French Journal For Media Research

Yuan Zhang et Sa Cheng

From Bridging to Bonding: Social Capital and Identity of Chinese Ethnic Minorities

Full text

1Abstract: This study inspects the interpersonal interaction and information dissemination model of one minority WeChat group in China, and interviews 20 activists. Through two years' tracking and analysis, we found a transformation from weak relationships to strong relationships in WeChat groups. This is reflected in the way individual social capital is accumulated as a kind of social capital from bridging to bonding.
Keywords: bonding, bridging, social capital, social media, ethnic minorities, identity


2The network is not only a tool but also a medium and an engine of social relations. Communication behavior within a network is more than the transmission and reception of information; more importantly, it reflects the participation and sharing behavior that comes about in the process of information transmission. Due to the network's characteristics of virtuality, de-centralization, flatness, fragmentation and openness, users can overcome the limitations of the real world and self-manage online interpersonal relationships with a relatively fluid and "absent body"(Huang, 2002. The online social network provides conditions for the in-depth study of people's behavior characteristics and also provides a lot of data support for social science research, including tools for the mapping and extension of real relationships in the virtual network,

3Internet technology has opened a new era of social media, making the flow and sharing of information different from how it is done in traditional physical communities, with its openness, instantaneity, and disruptive communication. The fastest growing mobile instant messaging tool in China is WeChat, launched in January 2011. By the end of 2018, the number of users was at 1.08 billion (Tencent, 2018). The WeChat platform not only provides private communication between two people and public communication, but also provides group communication in which communicators and recipients are constantly changing. In a WeChat group each member can inviting friends to join, which reflects the characteristics of openness, decentralization and small-world propagation, making the group grow rapidly in a short time with an undetermined role.

4An important source of social capital for ethnic minority migrants is the emotional and psychological connection based on common origin and the sense of belonging to an ethnic group. Compared with other migrants, ethnic minority migrants are more likely to trust and help each other, and voluntarily establish and maintain relationships with each other. Nee and Sanders believe that social capital is more important than either human or financial capital in shaping ethnic identity (Nee and Sanders, 2001). The use of social capital to achieve solidarity and development between groups, as well as the integration and the establishment of ethnic networks can reduce the alienation of ethnic migrants. At the same time, the interpersonal system established through social media can provide emotional and social support to group members, thus helping individuals to establish ethnic identity.

5The report on the development of China's migrants released by the national health commission at the end of 2018 indicates that the number of migrants in China has reached 244 million, with the number of migrants who are ethnic minorities at about 20 million, almost one fifth of the total population of ethnic minorities(National Health Commission, 2018). Because the level of economic and social development in the areas where China's ethnic minorities reside is relatively low, many ethnic minorities, especially young adults choose to seek work in southern and eastern China, especially in the southern coastal areas(as these regions are more developed, they can earn more money and live better.). According to the latest data, the diaspora of ethnic minorities living in the city is more than a third of their total population. Therefore, how ethnic minorities use social media to connect with the communities in their hometowns may not only explain the communication mode among ethnic minority migrants, but also show how they enhance their social capital through their ethnic identity.

6In this study, we analyzed the double use of social media by ethnic minority migrants. First, social media are used to promote interaction among ethnic users, and second, they strengthen ethnic groups sense of belonging by allowing them to participate in specific topic discussion and offline activities, and to find support for ethnic identity through information dissemination and exchange. The study looked at how ethnic minority users maintained contact with other users through online social activities in "physically dispersed" situations, and how this connection helped them establish "dispersed" ethnic identities. Through belonging to online virtual communities, ethnic minority migrants depend on the acquisition of associative social capital, while the communication and interaction with each other on the social platform may provide them with the acquisition of personal bridging social capital.

Literature review

7Social capital has been described as " resources embedded in social networks accessed and used by actors for actions" (Lin, 2001). This concept tries to explain the link between social transmission and participation to promote and enhance collective norms and trust, which are central to the production and maintenance of the collective well being (Putnam, 1993). As migration has become a large-scale social phenomenon, it can connect group members across time and space through new media, and become a crucial source of social capital and ethnic identity in the migration process.

