MEDIA RESEARCH METHODS
WHAT IS ETHNOGRAPHY?
As was the case with “discourse analysis,” the definition of ethnography is itself problematic. Barbara Hall’s reference on Public Interest Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania define ethnography as such:
Tim Plowman, in Design Research, defined ethnography qualitatively. It goes beyond mere description, he says. Ethnographic studies are descriptive and interpretive descriptive “because they are designed to capture as much detail as possible, crucial to testing and developing theories”; interpretive “because the ethnographer must determine the significance of the detail in the relatively narrow scope she observes without necessarily gathering broad or statistical information” (Plowman 32).
Both Hall and Plowman also define ethnography methodologically. Hall says:
You should remember this emic/etic thing from our discussion on qualitative research. Plowman, as you’ll recall, classified ethnographic methods according to their visual or textual basis, and their qualitative or quantitative-ness.
He presents participant observation, in particular, as a value-imbued method; it provides “empathy and understanding through immersion” (Plowman 34).
Pink rejects these methodologically defined definitions particularly those that suggest that ethnography is little more than a combination of participant observation and interviewing (recall Larsen’s rejection, in Chapter 10 of Jensen (pp. 164-66), of such a thing as media “ethnography”). Pink proposes and alternative definition of ethnography:
Pink addresses some important key concepts here. First, ethnography draws from multiple disciplines and, like any other methodology, it's theoretically grounded. Here, Hall discusses the “theoretical contexts” that often frame ethnographic work; some include “gender as a social construct,” Foucault’s “power” (which we discussed in our lesson on “discourse analysis”), and social semiotics. Second, ethnography is about the researcher as well as the subject; therefore, researchers must acknowledge the subjectivity and “constructedness” of ethnographic “knowledge" and practice reflexivity. Third, that reflexive practice must address issues of representation, and acknowledge that representation has an ethical dimension. Fourth, that “constructed” knowledge is often a product of collaboration. It’s not simply a matter of the researcher making claims about the subjects; oftentimes, those subjects are themselves active participants it the creation of insight. And fifth, contrary to Hall’s claim that ethnography is primarily about the “written text,” Pink argues that ethnography is multimedia, material, and embodied. It’s not only about fieldnotes; ethnography is also about non-textual texts; material objects; physical spaces; and physical, sensory experiences.
Bronislaw Malinowski, in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific, addresses how one gets at the lived, embodied experience through immersion in a culture:
Pink wraps up all of these factors into a concise, if dense, statement about how ethnographers should approach these texts in multiple media formats and in this case, through the visual:
Plowman, too, discusses how ethnographers can focus on the sensory experience of a material artifact in a physical setting. In fact, this kind of work is of particular interest to design researchers, who look at the “situatedness” of experience and “the multiple ways people consume and integrate designed artifacts into their lives through interaction (use and embodiment) and through their experience creates understanding” (Plowman 31). Plowman further links the description of these embodied experiences to a theoretically-informed interpretation. Designed artifacts, he says, are “materialized ideologies” (31).
RP: How might semioticians or medium theorists study this claim? And what different ideologies do you think are “materialized” in various media technologies, e.g., the cell phone, earth-shaking car stereo systems, even the Xerox machine? What different media cultures or populations might you examine through ethnographic methods to learn more about these “materialized ideologies”? Furthermore, how do these artifacts “interpellate” us into particular subject positions?
MEDIA AS ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH TOOLS
Plowman and Pink both recognize that ethnography isn’t only about the written text. Photographs, audiorecording, and video can supplement or replace the written fieldnotes one collects in the field. But this assumption that media serve to record reality is of course something that we in Media Studies would call into question. Long, long ago, before people used terms like “constructedness” and “visualizationification” (I just made that up), some ethnographers rather naively, we might think drew a distinction between objective footage and creative footage. Objective footage should be “objective, unedited, not ‘manipulated’, it should be guided by scientific, ethnographic principles, rather than cinematographic intentions” (Pink 78), while creative film is edited to create a narrative, and can be created with the intention of presenting it for public consumption perhaps somewhere like Anthology Film Archives or Film Forum.
But of course we know that this claim is spurious. As Sontag, Barthes, and others have told us, we cannot record people “undisturbed”; the very act of mediation or recording disturbs them. Media representations are inevitably “constructed.” Furthermore, as Pink points out, “ethnographic knowledge does not necessarily exist as observable facts,” and it’s often produced collaboratively, “in conversation and negotiation between informants and researcher” (Pink 79). Finally, the “ethnographicness” of your media “recording” depends not on its content or your intention but on the context of its creation.
