When researching how to research communications and media, you grow accustomed to hearing the word “ethnography”. Ethnography is the direct observation of a select group and their way of life, done by people also of that culture or way of life. Importantly, ethnography is different from anthropology, which is the study of humankind, but is usually done from an outsider coming into a different culture and studying it as the other.
So why is ethnography so important when researching communications and media? Media relies on the audience – in fact, it is arguable that you can’t have media without an audience there to consume and participate in the media space – and so studying how media consumers and participants use and engage with media is the foundation of most media research. The reason ethnography is better suited to media studies than anthropology is because it anthropology marks a separation between the researchers and the research group, meaning there is a big chance that the research will be about the media effects of the group being studied. Ethnography has less of a chance of doing this because the two groups are less separate. The research is focused more on the how and why. Why is this group consuming this media? How are they participating in the media space? What are they doing there?
There are two different kinds of ethnography – reciprocal and collaborative, as outlined in Luke Eric Lassiter’s “A Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography.”
Reciprocal ethnography means that there is some kind of exchange, for example, data about television watching habits is given (through Nielsen’s peoplemeter) in exchange for something in return, like points that can be used to buy products (for each day the peoplemeter is left on in your home).
Collaborative ethnography is a mutual engagement between both groups “at every stage of the ethnographic process, from fieldwork to writing and back again” (Lassiter 2005). It is a process that has ongoing discussions, and collaboration between not only other researchers but with communities and the groups being studied.
Collaborative ethnography has the potential to open the research up to more than just academics and other researchers. In the article “Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation“, Joanne Rappaport surmises that
“Collaboration is more than “good ethnography,” because it shifts control of the research process out of the hands of the anthropologist and into the collective sphere of the anthropologist working on an equal basis with community researchers.” (Rappaport 2008).
I interpreted this as the idea that using collaborative ethnography when researching something – like media use and its audiences – is better than the reciprocal method because it allows more people (from all aspects of the research process) to have access to and feel in control of the whole process. Real people are more likely to want to offer up information to a researcher if they believe that they are a part of the process and that their input matters.
Maybe this outlook on collaborative ethnography is more applicable on a small-scale level, like the research we’ll be undertaking as part of this subject at university. It is significantly less realistic that established researchers would totally collaborate with their subjects through the research, writing and afterwards. This takes time and money, which researchers have to be mindful of. This is one of the potential challenges of collaborative ethnography. But for our research, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to undertake ethical, beneficial collaborative research with the participants of our research projects.
This could be as simple as sending our research subjects copies of what we have done before submitting it so that they can double check that everything they contributed is correct, or liaising with teaching staff to collaborate with them on our projects. These are both ways we could take the entirety of the research out of our hands and into the “collective sphere”, and to ensure mutual engagement.
It makes perfect sense that working together with other professionals and the people you are researching would give better results. It combines the academic side of research with the real-life elements of the research applicable in real life, echoed by Lassiter in the following quote:
“The goals of collaborative ethnography (both historical and contemporary) are now powerfully converging with those of a public anthropology that pulls together academic and applied anthropology in an effort to serve humankind more directly and more immediately.” (Lassiter 2005).
I think that the potential benefits of collaborative ethnography outweigh the potential challenges.
Lassiter, L E 2005, ‘Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 46, no. 1, pp 83-106, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/425658?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>
Lassiter, L E 2005, ‘Defining a Collaborative Ethnography’, The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/468909.html>
Rappaport, J 2008, ‘Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation’, Collaborative Anthropologies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp 1-31, <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/367015>