8FIGURE 1: Social capital and ethnic identity model

Image 100002010000035B00000130B004B767E87D0502.png

Social capital: Reflect and maintain the critical cornerstone of social relations

9Social capital is a multidimensional concept, which includes multiple aspects of social relations and social structure. It is not only a social relations network but also a resource in the network (Junghee, 2010). From the perspective of function, Coleman defines social capital as a collective resource which can be utilized by goal-oriented actors. The concept has two characteristics in common: "They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate actions within that structure. Like financial and human capital, social capital is productive; it is used so that actors can achieve particular ends that would have been impossible without it. However, unlike the other capitals, Coleman sees social capital as principally residing in the social structure of relationships among people (Coleman, 1998). Although different scholars have different definitions of social capital, they all believe that social capital originates from the relationships people have in the social structure, which can help individuals establish social connections, gain competitive advantages, and achieve social goals.

10The concept of social capital can be used to explain the interpersonal communication and identity of minority migrants. There are two different types of social capital. One is bonding social capital, which refers to relationships among members of a network who are similar in some form (Putnam, 2000). The members have a strong sense of identity and shared goals, and can strengthen the internal cohesion of homogeneous social groups, usually showing a high level of intra-group solidarity and trust. The other is bridging social capital, which refers to relationships among people who are dissimilar in a demonstrable fashion, such as age, social-economic status, race/ethnicity and education (Szreter and Woolcock, 2004). Bridging describes social relationships of exchange, often of associations between people with shared interests or goals but contrasting social identities (Pelling and High, 2005). Bridging social capital embodiment is a group cohesion with weak relations, which also enables the exchange of information and ideas between groups (Granovetter, 1973). The two kinds of social capital play an important role in promoting interpersonal interaction, social capital accumulation, and ethnic identity of the minority migrants through the use of social media.

Social capital: booster of ethnic identity

11The issue of social capital and ethnic identity of the floating population of ethnic minorities in China is essentially an issue of immigrant social adaptation, because both of them involve the question of how people integrate into new living environments and adjust to a new society after leaving the places that have been home .The cultural, psychological, and personality characteristics that were formed within their original culture and where they first lived will bring new challenges to the migrants in their process of social adaption. In previous research, the concept of social capital is often used to study the social network of immigrants (Aguilera, 2003; Nannestad, 2008; Ryan, 2008). This paper seeks to explore how immigrants establish new social networks and confirm ethnic identity by using bonding and bridge social capital. Relevant studies have found that ethnic minorities use bonding social capital to establish ethnic identity, and bridge social capital to confirm relationships and identity boundaries with other ethnic groups. Both types of social capital have important influences on the information interaction and resource acquisition of immigrants (Lanis, 2019).

12Immigrants need to obtain information through social networks to help them integrate into the places where they now reside, but still maintain their affiliation with their home country (Dekker, 2013; Schrooten, 2012). A tight social network is formed among new residents, migrants and local residents, in which people exchange information about their experiences, share opportunities and provide support for each other (Samaers, 2010). Social capital can explain and help people to understand the connection between interpersonal relationships and access to these resources in the ethnic group. To create social capital, people connect and acquire or mobilize resources through relationships (Lin, 1999). From this perspective, social capital emphasizes social networks and interaction, promoting the sharing of resources between people (Coleman, 2000).

13It is worth noting that a particular source of social capital for the members of these social groups is their sense of solidarity, their willingness to trust and help each other, and to establish and maintain contact with each other. Ports and Sensenbrenner (1993) represent four types of social capital: "value introjection," "reciprocity transactions," "bounded solidarity," and "enforceable trust." Bounded solidarity and enforceable trust are closely linked to the social capital of the individual. Bounded solidarity focuses on the environment leading to group-oriented behavior and comes from the response of a group of people facing common adversity.

14Minority migrants are faced with the pressure of having to learn how to integrate into a new social environment after leaving their home community. For those ethnic minorities who have not left their hometown, the process of modernization will also create a sense of separation as well as the pressure of establishing their identity, which needs to be alleviated by social media. A previous study found that by strengthening the internal connection, minority populations limit their contact with people outside the group as a way to relieve stress. On one hand, this helps minorities eliminate the pressure from external social groups, while on the other hand it facilitates the strengthening of the group’s internal relations. The use of bridging social capital to reinforce the social and cultural characteristics of ethnic groups is different from that of other ethnic groups and also helps minority members realize their ethnic identity.