Rachel Strickland, a documentary filmmaker and architect, claims that it’s not only the pursuit of objectivity that has compromised ethnographic film; it’s also Hollywood. Hollywood production annihilated spontaneity; its polish left no room for chance or imperfection…or reality. Researchers using film, Strickland says, aspired achieve this polish -- and, through it, to achieve some kind of "objectivity." “Social scientists’ various prescriptions for neutralizing the filmmaker’s intervention, such as the elimination of camera movement and the minimization of editing, have approximately the same effect as burying one’s head in the sand in hopes of becoming invisible. For minimum of structuring does not yield maximum of truth” (Strickland 125). Still, it’s important to remember that, at one time, few researchers embraced film as an appropriate research tool; Strickland quotes David MacDougall, author of Transcultural Cinema, who attributes scientists' resistance to film to “an incompatibility between the respective modes of description and discourse that belong to writing and moviemaking” (Strickland 125). Cinema and research, they thought, were too epistemologically or discursively different to be brought into service for one another.
The “spontaneous” movie, Strickland says, didn’t resurface until the 1960s, when lightweight cameras and synchronous audio recorders emerged. New technology and, specifically, what Harold Innis might refer to as their “space biases” (e.g., portability) made possible new styles of production, and allowed media to be used in a new way to capture everyday life:
Strickland outlines the qualities of what she calls “observational” cinema. We can see parallels between her description and Malinowski’s and Pink’s characterizations of ethnography:
Yet media “in the field” media used in ethnographic research shouldn’t be regarded as just another form of visual or audio “note-taking.” These tools have the potential to reshape the research experience, to change the relationship between researcher and subjects even to turn those “subjects” into creators of knowledge about themselves. Pink is quite critical of Collier & Collier, whom she claims “advocate a systematic method of observation in which the researcher is supported by visual technology” [italics mine]. These media reports are just that reports; they record the reality observed by the researcher. Pink continues:
There has been a shift away from a scientific-realist approach to the use of media in research, she says, and toward a more “reflexive” use of photography and video in ethnography. Ethnographic filmmaker and writer David MacDougall proposes an approach to ethnographic media use that would “look at the principles that emerge when fieldworkers actually try to rethink anthropology through use of a visual medium” (quoted in Pink 9).
TO RECORD, OR NOT TO RECORD?
That reflexivity should inspire, among other concerns, an awareness of how one’s choice of media technology has the potential to reshape the “ecology” of the field, define the identity of the researcher, and influence the relationships between the researcher and those in the field. Note the influence of medium theory here.
Even the decision to use media is one that’s influenced by context, or social ecology. Pink quotes documentary filmmaker Eric Metzgar, who, in his research on Lamotrek Atoll, found that “…in order to continue filming the culture, I had to maintain separateness; in maintaining separateness, I felt alienated, alone. … [T]here was no choice but to give up the fight and join the dance” (Pink 82). Sometimes, your research suffers you’re incapable of immersing yourself in the experience if you’re too intent on capturing everything on film or tape. Similarly, when you’re conducting an interview, you can often disengage from the conversation, and compromise intimacy or credibility, when you’re too focused on taking notes. You have to make these decisions to record or not? on a case-by-case, sometimes minute-by-minute, basis.
The use of these technologies raises various ethical questions about covert research (do they know you’re filming?) and informed consent; the “right” to photograph/videotape at public events; harm to informants; and the permission to publish your images or footage (Pink 40-6). Media use raises questions of timing and propriety: there are some cases in which it is simply socially inappropriate to photograph or video- or audiotape. Let’s say you’re making a documentary about how families watch TV together. You can’t just walk into your subjects’ home for the first time, set up a professional camera, and say, “Okay watch TV. Act natural!” That’s not going to happen! [See James Lull’s Inside the Viewing Family: Ethnographic Research on Television’s Audiences (Routledge)] Pink recommends an “incremental” use of media to “warm” people up to your and your camera’s presence. At one site, she started out with a photographic camera, then introduced a handheld video camera. “Once we had requested permission to film, with our professional looking equipment, we were ushered by the organizers into the enclosure reserved for television and film crews. Our presence with the camera developed various responses from people attending the event. One woman treated us as a source of public information, another interviewee gave well-considered responses…as if to a TV audience” (Pink 84). Thus, the form of the medium shaped the subjects’ respondents to the researcher.
