Ethnographic collaboration with members of the ‘culture’ being studied

Human research, even of the culturally sensitive variety, can be seen as something done to people, the passive recipients of the researcher’s attention. But perhaps this is to overstate the case. The appeal of ethnographic research is a lot to do with the personal relationships – sometimes enduring long past the period of formal study – that are established between the researcher and those in the community; to the extent that a kind of research partnership is established.

Whyte (1993, p. 31), describing his relationship with Doc, the gang leader, writes:

As we spent more time together, I ceased to treat him as a passive informant. I discussed with him quite frankly what I was trying to do, what pro­blems were puzzling me, and so on. Much of our time was spent in this discussion of ideas and observations, so that Doc became, in a very real sense, a collaborator in the research.

This is, of course, a wider issue than a consideration of the selection and interpretation of visual material, wider than ethnography. In any social research checking things out with members of the group being studied at least qualifies the researchers’ interpretations and may reconstruct them entirely. The frame of knowledge of those in the commu­nity, not least their knowledge of the ‘historical’ background of current events, means they bring to the current situation perspectives that are not apparent from observation. When we are considering the interpretation of photographs and video, the meaning(s) of what is represented may only be fully appreciated with this kind of help; and there may be different views on this within the community.

There is a difference between checking out one’s under­standing of visual data, and seeking the collaboration of those in the ‘culture’ in collecting such material: for example, asking them to take photographs using disposable cameras of the patterns and practices of research interest, or asking to see photographs they have taken themselves for other reasons. The events that people choose to record are part of the meaning they attribute to the world they live in. This kind of material may not have been made or retained for research purposes but can still form part of what an ethnographer collects, if it fits the broad frame of the investigation.

Source: Gillham Bill (2008), Observation Techniques: Structured to Unstructured, Continuum; Illustrated edition.

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