Social media: a new vehicle for the accumulation of minority social capital

15In recent years, there have been more and more studies on the use of social media. As a communication platform for interpersonal communication, information exchange and other resources, social media is also considered to affect the acquisition of personal social capital (Ellison, 2007; Ellison, 2011; Ellison, 2014; Ellison, 2015; Johnston, 2013; Valenzuela, 2009). The emergence of social media provides a new way of communication for dispersed minority groups, expands the number of interpersonal relationships and types of social transmission of minority groups, and creates closer, more extensive, and more diversified interpersonal communication modes . Previous studies have found that social media is widely used to connect immigrant groups with their home countries. They use social networking sites to find compatriots, participate in communities based on their original identity, share interests and obtain information (Schrooten, 2012). Social media can improve users' bridging social capital because it reduces the cost of maintaining large and potential interpersonal relationships (Vitak, 2011). Social media can maintain or increase social capital by increasing users' social connections.

16After the rise of social media, minority groups began to use social networks in large numbers and accumulate social capital through it. The use of online communication platforms cannot only help minorities maintain existing relationships, but also create new ones to help them establish ethnic identity (Dekker, 2014). The participation of online communities provides members of scattered minority groups with broader options to construct their mixed identities across ethnic boundaries (Brinkerhoff, 2009). The availability of information and the convenience of following others help migrants become aware of their fellow citizens and promote a sense of belonging to dispersed communities. These characteristics, together with migrants' contact with friends and relatives, promote the accumulation of social capital among migrants, thus hindering their integration into the original country (Komito, 2011). It is important to note that for minority migrants, frequent contact with their residence and ethnic group of origin can delay the assimilation process (Chib, 2014). Based on these different observation results, this paper proposes the following research questions:

17Q1: What impact does the use of social media have on the social capital accumulation of ethnic minorities?

18Q2: What is the relationship between social capital and ethnic identity of ethnic minorities?

Research approach, research objects and research methods

19The primary research approach of this paper is first to demonstrate the daily information interaction and behavior mode of ethnic minorities' social media. This paper takes a WeChat group of Yi nationality in Guizhou as the focus of the research object to conduct quantitative analysis of the WeChat group's chat records to investigate the groups information transmission mode and interpersonal network. Secondly, the researcher proposes to reveal the social interaction mode and meaning-generating mechanism in the WeChat group, especially the influence of text transmissions, topic discussions, and feedback on the social capital accumulation of group members. Finally, this paper discusses the impact of mobile social media represented by WeChat in the accumulation of social capital of minority migrants and further explores the significance of such social capital for ethnic identity.

Research objects

20In 2016, the research team went to Yingfeng village, Pudi Yi autonomous township, Bijie city, Guizhou province to investigate the use of new media by local minority villagers. In the field research, the team found that almost every minority villager under the age of 50 used a smart phone. The villagers used mobile phones to surf the Internet, chat, and play games. The villagers and urban residents were nearly identical in terms of time, frequency and mode of use for their devices. Most of the villagers are descendants of the Yi people in Shuixi, and have joined a group called "AHuLaoMu".

21The members of AHuLaoMu WeChat group mainly distributed in Bijie city, Dafang, and Jinsha border region is made up of families whose last names are Long, Wang, Chen, Song, and Gao. Family members are found in Houzhai, Dazhai, Baiguozhai, Pudi, Lihua, Muzhuodi, Renhe, Dashanjiao, Jinsha, Banpo, and the Wangjiazhai area et al., in Bijie City. From the perspective of the geographical environment, ethnic composition, and social and economic development, this region is a typical region where Yi people live in compact communities, accounting for almost 80% of the regional population. Compared with traditional ethnic minority areas, there are more young people working outside of the community, and they have a higher acceptance of new media. On the other hand, due to the lack of tourism development in the local area and the low impact of commercialization, the ethnic consciousness of ethnic minorities is relatively stable, and the concept of the clan is strong.

22The AHuLaoMu WeChat group was founded in 2013. At the beginning, the groups were relatively small and inactive. By 2016, however, along with the growing popularity of social media, the number of group members was increasing rapidly. As of July 2018, the group had 500 members,, the maximum number for a WeChat group. Members are primarily direct member or in-laws of the De, Cheng, Pei, and Ho families, covering four generations ranging in age from 18 to 40 years old.

Mixed research method

23This paper mainly adopts mixed research methods to analyze data and seeks explanations. Through the combination of quantitative data analysis and qualitative open interview methods, it strives to draw more reasonable conclusions.

