Video as a Replacement to the Ethnographer

Video is one of the most important and effective ways of communicating research findings. As such, video is often used to convey participant stories and communicate ethnographic findings. Increasingly, video has become a substitute for note taking and in some case, it has essentially been billed as a cheap, quick alternative to fieldwork.

But it isn’t a replacement for fieldwork and the trained ethnographer, regardless of what some might say. Claiming that it can do what fieldwork can do is akin to saying that hotplates can replace all other modes of cooking – in some instances that’s true, but not when you’re talking about cooking a meal for multiple people on a daily basis. Of course the analogy isn’t perfect here, but it hopefully conveys the point that while video ethnography is part of the tool kit in qualitative research, claiming it can replace ethnographic fieldwork is misleading and, well, often flat wrong.  Video is a tool. As with any tool, knowing when and how to use it is pivotal to its success. And while anyone can use a hammer, in the hands of a professional carpenter, the results will probably be superior to those of the average person.

So what do I mean when talking about video ethnography. Video ethnography is the recording of the stream of activity of subjects in their natural setting, in order to experience, interpret, and represent culture and society. At least, that is what it has meant.  Unlike ethnographic film, it cannot be used independently of other ethnographic methods, but rather as part of the process of creation and representation of societal, cultural, and individual knowledge.  Uses of video in ethnography include the recording of certain processes and activities, visual note-taking, and ethnographic diary-keeping. Video is not a replacement for fieldwork or the fieldworker. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, assuming that putting a camcorder in the hands of a participant and thinking they will capture everything needed for analysis assumes that the participant isn’t self-selecting. People record what they want, not what you need – context is often overlooked, unpleasant or uncomfortable situations are omitted, and the subjects of the video are driven by the participant’s biases. Second, using participant video as a substitute for the ethnographer on the ground means that the right questions to ask rarely emerge. It is like the story of the three blind men and the elephant. We end up with only the tail and base or analysis and recommendation on a small portion of the observed rather than the whole.  So, without accompanying fieldwork the video is of limited value and may yield conclusion that are misleading of flat out dangerous.

Video ethnography involves:

  • Observation, including extensive filming of practitioners
  • Allowing practitioners to view the video recorded material and reflexively discuss their practice
  • Building the capacity for the ongoing and critical appraisal of practice

Video-ethnographic methods seek to foreground practitioner knowledge, expertise, and insight into the dynamics of their own work processes. This is achieved by first talking with practitioners about their beliefs, structures, work and organizational processes, and by seeking an articulation of the social, professional, environmental, and organizational contingencies that both enable and constrain their practice. By allowing practitioners to discuss their practices in response to video footage researchers gain insight into areas of practice that may be benefit from redesign. Video ethnography is contingent on the researcher gaining the trust of practitioners, on becoming familiar with the site and on being trusted to be present at time and in places where critical conducts are undertaken. And that combined, collaborative structure of the research design is what produces real insight.

Despite the new rhetoric of empathy and inclusiveness, of involving the user and understanding people’s needs, the person pointing the camera still occupies a position of authority in relation to the subject. This is no less real just because it is concealed beneath a soft blanket of warm feeling. Whether the camera is held by the practitioner or the subject/researcher, the fact remains that even in an increasingly video-centric world, the camera is still an intrusion, altering the situation.  This is why we occasionally turn the camera off – seeing the changes that emerge when recording is off is as important as what we capture on film. So eliminating the researcher from the field equation means relying on a medium that is fraught with unresolved issues as subjects of the video negotiate power and meaning. In other words, if the camera is all you have to go on, especially if there isn’t even an ethnographer using it, there will people an enormous number of misleading statements and representations.

So what am I suggesting? It’s rather simple. Anyone saying they can produce ethnographic research and analysis without the use of an ethnographer in the field is selling a bill of goods.  It is cheap and fast, but yields information that is decidedly limited. As a tool in the larger project it has become indispensable, but as a replacement it is lacking.  In an era of budget cuts and the ever-present need to get insights quickly, it is tempting to look at something like video ethnography as it is often being billed (i.e. putting cameras in the hands of participants and leaving it largely at that) as a viable alternative to more complete research. But sometimes cheap and fast simply don’t make the grade.  For a marketer or designer, the question becomes, are the upfront savings worth getting your product or message wrong?

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Great review of what I call a metonymy: as ethnography is becoming trendy and cool, more and more consultants and agencies try to leverage it without paying its methodological taxes. Indeed, “qualitative research with a camera” is a good example of those ethno-me-too movement.

  2. Check out this project we did using videos. I’m not a professional ethnographer and I was not all the time on the field, but I still found great value in letting people film the places that matter to them. Sure, you miss things that you would have noticed if you were there all the time, but it’s also very instructive to analyse how people curate their own environment, deform it, promote some of its aspects and censure others. The simplistic approach of taking what is shown in videos for granted is wrong, but if you have a good knowledge in film studies, and are able to decode the various strategies used by the participants to narrate their own lives, then it can offer a great insight into a cultural practice.

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