Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics.
Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we?
With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning.


Video and Analysis

It is not uncommon for a researcher using film in data collection to run into people concerned with the validity of the method.  Sometimes the concerns revolve around whether film and video are art or science.  Because of its interpretive, creative, impressionistic, and emotional attributes, art is sometimes assumed to be in direct conflict with an objective, value-free “science”—apparently creating an unavoidable conflict between the goals of film as art and user research as science. Consequently, people—academics and professionals alike—often assume limited possibilities for film.  The status of film as a serious analytical resource has remained fairly marginal.

Film is sometimes seen as a humanistic pastime, not significant scientific work. It is meant to appeal to the audience’s emotional pliability.  Ultimately, the producer of the final visual document is seen as selectively building subjectively constituted data and constructing a piece that reflects his/her interpretation rather than “the facts”.  However, the same can be said for any written document, particularly when behavioral research methods are applied to data collection for a specific task or client need.  A logo-centric culture prevents researchers from benefiting from the full breadth of insight and information available, treating video as if has less validity than the written word.  However, written reports often have pictures, films often use written narratives, subtitles or intertitles.  They always have accompanying written material.  The reality is that while the film-focused researcher does indeed run the risk of compromising the complex realities of a particular behavior or series of behaviors, the risk is no greater than that of the researcher relying primarily on the written word.

Typically, film is accepted most openly is when it is considered to fit the documentary archetype.  This stems from the widely held belief that film is a mirror for the world.  The argument is that the camera is a device for scientifically recording data about human behavior that is more objective than other types of information because of the mechanical nature of the collection device.  While this may be true, it probably is not.  However, given the context of the work (time limitations and constraints imposed by the nature of contractual research), the footage supplied by the camera may be as close as we can get to a check of objectivity.  The reality of research purchased by a company is such that it assumes, even demands, a final product that is easily used, applies to a wide range of internal needs, and can be readily disseminated.

For some, manipulation of the footage (editing it into a film, altering, etc.) destroys its “scientific value.”  The model is that teams go into the field to film material, the scientist studies the footage, and the filmmaker transforms into art.  In actuality, this fantasy is never realized.  The footage is indeed dissected and analyzed by the researcher, typically transformed into a product the client will readily consume, but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  In fact, any and all research, be it in the field and interpretive or in the laboratory and highly controlled, involves degrees of subjectivity and personal biasing.  This hardly invalidates the work or the means by which data are captured and displayed.  Validity and reliability are not necessarily one and the same.

If researchers are supposed to make films intelligible to client audiences, they must learn what common sense, such as it is, dictates as constituting a good documentary film, that is, they should emulate the aesthetic conventions of documentary realism.   Pieces of the puzzle are, of course, missing from any documentary film, but the most important themes and primary informational pieces remain for consumption by a wide range of viewers.  The pieces selected for a final edit do indeed play to the emotions of the client, but without that emotional impact clients are likely to forego the deeper issues entirely, unwilling or unable to sift through the informational tome so often presented by researchers.  By communicating customer needs, reactions, behaviors, etc., film spurs viewers to delve deeper into the research findings and examine the totality of the research in greater detail.  Film can be used to access a level of emotional response and personal identification or conflict which is difficult within the lexical constraints of writing.  By a series of movements in a sequence, films can communicate in concrete and specific terms what in written words would be abstract expressions.

Another argument against video documentation as a primary means of disseminating findings is that because prior consent is always sought, there is always some degree engagement by the participant with the camera and therefore the findings are inaccurate.  However, the very fact that participants are recruited for any study by definition means that there is some degree of awareness and engagement.

Consequently, whether the awareness and engagement take place with the researcher exclusively or with the researcher and camera together, the authenticity of an activity, context, or behavior should not be in dispute.  After all, typically, the camera is soon forgotten, but the person asking questions and watching over the shoulder remains.

The Case of Cell Phones, Youth, and Japan

We applied video field data gathering and mini-documentary reporting during a recent study for a wireless communications provider who wanted to understand mobile phone usage in Japan.

A company had contracted with the consulting firm for whom I was working at the time in the hope of gaining a better understanding of how  portable information devices (such as PDAs) and internet-ready cellular phones were used in the context of daily life.  They were interested in uncovering what characteristics other than image quality, sound quality, and functionality were determinate in the decision to purchase a PDA or cellular phone in urban centers of Japan, and why those “peripheral” issues were important.  The term “peripheral” is the term used by executives to describe how they viewed the work – they were skeptical of the notion that culture impacts perceptions and uses of technology.  So, while the team was ensured work, there was little guarantee that the findings would be implemented.  In addition, the researchers were given half the time to conduct the research that they had originally requested.  Gaining the attention and interest of primary decision makers became in order to conduct further, more in-depth research at a later date became almost as important as the findings.  Without continued research, the researchers feared that the company would act without consideration to the needs and cultural patterns of the population.

The team was asked to identify some of the behavioral and cultural motivators in the purchasing decisions of young (16 – 30 years old) Japanese from middle-income homes.  The research took place in several locations in Japan to provide a range of cultural practices.  However, because the researchers (two ethnographers and one social psychologist) were out of touch most of the time but needed at the end of the project to build a single, cohesive series of conclusions, they needed to capture the participant observation sessions on video for later shared analysis and review.  Added to this was the fact that only two of the researchers spoke Japanese well enough to effectively communicate.   The other had to rely on interpreters or the language skills of the informant.  The researchers decided it was imperative to capture on video exactly what was said for later analysis and translation.

Because of time constraints and the limited language skills of the researchers, the goal of the research centered greatly on material culture, display,  and overt patterns of interaction.  Consequently, activities, objects, spaces, and moments of interaction needed to be captured on video so that the researchers could return to the tapes later to catalogue patterns.  Without the video footage, much of the information would have been overlooked or misinterpreted – video allowed the team to accurately assess their assumptions, catalogue use patterns and artifacts, and check for validity.

By returning to the video over a two-week period, the researchers were able to determine with some accuracy what designs were preferred and why, what levels of functionality were important, what was most significant in terms of brand and image, and what patterns of interaction were taking place.  It also allowed them to demonstrate what they did not know and thus get buy-in to conduct more extensive research.  The final video presented to the company ensured that business planners and designers would be sensitive to cultural aspects of products to be used in Japan.

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?