What am I looking for? Considering suitable research questions for an ethnographic study.

What am I looking for? Considering suitable research questions for an ethnographic study.

The ethnography I will be conducting for ‘Picturing the Social’ aims to explore and understand the ways in which people use and experience online photographic sharing.

Before I progress any further, I need to ask myself, what is it I want to know? What is it I think I can know by conducting an ethnography in this way? In short, I need to start thinking about my research questions, as these questions will be important in guiding my approach.

After preliminary observation, I have begun to divide the field into three broad categories: individual photographers, who post images on sites such as Flickr and Instagram; photography groups, who gather to share and talk about photographs online, offline or both; and institutions, such as Sheffield Council and the local Universities. Although in each category, I will in effect be observing individuals and asking them about their practice, I found these categories useful in helping to theorise the different types of context, and how these affect photographic sharing.

My initial thoughts on what questions I might ask each category of participant (and what I might also ask myself) are as follows:

 

For individuals:

  • What choices do you make over which images to post, and which to keep private?
  • What about Sheffield do you like to photograph? How do you think your images differ from other people’s? i.e. in terms of style, access to unusual places or witty way of seeing things.
  • Are there other people’s images that you like? Who are they, and why?
  • What motivates you to take and post images of Sheffield? When did you first begin to upload these kinds of pictures, and what was it that made you start?
  • Where do you post your images? Do you alter them in any way before you post them?
  • Do you look at other people’s images of Sheffield?
  • Does online sharing make you feel part of a wider group or community, either in terms of amongst other photographers / people who share their interests, or in terms of the wider geographical location itself?

 

Questions for me, about individuals:

  • How does online sharing influence sociality? Do participants see social interaction around their images as important, or do they have other priorities?
  • What different platforms do participants use, and what does each offer them? Why choose one over another, i.e. why post on Instagram rather than in a group?
  • How does the posting and viewing of images of Sheffield impact upon people’s experience of the city itself? How do they view the relationship between their images, and the city as experienced by others?

 

For photography groups:

  • What do you enjoy about meeting up with fellow photographers? What do you enjoy about sharing your images online? How do the two experiences differ? Do you think you would ever stop doing one or the other?
  • Do you regularly attend meetings / look at the online page or group?
  • What rules are enforced by other members of the group, in terms of what can be shown and discussed? How are these rules enforced, and who does it? What else needs to be done to ensure the smooth running of the group? How could things be better? What, if anything, has ever gone wrong?
  • What groups are you a member of, and how does each group differ? Are you more active in one group than another, and why?
  • What kinds of images, if any, do you most like to share, or see shared?
  • Do you feel that taking, sharing and discussing photographs enables you to do anything different, such as learn new things, or see the city in a new way?
  • Have you met new people / made any friends as a result of being in this group?

 

Questions for me, about photography groups:

  • What do people talk about in the online groups? Is discussion limited to photographic technique or form, or are images used as a starting point to discuss other topics?
  • How are these spaces for taking and sharing images governed? What are the rules?
  • How are different types of image rewarded in different ways? What makes a popular image in these contexts, and what do other participants seem to want to see?
  • How does participation in photography groups online and offline differ? What are the different affordances of each? Are there trends towards online participation, or is offline activity still important? How can the division between online and offline be explored and contested in this field?

 

For institutions:

  • Why do you use and share images of Sheffield?
  • Who decides what gets shared? Are they working to a particular set of objectives? What decisions and considerations are involved in this process?
  • What kinds of image do you use, and where do they come from (i.e. is there a specific photographer or archive)?
  • What image or idea of Sheffield did you wish to promote through the photographs you choose to share? Does this change at all, according to time of year and trends?
  • Have you had any problems (inappropriate, complaints, copyright etc.) with the images that you have shared?
  • Do you share images of Sheffield outside of this role, such as for personal enjoyment? How are the two experiences different / the same?

 

Questions for me, about institutions:

  • What do institutions, and their representatives, hope to achieve through photographic sharing?
  • How has photographic sharing been employed and governed as part of a broader objective, such as for city marketing, or improving access to library collections?
  • How do the concerns of institutional bodies differ from one another, and from those of individuals? What kinds of restrictions are in place?
  • Where do institutions see the future of photographic sharing?
  • So following on from these sub-questions, my main research questions are:
  • Differences and connections. How do norms and practices of photographic sharing differ across individuals, groups and institutional spaces? What is photographic sharing used to ‘do’ by these different participants?
  • Perception of Authority / ‘Veracity’ etc. Are there different levels of ‘authority’, in terms of who is doing the taking or the sharing of images? For instance, how do viewers perceive the differences between personal images, and the Picture Sheffield resource of historical photographs?
  • Photographs as catalyst. What kinds of activities are prompted by shared photographs? How do these relate to notions of time or space? e.g. discussing memories, talking about present day, establishing ‘how things are’,
  • Experience. I want to explore how social media photography is used and experienced by a range of participants. I will look at this in terms of geographical location, and sociality:
  • Geographical experience. How does sharing, viewing and discussing photographs online affect participants’ experience of Sheffield? How do participants use photographs as a way of negotiating local or national identities?
  • Social experience. How is sharing, viewing and discussing photographs a social experience as well as an aesthetic one? In what ways do participants find personal value in shared / sharing photographs?

 

These questions are bound to change and be added to, but now I know the kinds of things I want to find out, I can begin work out who it is I am going to ask!

Image:

Industrial Park, Sheffield Don Valley