(1)Quantitative analysis

24There are mainly two quantitative research methods adopted in this paper; word frequency statistical analysis, and social network analysis, both of which are implemented by Python programming. Python is one of the most commonly used and powerful programming languages today, with an extensive standard library and other rich third-party libraries. Word frequency statistical analysis is the high-frequency word statistics of text content in the WeChat group. Word frequency refers to the number of words appearing in a specific corpus. Word rate statistical calculation is one of the most important factors of computational linguistics. For Chinese text, word segmentation is the foundation of word frequency. This paper chose the most popular Jieba participles implemented in python, The algorithm is based on Jieba bringing an efficient prefix dictionary word map scanning and generating all possible text into Chinese characters in the sentence word situation of an acyclic graph (DAG), and then using the dynamic programming to find the maximum probability path and the most prominent segmentation based on word frequency combination. Finally, for the unknown word, the model of the HMM was adopted based on its ability to place Chinese characters into a word, using the Viterbi algorithm. The research object is the text content of the minority WeChat group, so a custom dictionary is used to realize more accurate word segmentation.

25Social networks can simulate and describe the macroscopic structure of actors' connections or interactions. A social network is defined as a group of actors and a group of relationships, which explains how the actors are connected together (Wasserman, 2007). In a WeChat group of ethnic minorities, users form a set of social networks through information and reply, so social network analysis is also one of the most commonly used methods to study the social relation network of a WeChat group. In this study, if there is "@" and "being @" among users in the WeChat group, it is considered that there is a connection relationship. The size of points in the network graph reflects the enthusiasm of users to speak, and most users who do not speak or users who speak less are considered marginal. This study used Python Gehpi to graph social networks. Gehpi is a software used for creating, operating and learning about the structure, dynamics, and functions of complex systems.

Image 10000000000000840000003C5F19388C946B182F.png

26The study calculated the centrality of the social network. In the social network, for nodes with more connections, the measure of degree Centrality indicates higher Centrality. The degree of a node can be used to measure the connection relationship.

(2) Qualitative Interview

27This study also conducted semi-structured open interviews with 20 members of the WeChat group, all of whom were active members. The interviews were conducted in the summer of 2018 and covered topics such as media use, relationships with ethnic minorities in their home community, and their feelings in the WeChat group.

28In the study of WeChat group, "node" and "platform" are two key words to grasp the relational network. The former is the action subject in the cyberspace, while the latter is the existence mode and interactive space of the former. As the dual subject of the information, meaning production and dissemination, the research on nodes can not only build the social network graph and group information transmission mechanism but also confirm the relationship between users. Activists from nodes in the WeChat group are recruited as interviewees to ensure that they not only fully understand the interaction within the WeChat group, but also participate in it and have had the first-hand experience. All participants used WeChat for interpersonal communication with their friends and relatives. The gender ratio of the sample was eight women and 12 men. The average age of the participants was 30; the youngest was 22 and the oldest 52. To maintain anonymity, the names of participants in this study were replaced with Chinese pinyin initials.

Communication Symbols, Consensus Topics and Social Network Analysis: from Bridging to Bonding Social Capital

29In July 2016, the researcher was allowed entry into AHuLaoMu WeChat group; the researcher observed the group for almost two years, from July 2016 to August 2018.

30The WeChat Group of AHuLaoMu currently has 500 members , the maximum number allowed for a WeChat group. From September 14, 2016, to August 1, 2018(686 days), there were 686,307 chat messages, an average of 257 chat messages per day. Interactive communication is very positive in the WeChat group, although a small number of active users dominate the communication of WeChat groups, and there is an imbalance in the content release. Among the 500 group members, 1% of the members post 7.82% of the content; 5% of the members post 27.65% of the content; and 10% of the members post 32.60% of the content.

31Table1 WeChat group active users and information release

Name of Activist











Release Number






















32As can be seen from the above Table 1, a few members act as the primary source of communication of the WeChat group. Meanwhile, most of the members are seen to be engaged in silent "diving." The "stage effect" is not only in this Wechat group, it is also found in other WeChat groups, these active members have become the key figures in the research of WeChat group information exchange.

Information symbols and critical nodes in the WeChat group

(1) Communication symbols: text, voice and emoticons

33The symbols used in the WeChat group are different from the general interpersonal communication or mass communication. As a whole, the top three communication symbols in the AHuLaoMu WeChat group are text, voice, and emoticons for 94.05%.

