Report from Media Worlds and the Ethnographic Imagination workshop

By Jerome Turner on June 20th, 2014

On Monday I went to Media Worlds and the Ethnographic Imagination, a launch workshop event for Goldsmiths University’s new Media Ethnography Group, ‘an interdisciplinary network of scholars who use ethnography to understand our mediated worlds’.

My interest comes from my PhD work, where I’m currently researching community media audiences through an ethnographic ‘participant observer’ study of a local website where I live.

The day started with a keynote from David Morley discussing media audiences, that he described as ‘Part 2’ of work he had presented in the seventies. This was useful as a broad grounding of media ethnography and its contribution to studies of society: “Television for many people remains at the heart of the everyday.” He later pointed out that media is not centric to everything though, identifying that ethnography can at least identify “how important are which media, for which people, at which point of the day.”

Q and A teased out an answer to the common questions of ‘how long’ an ethnography should be: weeks, months, years? Morley pointed out it’s not useful to think of method in those terms because there will always be someone who has spent longer on a subject, but suggested that in the case of interview numbers, you continue “until you know what the answer is going to be before they say it.” Questions relating to transparency of the researcher relationship and rigour were also clarified: as you long as you describe the parameters and perceived limitations of the work (i.e. how many years, interviews, etc) there should be no problem.

Papers then followed on: mobile phone appropriation and use in Mozambique (Julie Archambault); film projections for Thai spirit audiences (Richard MacDonald); film-making as ethnographic practice (Isaac Marrero-Guillamón), such as Jean Rouch’s Moi, Un Noir. These presentations collectively demonstrated how ethnography can take the researcher down unexpected paths.

The afternoon started with Somnath Batabyal discussing his newsroom ethnography of the Murdoch-owned Star News in India, which he later worked into a novel rather than traditional ethnography monograph. Journalists are increasingly becoming researchers, but in ethnography at least, this creates issues when they return to a previous workplace as researcher, so Batabyal instead used contacts to find a site where he wasn’t known. This created further problems with access, but he was able to monopolise on a perception amongst the staff that he was a ‘company stooge’ that they were obliged to engage with, before then building a more trusting relationship through ongoing contact. This addressed concerns I’ve had with my own work about whether it’s valid or rigourous to use existing contacts and relationships for access; the reality is that finding participants to contribute even their time can be hard, and should be accepted as part of the process, to be transparently declared in writeup and taken into account in analysis.

Gareth Stanton presented a personal perspective of journalists working in anthropology, at which point I realised David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets is a work of ethnography, albeit one that is presented as a fiction.

The last panel of the day looked to ethnography’s contribution to digital culture, with presentations from Veronica Barassi, Marianne Franklin and Mirca Madianou from Goldsmiths’ Media and Communications Department joined by colleague Evelyn Ruppert from Sociology, talking about forthcoming work exploring the practice of ‘Big Data’ scientists. The discussion throughout this session was especially helpful in addressing personal concerns about my work observing public online platforms, the ethical issue of invisibly observing an online space, and how this should be declared to those unknowing ‘participants’. A fine balance should be struck between clarity, and overstating the case to the point of damaging the field site, and researchers should be aware of their relationship to those they study. As Madianou pointed out, “Participant observation is not just about being a researcher. You benefit by giving or showing something of yourself.” This was a sentiment expressed by Franklin too: ethnography can be demanding on those communities or individuals being studied, try to ensure you “give something back.”