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Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

TomMcDonald12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

It’s not what we find, it’s what you learn that counts

DanielMiller1 September 2013

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

I have now completed two fieldsite visits. I will be visiting six more over the next five months. But already there is one issue that I am becoming increasingly anxious about. Anyone reading this blog regularly would understand why even after five months, which is one-third of our fieldwork, I would predict that this study will surpass even our wildest ambitions in terms of what should be our main criteria, that is the level of original insight this will bring to our understanding of the impact of social and new media on the world today. But that is just the half of it, because I feel the extraordinary richness of engagement at each and every site means that these nine studies should give us a depth of engagement with the wider lives of ordinary people across our contemporary world that is unrivalled.

The two site visits that have confirmed this feeling. In both cases I find the material revelatory. This is partly because the sites are so well chosen. The Indian case of 200,000 (soon to be 700,000) IT workers plonked into the middle of villages creating a radical juxtaposition is symptomatic of the transformation of India. In Brazil I had been very sceptical of this term ‘new middle class,’ because I could not see how you could apply this to the level of domestic cleaning staff and construction workers that populate our fieldsite. But now I have seen how squatting has turned into a strategy for long term property investment, and met the children who go to University and aspire to do post-graduate work abroad, I can see how this site also is perfect for understanding the future of Brazil.

So why I am anxious? It is because I learnt so much from actually visiting the sites themselves. In this project we do a good deal of internal reporting. Both Shriram Venkatraman and Juliano Spyer have already each written around 45,000 word descriptions of their projects. Both have long experience in writing in previous commercial employment and some journalism, and write unusually well. Having seen their sites I don’t see how they could have done a better job of conveying them. Yet to be honest there were so many things I didn’t really get until I actually visited them. The problem is that no one, other than me, will visit all these sites. We hope to gain a huge popular audience for our findings, but none of these people will be able to experience the sites as I have done. The ultimate point of research is not what the researchers have learnt, but what they succeed in conveying to the readership they attract. Even if they both write superb academic and popular books, which I fully expect they will do, it’s just not the same as actually being here.

All of which means that we have to do something else, to bridge that gap, if the project is to deliver as we intend. One possibility is that we learn from online behaviour as to how to use the online to convey academic findings more effectively, whether that be film, user generated content, animation, cartoon, clever graphics or photos, or some interplay between these. I am not sure I have yet seen an ethnographic work that quite managed this. It will be the topic of Sheba Mohammid’s contribution to the project which is a plus. But until this is accomplished, I am going to remain anxious about how we will manage to achieve this ambition. Also I feel very aware of a final contradiction. Since I will have visited all the sites, I will never be able to recreate the naïve state of pre-visiting. So how would I even know if we have succeeded in adding that extra dimension to our dissemination? Hopefully, the answer will lie in the reception of the results by others – hopefully.

Doing stuff, and telling people about it

DanielMiller1 April 2013

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Ok, this is a seriously big project. Starting from today, there will be eight simultenous 15-month ethnographies taking place in fieldsites around the world. To have funding for something on this scale devoted to a given topic is unique. Given that, we have a responsibility to do things which transcend the academic outputs we are initially funded to produce. There has to be an altogether different ambition for the results of this project that goes way beyond our remit. To signify that ambition we recently appointed Sheba Mohammid as Director of Policy and Implementation and also devised a new title for the project called the Global Social Media Impact Study with its own website at gsmis.org. What these changes signify is that even while the main fieldwork is about to start, we are thinking about two future developments.

The first is to ensure there is an applied outcome and the second concerns dissemination. As it happens, the very first project to be carried out to conclusion was my own research on behalf of a hospice, just North-West of London, where for six months I studied usage by end-of-life cancer patients and the hospice itself. I have not written any academic papers, but have constructed an extensive report detailing recommended changes that use this research directly to improve communications with patients. It’s early days, but I am optimistic several of these will be implemented. Once we feel we have gained enhanced knowledge of how people use social media, then we hope that Sheba will help us to find case-studies in Trinidad. This partly because we would like to do more than simply align ourselves with the usual welfare and critical stance of social science. We want to commit to projects that demonstrably make peoples lives better. But at the same time we want to test ourselves. If we are making claims that we will understand social media usage better through our studies, then the best evidence may be not just academic papers, but creating social media projects ourselves that demonstrably work better as a result of implementing our findings.

The second shift is intended to ensure that whatever it is we learn from our study is conveyed beyond the academic audience. So under our original title ‘Social Networking Sites and Social Science‘ we intend to produce considerable academic output, but the Global Social Media Impact Study is about using the same social media we study to also disseminate the results to non-academic popular audiences. Amongst other initiatives is the hope we will raise money for films directed by Meghana Gupta. We are looking to co-create, through user generated content, enhanced e-books, perhaps a MOOC (freely available university course). Sheba spent seven years implementing e-policy and e-learning for the Trinidad and Tobago government and has been educating our team in these areas of implementation. She will carry this out working with myself together with Jo Tacchi and Heather Horst at RMIT Melbourne. If we end up having things we feel are worth saying then it makes sense to be active in soliciting an audience. The gsmis.org website is a start towards that goal.