34Table2 Communication symbols in WeChat group and their proportion










Web page












35The AHuLaoMu WeChat group is different from the general WeChat group; the proportion of voice message ranks second, just lower than text. When chatting with strangers, it is easier to puncture mystery and expose personal characteristics using the voice; the significant use of voice in this WeChat group proves it was based on acquaintances’ relationships. The use of voice symbols enables group members to form a collective unconsciousness based on "auditory-tactile," while the voice symbols make social ties stronger. Emoticon as the main content is also an important symbol for communication in the WeChat group. Although it is not as expressive as text and voice, its role in expressing emotion and bustling atmosphere is pronounced. Communication studies believe that the use of emoticons will contribute to the internal cohesion of WeChat groups.

(2)Key nodes and communication activists in WeChat group

36The interactive environment and interactive support provided by the virtual community promotes communication among members, and also helps members to self-identity (Liu & Yang, 2004). The more they speak, the more they communicate and are designated by others; this makes it easier for them to communicate. Once the community members get support from others in the interaction, it means that the self-presentation has received the expected response, thus helping them to establishing the virtual role and self-identification. At the same time, researchers have demonstrated that interaction between members of the community allows them to perceive the community as more attractive (Button, 1994), and produce the sense of belonging to the community (Cockleshell, 1998). Therefore, the interactive activities in the virtual community form the basis of group members' self-cognition, self-identity, and emotional connection.

Image 100000000000009F0000009F774DDB61F9E2C89A.png

37FIGURE 2 WeChat group member type

38Through the analysis of the activity of WeChat group users, we divide the members into several types: activist, core member, silent viewer, semi-active member and alienated member. Activist and core member formed an active area, in which the number of messages and @ between them will reach more than 10% of the total. Core members also often speak or interact with each other and form several "ripple" structures around themselves. Activist and core members are at the center of the network, and the scope of activities is concentrated. Although the silent viewers rarely speak, they still pay attention to the topic and also participate in the discussion if necessary. Silent viewers are attracted by the central theme and active members gathered around the core members and activists. These circles are often superimposed on each other to form a relatively stable network of social relationships.

(3)Consensus Topic and Relationship Analysis in a WeChat Group

39The network of relationships built by nodes and platforms determines the basic pattern of information interaction and the ecological pattern in the WeChat group. In the AHuLaoMu WeChat group, due to the reality of family relations, ethnic relations and the hometown relationship support, the hot topics discussed mainly focus on family, hometown and Yi minority, such as family members, family events, family history, family relations, the history of the Yi minority, the ethnic culture, and the preparation, organization, implementation and other activities of the AHuLaoMu Family Youth Annual Association (two events during the observation period), which have caused more and more (heated) discussions in the group. It can be said that this ethnic and family identity possessed by the group is not collective among other WeChat groups. The words frequency analysis also supports this conclusion. We extracted the topics of records in the WeChat group through Python and classified them, dividing this topic into three types: ethnic relations, family relations, and location1.

Image 10000000000001B400000112CC5CE1556ADFCF10.png

40FIGURE 3 Words Frequency Change Trend Chart in WeChat Group

41In general, information interaction and interpersonal relationships have led to a shift from bridging social capital to bonding social capital within the online group; this trend strengthens the cohesiveness of minority groups. For group members, the accumulation of social capital will promote the strengthening of its ethnic identity.

Social interaction in the WeChat group: "strong ties” and “weak ties."

42After studying the social network of the minority migrants, it was found that about 72.6% of the interviewees indicated that they only joined this minority WeChat group. Other interviewees have joined more than one minority WeChat group, but only speak in this group. In order to explore the reasons behind this behavior, the researchers examined the offline social relationships of the members of the WeChat group.

43Table 3 The number of offline intimate relationships among WeChat group members




Three or more(%)

Number of close friends and relatives still living in original hometown





Number of close friends and relatives also move out





Number of close friends in place of residence






45From the above table, it is obvious that friends and relatives from the hometown are the most important source of social capital for the minority migrants. Minority migrants have been very successful in establishing strong relationships with people in the places where they once lived, and consolidate these relationships effectively by using social media. In terms of how minorities use social media and maintain the different types of social networks, the researchers analyzed the data that association with the number of close friends and the frequency of social media use, as provided by the findings shown in figure 5.

