Looking, Listening and Researching: Using Ethnography as a Visual Method

Looking, Listening and Researching: Using Ethnography as a Visual Method

The Visual Social Media lab was on tour again this week, when I gave a presentation about Imaging Sheffield to the Visual Methods and Ethnography workshop at Edinburgh Napier University.

This workshop looked at innovative ways in which visual materials can be used in ethnographic research. Eric Laurier began the day by guiding us through a video analysis exercise, in which we were all considerably surprised by the amount of rich and nuanced material that could be gathered from even short and seemingly straightforward clips of coffee-shop activity.

Tijana Rakic discussed a dominant theme of the workshop, namely the complexities of conducting ethical research. Tijana began by outlining the process of obtaining ethical approval, but then emphasized the necessity of flexibility, in which research is alert to, and can adapt to, the changing ethical demands of the context. Using the example of an ethnographic film she made about visitors to the Acropolis in Athens, Tijana described the ways in which she selected participants, gained their consent and incorporated their perspectives alongside and in contrast to one another.

Diane MacLean argued that her Gaelic documentaries produced for BBC Alba constituted a form of ethnography, in that they depicted her participants’ perspectives on their home and way of life. Additionally, Diane explained how her own background, located on the islands she filmed, was heavily influential on how she depicted subjects and staged her form of ‘intervention’. I particularly enjoyed her use of a quote about that strange breed known as ethnographic filmmakers (see image above).

My own paper emphasised two main points – firstly, that images are an important aspect of social media research, and that an ethnographic approach is particularly well-suited for unpacking some of the ‘small stories’ in relation to the multitude of online photographic practices. Secondly, I followed on the theme of research ethics from Tijana, arguing (as I have elsewhere before) that researchers need to step outside of their own conceptions of public, private and harm in order to appreciate that we cannot always know what constitutes sensitive information, or understand how data we collect now could be problematically re-appropriated by others at a later date.

Sharon Greenwood concluded the workshop by presenting research on disabled female fashion bloggers. She made an important point about research ethics, regarding what to do when there is a mismatch between a university’s ethical procedure, and one’s own moral standpoint. This was a useful point on which to end the day, and prompted some interesting post-workshop discussions on ethics, social media and the more general use of visual methods.

‘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.