The Necessity of Film
By Daniel Miller, on 31 July 2020
Both during the Why We Post project and during the ASSA project, I have been in the very privileged position of being able to visit all the ethnographic fieldsites. In these projects, each ethnographer writes extensively from the field and does so very well. Yet actually visiting their fieldsites added so much to my understanding of their research. But that is a disastrous admission because future readers of their monographs will never visit their fieldsites. So if I gained so much from the actual visit, despite the quality of their writing, what that really exposes is the ultimate failure of ethnographic writing by itself as the medium of research dissemination. The implication is not just that we can add something more to writing, we simply have to.
There are various ways in which this could be accomplished. Jay Sokolovsky, who works on the anthropology of ageing, has been a pioneer in exploring multi-media, as incorporated within his books. You can see this in the new edition of his edited book The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives, 4th Edition. There are many other examples of using various media to enhance text in contemporary anthropology. The Why We Post project and the ASSA project complement their publications with films, this blog, the website and other media. We will make particular use of visual materials that employ the skills of our team, such as infographics, painting and cartoons.
One of the differences between the Why We Post project and the ASSA project is that we plan to now add films as an integral part of our books, just as still photos have been a traditional element of ethnography monographs. We feel this is possible since almost all of the readership of the Why We Post volumes came from downloads rather than printed books. Currently, we are making the films that will go into these books and also our planned MOOC, which will be available on the Futurelearn platform.
Films are clearly not the same as actually visiting a fieldsite, but they do give a sense of places and people that can help in bridging that gap. Often, the sound is as important as the visual. Films may also raise issues beyond those of text. Older people in some regions are concerned about the way their outer appearance may not correspond to the age they feel themselves to be. The anonymity that is preserved by text is not possible for films about individuals and this requires a different consent procedure.
Based on what we understand as the way people tend to consume visuals these days, we will try to keep all our films under three minutes. As an example, this is a film that I made during my fieldwork in Ireland. I love the craft of writing but I would never be able, through writing alone, to convey the personality of the main individual who appears in this film. The film also gave her a chance to participate in the process of how she would want to appear and contribute to an anthropological study of ageing and its consequences.