Dipping my toes into the history of video in social research…

For the first week of COM 810: Directed Readings, I’ve read two articles focusing on the history of video-based methods in social research. The first, an article by Wesley Shrum, Ricardo Duque, and Timothy Brown (2005), focuses on qualitative, ethnographic uses, while the second article by Frederick Erickson (2011), focuses more on behaviorist approaches, specifically noting the earliest developments of context analysis for video-based data collection. Below are my notes and comments from each article.

Shrum, Duque, Brown (2005). Digital video as research practice: methodology for the millennium. Journal of Research Practice 1(1): 1–19.

Beginning with an overview of digital video as qualitative research practice, Shrum et al (2005) immediately connects this type of work to ethnography. They describe ethnography as “a qualitative method that seeks a thorough description of a particular stratum of the social world by ‘telling the story of how people, through collaborative and indirectly interdependent behaviour, create the ongoing character of particular social places and practices’ (Katz, 1997, p. 414)” (Shrum et al, 2005, p. 3). Their use of “telling a story” to describe ethnographic work is important, especially when paired with their later critiques of video recordings solely used as data collection:

“However systematic the recording, however reliable their coding, these tapes remain archived and unused. The recordings have great potential. They contain the visual cues prized by the original Chicago School of urban sociology (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999). But they have not provided the sights, sounds, and feel of the streets for anyone but the original investigators” (p. 4).

The sights, sounds, feel — the story — is just as important as the “data” collected by the researchers. These descriptive and narrative qualities in ethnographic work I feel can be overlooked as “fluff,” but in fact, I find them to be some of the most important things to pay attention to.

Finally, the most poignant concepts that Shrum et al (2005) drive across in this piece overall are 1) the camera is an actor in the research process and 2) “both behavior and observation occur in both directions — in front of and behind the camera” (p. 2). Acknowledging the camera as an actor in the research process is important so that I do not find myself thinking that what I’ve recorded on my camera is somehow closer to the “truth” (or what would have happened if I weren’t there) than if I had used a different form of field note taking. The equipment is not unbiased. As Shrum et al (2005) writes,

“The camera can take on the identity of the researcher or that of the subject, and in the next instant be a third party observer, a meta-subject occupying the focus of the video-active context or meta-researcher hovering inconspicuously over the research scene” (p. 8).

These concepts were further illuminated in Shrum et al’s (2005) explanation of “the fluid wall” — in contrast to what many in theater would call the “invisible wall” — the separation between actors and audience, between “the artifacts and the work of the camera crew doing the recording” (p. 9). The fluid wall represents a fluid nature in video ethnography, where participants and observers may exchange roles. Participants have authority to say what should be filmed — exemplified in the story of their ethnographic work in Chile:

“Yet the sense of an invisible wall is quickly dispelled when he wishes to show me a journal or book — he motions to the camera as if to suggest that these objects are worthy of direct documentation. Each time, I oblige, moving the camera to film every object he offers to me. In this crossover from questioning to demonstration and back, the wall proves fluid — the camera’s presence as a silent instigator of interview behaviour is powerfully felt” (p. 15).

I loved this story — especially as a precursor to doing this type of ethnographic work. What would happen if the ethnographer said no to filming something that the participants wanted filmed? I would imagine that it would make a participant feel not only belittled, but also very suspicious. If this person with a camera tells me that they want to study my story and culture, and I tell them something is important to that story, and they say no, I’d be left thinking, “then what the heck are they really here for?” I feel that the fluid wall is important not only to recognize, but to embrace.

Erickson, F. (2011). Uses of video in social research: a brief history. International Journal Of Social Research Methodology, 14(3), 179–189

A more historical piece, this article describes the origins of video-based approaches to social research, focusing mostly on behaviorist research with the occasional mention of ethnographic and hermeneutic approaches. In contrast to Shrum et al (2005)’s note that the first ethnographic film was in 1922, Erickson chooses to focus on silent films used in the late 19th century, specifically noting “the second Torres Straits expedition in 1898, headed by the English anthropologist, Alfred C. Haddon. A short film was made, showing the making of a basket” (p. 179). He continues on to mention the work of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, along with Reusch, Keys, and Goffman (p. 179–180). Erickson notes the “The first systematic attempt at simultaneous analysis of verbal and nonverbal aspects of social interaction, using sound cinema film, took place in 1955–56 in an interdisciplinary research group at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASB) at Stanford University” (p. 180). The CASB research group would move on to work over the next 10 years to produce “The Natural History of an Interview” (NHI), which later became recognized as the initial “context analysis” (p. 180).

Something I hadn’t even thought about until Erickson mentioned it was the use of silent films in sports — where coaches would review recent games in order to improve team tactics and strategy as early as the 1950’s. This film review, reflection, and subsequent efforts toward improvement is later mentioned in the use of video-recording in studying education. Noting his own studies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Erickson (2011) notes:

“These two studies, attempting thorough documentation of routine classroom activities across the course of an entire school year (in the case of my study, two successive school years) and combining videotaping with participant observation and the teachers’ own analyses of their practice, were at the time the most exhaustive observational studies of classrooms that had ever been attempted, together with the classroom study done by Ray McDermott, who used Super 8 silent film cartridges instead of video” (p. 182).

Additionally, Erickson (2011) discusses various video-based workplace studies in the 1980’s and moving into the ’90s, he returns to discussing video research in education, specifically in classroom studies, “as the policy community began to realize that teaching ‘made a difference’ for student learning, and researchers began to recognize that classroom discourse was an important component of an overall classroom learning environment” (p. 183). 
Tangent: This reminded me of a time in elementary school when I was homeschooled — one year, we tried out a curriculum that consisted of a recorded classroom on DVD’s (based on the attire of the teachers, it was straight out of the ‘90s)— and it was painfully dry. I wonder what that curriculum looks like now.

Erickson concludes his article with a brief description of the present moment — noting that with the “recent developments of extreme portability in picture and sound recording equipment, video documentation of social life is now literally all over the place” (p. 184). He makes an interesting note on page 186 when he says:

The videotape itself is not ‘data’ — it is an information source from which data can be identified. This involves making decisions about how the footage should be shot in the first place, and then selecting which strips of recording to focus on analytically, determining which aspects of behavior occurring on those strips to focus upon analytically and to transcribe, as well as deciding how to transcribe what is focused upon.

I do appreciate Erickson’s notes that the decisions made about recording are crucial to the type of “data” that the information source (the camera) can allot. However, I think that Erickson is missing an important acknowledgement made by Shrum et al (2005) in that the camera is much more than just an information source — it is an actor in the research process. It is not unbiased, and it does have an affect on the environment in which it is in. The perspectives between the two readings are different, but I do see myself aligning a bit more with Shrum et al’s (2005) overall view on video-based methods in qualitative research.