When I was writing my book, I received a grant to spend a summer traveling all around the country, visiting new civic buildings. To save money, I decided to take all my own photos -- and since my focus was not on these buildings as objets d’art, but on their function as public spaces, I preferred photographs that showed the buildings in use, or peopled. When I lugged in the camera bags and set up the tripod, however, everyone particularly the older women in sweatpants became concerned that I was a professional photographer, and that they were going to appear in Architectural Record without makeup! Heaven forbid! So, eventually, I discovered that, in order to capture the moments and settings I wanted to capture that is, moments of everyday use I needed to be more inconspicuous. A point-and-shoot became my primary research tool.
See Kwame Braun’s Passing Girl, Riverside, which demonstrates the impact of “the gaze” or the act of being videotaped -- on the video subject.
Instead of reserving the footage for post-fieldwork review, you could make use of it in the field and new technology makes that possible; just swing around the playback screen, and share your images with the folks featured in the image. This practice of sharing, Pink says, allows researchers to address the following questions: “How do informants’ commentaries on video footage relate it to other aspects of their video/media culture? And what discourses do they refer to in their comments and discussions of the footage?” (Pink 89)
You could also pull yourself out of the recorder role and allowing your subjects to shoot themselves. Errr….that came out wrong. Not that kind of shooting! What I meant to say is: You could hand over the camera to people in the field and allow them to capture footage of themselves and one another. These practices, Pink says, allow the researcher to “question how different people created video narratives of the same context” (Pink 85). Pink characterizes these participatory practices as “feminist” approaches, wherein “knowledge is produced not about, but for [the subjects] and [the subjects] themselves are situated ‘at the centre of the production of knowledge’” (Pink 86). See Vicki Mayer’s “When the Camera Won’t Focus: Tensions in Media Ethnography” In Feminist Media Studies (2001).
In the June 9, 2005, issue of The New York Times, Alan Riding wrote about a “videoletter” project developed by documentary film directors Eric van den Broek and Katarina Rejger. "Videoletters" is designed to “further reconciliation among people from the former Yugoslavia who had once been friends and who had been separated and even alienated by the bloody nationalist conflict.” Although the directors don’t turn the cameras over to the letter “writers,” these films’ circulation their delivery to the lost friends and exhibition in small town halls and on television has impacted everyday life in former Yugoslavia.
Anthropology is, in a sense, a social art. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, who worked with McLuhan, and whose Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! has taken a place in the media studies canon (if we even have one!), says of anthropology: “It’s an art as much as art as a method.” He particularly admired the early anthropologists those who worked in the field before methods were institutionalized: “They literally built their own typewriters with phonemic scripts. They got hold of old movie cameras. They filmed. They took stills. They drew. They collected objects. They wrote poems. They did plays” (quoted in Carol Ann McBride, “A Sense of Proportion: Balancing Subjectivity and Objectivity in Anthropology; quoted in Harald E.L. Prins & John Bishop, “Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media & Anthropology” Visual Anthropology Review (Fall-Winter 2001-2)).
CHOICE OF MEDIUM AND MODEL
The choice of medium and model, of film speed and microphone placement all of these decisions and the choice to even use media technology in the field at all should be, like any other methodological choice, theoretically grounded and reflexive. “When ethnographers take photographs” (or record audio or video), Pink says, “they do so with reference to specific theories of photography and in the context of particular social relationships…. [I]t is useful to pay attention to the subjectivities and intentionalities of individual photographers, coupled with the cultural discourses, social relationships and broader political, economic and historical contexts to which these refer and in which they are enmeshed” (Pink 54-5).
And here Pink addresses how her choice of a particular model and a particular medium impact her interaction her subjects and her place in the field:
The researcher can maintain better eye contact with the her subjects and, what’s more, video footage can be viewed in the field, or perhaps with the subjects to see how they make sense of representations of themselves (Pink 81).
