‘What do you think?’: Ethnography and researching the perspectives of others

We conduct research not just to mine data from informants, but to learn about their theoretical and pragmatic insights (Boellstorff et. al, 2012: 16)

For me, this line from ‘Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Methods’ sums up the value of ethnographic research. As a form of qualitative inquiry, ethnography is primarily concerned with unstructured and sometimes unruly forms of data that help to develop a rich and nuanced insight into a community. But as Boellstorff et al. emphasise, ethnography is about more than just data — it is also about perspective.

Although a survey might capture someone’s opinions, it is only by extended contact and interaction that we can hope to understand how other people conceptualise and experience their worlds. Although behaviour can be recorded in a number of ways — photographed, recorded in notes, sketched — it is only through asking and listening that the significance of practices can be appreciated. Ethnography is therefore more than just a process of data collection — rather, it is an engagement with the subject, and the subject’s way of thinking, which does not seek to reduce it to a series of either statistics or soundbites.

Furthermore, the means by which ethnography solicits the theoretical standpoints of participants helps to address the problem of researcher bias, as there is more than just one interpretation of events. An emphasis on asking also helps to address the researcher / subject power imbalance by acknowledging the crucial importance of what subjects think and feel, as well as what they do.

This focus on eliciting alternative forms of conceptualising the world is important for the broader Picturing the Social project — and more specifically, for this ethnography, which is now entitled ‘Imaging Sheffield’ — as I am keen to find out what social media photography means to people. What do people experience by sharing images online, and how do they theorise their own behaviours? Extrapolating from enormous data sets, of millions of images, can only tell us so much. As my PhD research showed, if you don’t actually ask people why they use photography in certain ways, problematic assumptions (“selfies are narcissistic”) emerge and get embedded. Ethnography is a particularly useful technique for counteracting these stereotypes, in that can be used to explore the complex motivations behind photographic practice, and appreciates that ‘the data’ is just half of the story.

Works cited:

Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Image:

‘Sheffield Storm Brewing’ by David Squire. From Flickr, http://bit.ly/1HZhots, used under a CC license.