Video Ethnography in Practice: Planning, Shooting, and Editing for Social Analysis

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Wesley Shrum & Greg Scott

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    Not Yet

    Oh, come on. You know you want to. Everyone wants to make a movie.

    Or would if they thought they could. This book will teach you how, and it’s not even that hard to begin with. You already know some of it—at least, if you’ve ever pushed “record” on your camera phone.

    Once upon a time, it was hard, expensive, and time-consuming. Neither of your authors remembers this, since we were already in the digital age before our movie-making started. Greg has made documentaries on drugs for Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Wes has made educational films and broadcast documentaries on ethnic violence in Kenya and women’s activism in post–Katrina New Orleans. For this book, what’s important is that both of us are professors of sociology who shoot and edit movies. The “once upon a time” we remember is the time when we were embarrassed to show movies during class because we feared our colleagues would think we were lazy. Maybe we were.

    Now we show a lot of movies. It’s fine because, well, we made them and they are a great way of opening up discussions. A movie is a lot of work, if you want to make a good one. But the offset is that it’s so much fun that you don’t really notice. Plus, other people will watch it.

    Let’s playback: other people will watch it. As most filmmakers will tell you, where movies are concerned, the opposite of good is not bad, but off. Right now, apart from close friends and your mom, no one wants to watch your movies. The reasons are typically predictable, and you can correct most of them. No one can make a movie that everyone watches—your authors have not seen Game of Thrones, and they dislike Michael Moore (not personally; he might be a very nice guy).

    Why don’t people want to watch movies? Because the director doesn’t have good material, because the audience is not interested in the subject, because the filmmaker comes across as a preachy know-it-all, the sound is bad, it’s too long, it’s shot from too far away, because the audience wants to throw up from the bouncing camera. Most of these are easy to correct. When you make your movie for this course, we can guarantee you’ll have a chance to correct all of these except one—your material. We can help you but we can’t guarantee anything. That’s up to you and luck—but fortune favors the prepared. When the hurricane hits, make sure your batteries are charged.

    In sum, our goal for this course is that you should make a good movie and have fun doing it. How simple can it get?

    Let’s elaborate. Observational ethnography is undoubtedly the oldest form of social research, since people made careful observations and communicated these to others before the invention of writing. Ethnographic movies span the history of filmmaking itself. But video ethnography in the contemporary sense is no more than three decades old. Though 16mm film cameras landed in the homes and hands of users in the 1950s, the past two decades witnessed an increase in the portability, sound and picture quality, and user-friendliness of audiovisual technologies. As video cameras were applied to the acquisition of social analytic data, communication technologies changed as well, with the widespread diffusion of the Internet and then mobile technologies. Since the dawn of the new millennium, nonlinear, nondestructive editing systems have made it possible to collect and distribute the results of audiovisual investigations with quality equal or superior to low-budget feature films. By now, with the establishment of new film festivals and journals devoted to strictly to the audiovisual presentation of these investigations, the maturation of the field portends a new era.

    We’d like to give both instructor and students a “primer” on video as applied to the noble cause of social research. We focus on the intertwined matters of concepts, strategy, and technology because digital video is not just a new way of recording (“collecting data about”) the social world. It is a methodological tool for understanding social behavior. A primer is an introduction to a subject, a book that presents the basic elements. You might have had one when you learned to read, but you could have learned reading from sitting with someone who tried to teach you. Here in the 21st century, the ways and means of recording are becoming part of the social world itself, at least for students now in high school and college. We want to do more than introduce technologies—although those are extremely interesting and important. Software and hardware, its manipulation, strategies and tactics for audio and visual documentation, editing, and presentation are nice to know whether or not you are engaged in an occupation that requires proficiency. Video ethnography refers specifically to their use for methodological purposes, that is, to assist in providing some systematic understanding of the social world.

    Video Ethnography in Practice is a supplemental text designed for undergraduate methods courses, workshops on filmmaking, and upper level courses in social disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and political science as well as many interdisciplinary programs in science and technology, gender and ethnicity, and queer studies. It is for instructors who wish to incorporate an innovative method of increasing importance into either undergraduate or graduate methods courses. The rationale is simple: video (not simply “visual”) methods are the most significant new set of techniques in 21st century social analysis, building on the path-breaking work of cultural anthropologists in the early 20th century and visual sociologists in the last quarter century. Technological advances in equipment and editing, reduced cost, and increased user-friendliness have shifted production and distribution of movies from an expensive and professionalized endeavor to one that can realistically be achieved by students and faculty within a conventional course framework.

    No standard term or phrase has yet gained wide acceptance for the use of audiovisual techniques in social research disciplines. We are pragmatists about this matter so we are persuaded by the fact that video ethnography has proven an effective term. It seems to communicate to most audiences the idea of incorporating audiovisual acquisition and presentation of data into the process of social investigation. More than “digital video methodology” or “visionary scholarship,” the term video ethnography is readily understandable.