In a recent issue of The New York Times, David Pogue featured the SC-X105L Sports Camcorder from Samsung, which has a detachable external lens. “This arrangement opens up a world of new recording possibilities, because you don't need two hands - or any hands at all - to hold the camera. Nor do you have to watch the viewfinder or screen; this camera looks wherever you're looking. In other words, this external-lens affair allows the camera operator, for the first time in consumer camcorders, to be a participant in the action instead of a spectator.” Dude! Imagine the ethnographic possibilities!! [Image Credit: NYTimes]
An in chapters 5 through 8 of her book, Pink addresses such issues as how to analyze this mediated “data” must it be translated it into words, in accordance with extant standards in this still-logocentric field? how to organize, narrativize, and archive your media records; and how to integrate hypermedia. See also Bruce Mason & Bella Dicks, “The Digital Ethnographer” Cybersociology 6.
See also "Video and Audio Media in Qualitative Research," Don Ratcliff, Ph.D., Vanguard University
1) Log every roll of film, video cassette, sound tape or photo as you produce it.
2) Make sure your informants give you definite permission to reproduce images about (sic) them. This applies equally to your use and possible publication of images they possess. Agreements should be in writing.
3) …you need to pay at least as much attention to the quality of the sound as to the quality of the picture.
4) It is easy to get carried away by the idea of ‘making a video,’ and to end up letting the technology, or the excitement, dominate the research.
5) There is no reason to introduce video recording into a research situation unless it is the best or only way to record the data, and unless it is clearly imperative to record these data
ETHNOGRAPHY IN MEDIA DESIGN, PRODUCTION & MANAGEMENT RESEARCH
Plowman says that one of the challenges in applied ethnography that is, ethnographic methods used in the service of design or production or business projects is to convince the corporate researcher or “client” of the utility of theory. He writes: “…it is not immediately clear how to apply the work of these theorists to issues so intimately bound up in the generation of capital and social reproduction… [Yet] the application and ‘materialization’ of theory in design stands to clarify and operationalize theories, as well as to contribute to the development of alternative or supplementary criteria in the planning, crafting, manufacture and assessment of graphic and industrial design” (Plowman 37).
He wonders: “Can the cross-pollination between these professions move toward the introduction of emancipatory content into designed artifacts? Can this direction comport with the business imperatives inherent in the production of goods and development of services?” (Plowman 38).
Several design and media companies have already realized what ethnography can contribute to their operations. Cheskin, a design, branding, and intercultural and youth marketing consultancy, has used ethnographic methods to serve some of its clients. For instance, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wanted to know about the newspaper’s future in a world of increasing media choices, they asked Cheskin to find out what people want from the “news-consumption experience” and, in the end, to help them reposition the paper. You can find Cheskin’s other reports here.
Cheskin makes use of variety of research methods outlined here including one that they call Digital Ethno. My goodness, we’re trademarking methodologies. They describe this proprietary technique as follows:
IDEO, a design firm and consultancy, also approaches design research with methodologies that could be characterized as pseudo-ethnographic. They outline their four-step design process here. The first of those four steps observation is described here. IDEO even makes available for purchase a set of Method Cards that describe 51 methods classified according to their primary participant observation activities: “learn,” “look,” “ask,” and “try.”
Here, you can access a CBC interview with IDEO’s Crispin Jones, who discusses IDEO’s research into and proposed design solutions for irritating cell phone behaviors [scroll to the bottom of the page to find the interview].
Human Factors International, a company that focuses of “user-centered design,” which they describe, in rather effusive self-praise, as follows:
Xerox-PARC teamed up with some Indian researchers, artists, and mediamakers to undertake a very exciting research project -- The Crossing Project -- that reexamined the very form of computing technology and the graphical user interface; and considered ways of integrating the hand and the whole body in the computing experience. The “medium theory” framework should be obvious to you but it’s important to note that the researchers also derived some Eastern philosophical inspiration: they blended their technological research questions with a concern for “a traditional society’s notion of eco-cosmic connections” and “the expressions of traditional arts and crafts in the design of expressive information delivery devices.” It’s a wonderful example of thoughtful, creative, ethnographic multimedia research; read more about it here.
But are the above examples of ethnography? Plowman himself appears on Cheskin’s blog, debating the pros and cons of this “commercialization” of ethnography:
RP: So, is this a valid concern? Should ethnographers worry that their methods have been co-opted (and their name trademarked!) by corporate researchers?
RP: Disregarding any sympathy for Plowman's concerns, can you think of any other ways to apply these methods in the design of media products or productions? Do you feel any differently about Larsen’s claim, from our first reading assignment, that there’s no such thing as “media ethnography”?