccer fandom in South Africa, particularly the ways in which South African fans preferred European teams to their own national teams. Since I am new to the literature on soccer in South Africa, this was basically a think piece for me, but the responses that I received, in the form of comments both from South Africans and other soccer scholars, really gave some great insights into the multiple dynamics at play. Take, for example, this comment from Thabo Dladla, founder and head coach of the Izichwe Football Club in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
This is the reality of South African situation presently. There are very few young people that support our football. In the near future PSL will not have fans watching football on television. South African football needs to change and start realizing that the future both in the field and outside the field is dependent on today’s young people. You treat them well and take care of their footballing needs, they will stay part of local football. The opposite is also true. Unzima Lomthwalo!
This comment and others that contributed their perspectives really contributed to my broader understandings of the issue of multiple loyalties in South African sport. This has made me consider the possibility of using more blogs of this nature to get input from people on the ground in my research sites, especially in terms of how I can integrate a synergistic element into my project for CHI.
Similarly, Twitter and Facebook also represent potential “research sites” for the scholar abroad who is attempting to remain abreast of the latest developments in their field. I depend on Twitter as a means through which to stay in contact with prominent scholars, as well as to keep track of which topics people are talking about (read: the things people care about). As we move further and further into our increasingly digital world, remaining open-minded about the types of sources that we can use in research. Take, for example, Mark Hunter’s Love in the Time of AIDS in which Hunter explores the dynamics of love in a South African township through SMS messages. Scholars need to consider the potential of these new textual sources, not only in terms of the new perspectives they can provide, but also in bridging the (very large) gap between the foreign researcher and their distant subjects.