Thoughts on writing an ethnography and ‘Picturing the Social’

Thoughts on writing an ethnography and ‘Picturing the Social’

My aim during the ‘Picturing the Social’ project is to research how the members of local online photographic communities explore what constitutes ‘Sheffield’ — a city in the North of England—through the production, consumption and discussion of images. This is therefore not just a study of what photographs of Sheffield ‘look like’, but what functions such images serve in developing situated individual and community identities.

I thought it would be useful if my first blog post on this subject explored what I see as being the main principles of ethnographic research, and how such an approach will be useful for conducting this study.

Ethnography is a process of closely observing participants’ social interactions and practices, which is supplemented by a combination of researcher participation and the asking of questions. A sustained period of this kind of study enables the researcher to create a rich description of one aspect of social life, which is informed by multiple perspectives across several sites.

Ethnography should capture the diversity within a social group, in terms of the various differences and similarities, without trying to simplify the complexity and ambiguity of everyday life. Instead, various comparisons can be made both within the group and outside of it, exploring the ways in which hierarchies are formed, and normative modes of practice are developed and enforced. The organisation of the group and the activities it undertakes are examined for particular rituals, dynamics and themes, with the primary objective being to understand their specific symbolic and structural significance. By unpacking social practices in this way, ethnography looks beyond behaviours to consider what those behaviours do, for individuals and for the wider social / cultural group.

Primarily, the aim is to look at practices as they are situated within everyday life, and as they are experienced by group members themselves. Therefore ethnography — even an ethnography of online behaviours — cannot be conducted simply by watching, in that the researcher must get to know participants and, as far as possible, to know what it is like to be a participant. The statements that subjects make about themselves are a vital component of this, in that they demonstrate how activities are personally engaged with and understood, and highlight discrepancies between what people do, and what they say they do.

By producing a detailed and nuanced description of events in this way, the ethnographer uses observation to develop theories, rather than to test pre-existing hypotheses. Such a project commences with questions to explore, but without any kind of clear idea regarding what the findings will be, nor with any expectation that they can be used to generalize beyond the specific circumstances of their observation. To me, this is one of the strengths of ethnography, in that it seeks to ‘fill the gaps’ in knowledge through an intuitive process of discovering and analysing the somewhat obscure and minute details of everyday practices. Therefore this study’s focus on detail does not solely offer an alternative way of looking at large amounts of unstructured data — by taking an in-depth approach, rather than a broad overview — it does so in order to understand the social value of these practices, which in this case relates to the value of sharing and discussing images of Sheffield online.

The principles of ethnographic research outlined above demonstrate the suitability of this approach for studying online photographic sharing, as to consider how ‘Sheffield’ is articulated photographically, it is necessary to study not just images — asking questions such as What is photographed? What is missing? — but practitioners and other group members. By incorporating the perspective of participants, and considering photography in terms of practices as well as objects, we are able to consider what photographic sharing does for those who engage in it — the relationships it develops, and the identities that are expressed — as well as what it looks like. This point is particularly important, as research should seek to interrogate and contest forms of common knowledge, such as the generalisations that are often made in the media regarding the volume, triviality and low quality of social media photography (my own personal bugbear, and the topic of my PhD thesis). The ‘problem’ here, as I see it, is that photographs on social media are eminently visible, but the functions and values of these images for subjects is not. Therefore my aim is to explore what is normally ‘hidden’ from the public gaze, using an ethnographic approach and a focus on details and on specific subjects to enable a rich and nuanced account of how photography is used and experienced.

Following blog posts will expand on what I have discussed here, by outlining the ethical principles of conducting this kind of research, and exploring some of the options available for engaging in participant observation. Next week, I will consider the overlaps and divisions between online research and research of online spaces, and the differences between using visual material in research, and researching the use of the visual (Ardèvol, 2012).

Cited texts:

Ardévol, E. (2012) Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage. http://www.uk.sagepub.com/booksProdDesc.nav?prodId=Book235866

Image:

Autumn leaves in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.