Image 100000000000019C00000118AF51C920B80A2C85.png

46FIGURE 4 WeChat group user activity and relationship network

47Figure 4 demonstrates the social capital of minority migrants is closely related to their level of activity in the group and their interpersonal interactions. This figure indicates that regular users of social media and people inside the minority community do have a narrower and stronger relationship. With the changing times, the trend shows minority interactions on social media are becoming stronger. The use of social media shows that the degree of online maintenance and development is continuously increasing. The transition from this weak relationship to a strong relationship is reflected in the individual's social capital accumulation. There is a shift from bridging social capital to bonding social capital.

The use of social media and the cohesion of the social capital

48Social media is not only used to maintain interpersonal relationships established offline, but is also used to communicate with people who do not know each other and have infrequent contact in the real world to maintain connections between members of the same ethnic group. Komito describes this low - intensity but continuous connection as a unique mechanism for strengthening ethnic minorities' sense of belonging to their ethnic groups and communities(Komito, 2011). The convenience of social media connections has fostered the development of social media users' relationships with other ethnic group members. From the previous analysis, we can see a clear shift from a weak relationship to a strong relationship, changing the social capital accumulation of ethnic minority individuals from bridging to bonding. Based on social media, a closer cohesion has been established, which in turn promotes the realization of the national identity of WeChat users.

49WeChat groups have brought significant influence to maintain ethnic minority family relations and self-identity. According to the interview records, these individuals are far from their hometowns and have established new social relationships based on social media. The network has transferred from offline to online and established a new, closer relationship with family members who are not engaged with each other through daily interaction.

By establishing this family group, we strengthen the connection between our family members, and we can exchange feelings more conveniently and strengthen our cohesiveness (WYJ). It strengthens the bond and emotional exchanges between the family, to make the whole family more united, and to make our family develop better. (WH)

In many cases, the connections between members entering the WeChat group are temporary, and each person can be easily pulled into the WeChat group by others and just as quickly leave, which leads the internal WeChat group itself to become unstable. The WeChat Data Report released by Tencent in early 2019 shows that 2.5 million WeChat groups will be born every day, and the average lifetime of a WeChat group is 36 days. This shows the instability of the online community, which is based on weak social relationships. However, the situation is different for the WeChat group that is established based on minority identity or genetic relationship. For example, the WeChat group in this study has been in existence since the end of 2013 and has existed for six years until 2019. Members of this group use it as an important platform to have contact with each other and for self-identity.

In the past, we had eight branches of AHuLaoMu, although it was a big family, many people did not know each other, and now because of the WeChat, I can participate in ethnic as long as I know. In general, the topic in the Wechat is related to the family's feelings; our family become very united. I am very enthusiastic about being invited to wherever I go, many family members who have not recognised before becoming a close relationship (WH).

This form of participation illustrates the fact that there is a connection in the WeChat group that can be called "dispersed ties," that is following a social group or community without having to keep in touch with a particular individual in that group. As mentioned before, some interviewees get to know other family members through social media, but not everyone will participate in discussions or offline activities. Although almost all interviewees tend to express interest in related topics and offline activities, the primary function of the social media is still to maintain attention to specific topics and establish contact through specific information exchanges.

50Members of the WeChat group generally believe that information interaction within the group can help them obtain information about ethnic groups and families, and help them understand their historical culture and identity sources. This information has apparent benefits for enhancing group cohesion and establishing ethnic identity. Even if the WeChat group members come from different backgrounds, the information interaction and the interpersonal network through the group create opportunities to establish connections on a shared ethnic basis.

The family group is good; it strengthens the connection and effective interaction between the family, makes the whole family more united, and lets our family develop better (LZ, Bimo). In recent years, many people, regardless of their surnames, are in the repair their family hall or join family activities; one representative activity is our association. There are more and more people participating in the process, many of them may not know each other before. However, the contact information has been added through the association, and then through the WeChat group, they can participate in many other activities, thus the relationship between them becomes closer. (WYJ, Wechat Businessman)

51Although respondents from online activities are different because of their backgrounds, the interviews show that members of the WeChat group have established relationships with family and other ethnic group members through the exchange of information and interpersonal interactions on social media, and established new social relationships with people who are previously unfamiliar.

This family group shortens the distance between family members and plays a very positive role. It is more convenient for everyone to contact with each other (WC). Most of the people in the group are active, and they are very concerned about this group, they are all talking about positive things in the family (WQH, individual household). This family group is outstanding, and the family is more cohesive through the group, it also expands the size of our family (LF, government employee).

