Sheffield Forgemasters

Watching, Asking and Doing — Participant Observation within Ethnographic Research

One of the central principles — and strengths — of ethnographic research relates to the means by which data is collected. Alongside conducting interviews and watching participants’ interactions and practices, the ethnographer also obtains their findings through placing themselves within the same social context. Typically, this would involve joining in with certain activities, living with people for a period of time, or even just hanging around in places where groups meet. This participatory element to ethnography produces a qualitatively different perspective from that obtained through remote observation alone, in that the researcher has actually engaged in and experienced some of the things that they are writing about. Critics of the ethnographic approach (such as Bloomfield, 2009) have suggested that such investigations are problematically subjective, in that they focus too heavily on the researcher’s own experiences. But I argue that ethnography uses subjective experience to enrich the broader picture rather than to dominate it, in that participation enables access to forms of understanding and insights that would otherwise be unavailable.

An ethnographic study of online behaviours and groups involves similar practices of participation, even though the researcher may not be in the same physical space as the people they are interacting with. This lack of face to face contact, as well as the comparatively open availability of material, raises questions regarding what specific contribution the ethnographer can make when studying the Internet (Beaulieu, 2004: 155). As Kozinets suggests, the ethnographer adds interpretative insight through careful focus and analysis, which is based upon a period of sustained immersion in the setting, and the building of rapport with participants (2010: 113). The aim of ethnographic study is to ‘see’ and understand the phenomena under investigation from the perspective of other people, by “observing identity performances, rule and norm enforcement, learning acceptable behaviour, sharing exchanges, coming to understand power structures and recognise hierarchies” (O’Reilly, 2009: 217). In order to appreciate the complexity of communities — in terms of how they form, and what they ‘do’ — and the motivations behind individuals’ practices, it is not enough to simply look at online materials. Rather, an ethnographer must form relationships with the people they observe, although negotiating access to participants, and getting to know them, is not a process that can be rushed. In order to learn about why people use and engage with photography in the way they do, I will need to earn their trust over a period of time. Within an online group, such familiarity and trust is built through active participation and the contribution of content that is of interest and value to the other members (Kozinets, 2010). But this will not be what Kozinets calls a ‘pure’ netnography, as fieldwork will be undertaken both on and offline.

Therefore, during this study it will not be sufficient for me to simply sit and stare at my monitor, as I will need to meet and interact with participants in order to experience their photo-taking and sharing practices first hand. Crucially, in order to engage with people who take photographs, it is necessary for me to similarly go out and take pictures — pictures that will be of interest to others, and that will contribute something to the group. Having for years been a studio-based photographer, and interested primarily in portraiture, it will be something of a departure for me to go out into Sheffield and learn to see the city anew, with a photographer’s eye.

The images I take will be shared here, on the blog, as well as on the Sheffield-themed sites I am exploring. Ardévol (2012) and Estalella (2008) identify such practices of online participation as a “strategy of co-presence”, in which the researcher’s online materials and presence is used to inform participants about the project, and to familiarise them with the person conducting it. Furthermore, I will need to note which of my images are received well by these online groups, and which are found to be uninteresting. I have made a few initial posts already in one group: a landscape image received a few likes, whereas a historical photograph of the local area prompted dozens of comments and interactions, with some participants posting screengrabs from Google Streetview trying to locate the site in question. This kind of practical experimentation — testing what actually happens when I post images — is invaluable when coupled with interview data, as it provides a broader perspective on practices and interactions than observation could hope to achieve alone.

As well as posting content to this blog and online groups, I also hope to speak to and join in with others whilst they are taking pictures, to see how my immediate experience of photography compares with their own. I am therefore considering the various places in which people gather and discuss photography, from local camera clubs to adult education courses. Additionally, I am looking to identify similarities and differences in the ways individuals and organisations use photography to construct and promote their own vision of Sheffield, ranging from students at the University, to the University itself, and even the local council. I hope that by taking this approach — considering a broad range of participants and contexts, and experiencing online sharing for myself — I will generate some interesting findings, which explore the complexity and social importance of contemporary popular photographic practices.

Ardévol, E. (2012) Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

Beaulieu, A. (2004) Mediating ethnography: objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the internet. Social Epistemology, 18(2–3), 139–163.

Bloomfield, R. (2009) How online communities and flawed reasoning sound a death knell for qualitative methods. Terra Nova blog, 31st March.

Estalella, A. (2008) ‘Blogging as Fieldwork: More Than Producing Knowledge, Performing Reality in Ethnography’, paper presented at the ‘In the Game’ pre-conference. Copenhagen: AOIR

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.

O’Reilly, K. (2009) Key Concepts in Ethnography. London: Sage.

‘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.

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