52A common ethnic or family background becomes a potential link between group members; sometimes this kind of online communication will also be transformed into offline personal contact. Usually, people chat in the group when going back to hometowns for the New Year, and we will have a meeting and drink, talk to each other. We are all relatives of a stockade and have a good relationship (WC). This conversion from online to offline relationships also exemplifies the strong relationship established by social media to the individual's real-world actions.


53This article explores the role of social media in the process of developing and maintaining a social network among ethnic minorities. Using social media, ethnic minorities can establish connections with their compatriots even if they leave their hometowns, but the online groups of these minorities are often not used in the same way to connect with people outside the community. The minority members in the WeChat group often have difficulty in integrating into their new social environment. Since it is difficult to make friends and establish relationships in the new areas, keeping in touch with the hometown friends and family members through social media becomes an important intermediary to maintain self-identity.

54Social media plays an essential role in maintaining the relationships of ethnic groups; our research confirms this. Through the interaction and sharing of information across social media, the ethnic members of the WeChat group established a relatively close interpersonal relationship. Interviewees indicated that the primary purpose of their discussion and interaction in the WeChat group is to obtain relevant information about their minority culture and family history. The relationship within the WeChat group affects the social capital accumulation and self-identity of ethnic minorities. It also has an important impact on the development and maintenance of minority group relationships, which are based on social media interaction and communication practices.

55Bridging social capital is usually associated with weak relationships while bonding social capital is associated with strong relationships. A bridging connection underscores the heterogeneity and integration of the connection, while the bonding connection points to the homogeneity of the connection (Putnam, 2000). However, when examining the complex social structures of ethnic minorities, homogeneity and heterogeneity cannot merely be seen as binary opposites. Because minority groups are sometimes seen as substantially homogeneous, there may be a tendency to ignore the considerable differences in status, education, income, and other characteristics that group members may have. As Ryan emphasizes, the fact that a group is based on ethnicity does not mean homogeneity, the results of the interaction between them will be different just because the relationship and the resources may be different (Ryan, 2011).

56The homogeneity of minority groups is also evident in previous studies, which explore the results of using online communication platforms in the group. In the literature review, we present two interpretations that are seemingly opposite. On the one hand, Brinkerhoff claims that participating in the online community can help ethnic minorities integrate into mainstream society (Freethinker, 2009). On the other hand, Komito points out that ethnic minorities regularly construct their own identity through their connection with ethnic groups in their hometowns, which slows their integration into mainstream society (Komito,2011). Although social media is unlikely to be the only communication method among people who maintain regular and intimate relationships, social media is still widely used to maintain the connection.

57The findings of this research shows that social media helps ethnic minorities engage in social interactions and enhances their social capital. Specific online and offline activities help minority migrants continue to maintain close contact with friends and relatives in hometowns and participate in local affairs. The interviews with minority migrants show that virtual communities can help them stay connected with their ethnic groups; the information exchange and interaction strengthens the interaction and emotional connection between group members. Meanwhile offline activities establish a bridge of communication within the community. The use of social media enables minority migrants to continue to participate in the original community and accumulate new social capital: this means the interaction of social media groups is also conducive to the accumulation of social capital.

58According to Wellman, in contemporary society, people switch between networks, roles, and identities, rather than switching between relationships (Bellman, 2002). Instead of thinking that ethnic minorities use social media to promote ethnic homogeneity or heterogeneity, we should look at ethnic minorities’ use of social media in the context of social diversity. Although the online community of minority WeChat groups has a certain degree of homogeneity, social interaction is not the only factor that affects the integration of ethnic minorities into mainstream society. Education, cultural capital and language skills are also vital resources that influence ethnic minorities to establish new social identities (Ryan, 2011). Therefore, ethnic minorities who can establish offline relationships through social activities are also using social media to maintain or strengthen their social networks and social capital.


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1 This classification is made mainly because of primordialism beliefs that geography, blood and ethnic origin are an important source of individual identity. Even from the perspective of constructivism, the construction of self-identity must be based on certain symbols and the meaning of family, ethnicity and geography also made them become special symbols of identity.

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Yuan Zhang et Sa Cheng, «From Bridging to Bonding: Social Capital and Identity of Chinese Ethnic Minorities», French Journal For Media Research [online], Browse this journal/Dans cette revue, 13/2020 Médias : acteurs clés pour une compréhension interculturelle, last update the : 24/01/2020, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Yuan Zhang

Yuan Zhang

Associate professor

Guizhou University, China

Quelques mots à propos de :  Sa Cheng

Sa Cheng

Assistant professor

Northwest University, China



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