    We designed this introduction to video ethnography as a component rather than a single, core text for social methods courses. It must be short, to the point, and, above all, practical. Only a handful of courses are devoted exclusively to video methods in the social disciplines. To our dismay, most methods courses in sociology have changed little since our own graduate work. The “Little Green Books” and “Little Blue Books” published by SAGE have served as a staple of research methods for several decades during our career. Their size and readability were a large part of their appeal, as was their cost. Although these series did not cover video methods, they were the first place we looked for assistance when beginning to use video methods in the early 2000s and teach our first video ethnography courses in the mid-2000s.

    Qualitative research methods tend to be more interesting for undergraduates because students can easily relate to studies of people and cultures, ways of life, technologies, and social practices. But following the data collection phase, all that is left is the write-up. Video ethnography is an instant attraction for today’s students. As American culture has become saturated with moving images, the idea that you can produce a movie with the results of your study is extremely appealing. College students well know what they will do with it after the project is completed. What other product of someone’s introductory research can be posted on YouTube?

    Since beginning our own teaching careers, one of the most noticeable shifts is that students respond better to audiovisual presentations than text-based lectures, and there is a strong probability that the outputs of research will move in this direction as well. Recently, a journal has been launched consisting exclusively of films (the Journal of Video Ethnography).1 A new film festival (Ethnografilm) has been launched as well, consisting of academic films.

    Who Is This for?

    A friend asked us, “So you’re writing Video Ethnography for Dummies?” Funny thing: there are few dummies when it comes to audiovisual recording and expression. Like the Zen master said (no, we didn’t hear it), “everyone is already enlightened—all you must do is become aware of it.” All of us have been watching movies our whole lives. Some are documentaries, whatever that means. The primary purpose of this text is just to provide an elementary guide to making a movie. What may be unusual about this supplemental text are our two audiences. First, the current population of college students has practical experience of audiovisual recording (with smartphones) but little understanding of the ways it may be employed for social analysis. Second, faculty and instructors need a “how-to” guide for taking students from the beginning of a project to the end, as a class assignment. This guide will ease their transition to video expertise. Some teachers we know simply assign a video as a class project without any instruction, although they do feel somewhat guilty about it. Some do it because they themselves don’t know how to shoot or edit. As one said, “I assume students will figure it out themselves.” If you’re a teacher, and you’re doing that, you’re missing the fun.

    The treatment below is practical throughout. It is designed to be completed within three weeks, that is, roughly one quarter of a typical college semester. Whether the class runs once a week as a graduate seminar or two or three times a week does not matter. We begin with conceptual materials and strategies in the first two chapters, continue with techniques of shooting and editing in Chapters 3 and 4 (illustrated with stories of actual filming experiences), and end with a conclusion covering broader issues and distribution.

    This is not “cutting edge” material—all of it will be familiar to anyone doing ethnography or filmmaking. But until now there has not been a how-to-do-it guide. The problem is that in most universities and organizational settings, these forms of expertise are not combined in the same person. By making this simple, video ethnography can become a staple of graduate and undergraduate methods courses.

    To rephrase the point, video ethnography may be more familiar to students than faculty, for the reason that current freshmen enter universities with significant, albeit undirected, experience of filming and limited, although unsystematic, experience of editing and posting videos on the Web. Part of the slow adoption of video methods—even among faculty we consider close friends—is that they are (or so they think) not competent enough to get into the game. For many experienced and otherwise sophisticated methods instructors in the social disciplines, this leads to reluctance to incorporate video ethnography in standard methods courses for upper level undergraduates and graduate students. This need not remain the norm as a new generation of methods instructors develops courses in social and humanistic disciplines.

    We concentrate on illustrating the acquisition, management, and presentation of audiovisual data through editing techniques that are common to all modern editing systems.

    Why Video Ethnography?

    First good news, then a tip. While it is extremely common for scholars to ask each other to justify their research problems and methods, almost no one has asked either of your authors to justify the importance of video ethnography. That could mean that they felt we were too dense to understand the question. We prefer to believe that it is actually obvious. Old habits die hard, though, and it is worth considering the following answer when anyone asks, “What are the stakes?” or “Why does video ethnography make a difference?” The principle justification for video ethnography as a research method relates to public engagement (Shrum & Castle, 2014).

    Public sociology, or public scholarship more generally, has been an important idea since the origin of the modern social disciplines, but the debate over these terms has been prominent in the new millennium.2 Public outreach was the central feature of the movement, which quickly bogged down around issues of leftist critique and disciplinary coherence, even though virtually no one disagreed with the value of the basic idea. Strangely, the debate itself was the problem: It was based on scholars writing to an audience of themselves in published books and journals. But most people in the United States and elsewhere would rather watch and listen—that is, they would rather see a movie than read an article. Equally important, many individuals and communities throughout the world are not educated, but they are not disinterested in understanding matters. The idea that you have to be learned and literate to learn something is patently ridiculous, yet this the assumption of those who argue that social scientists should just write clearly or more engagingly. The central problem of most attempts to improve dissemination of research findings, knowledge, social explanations through textual means is that they are exclusionary. Reading—the behavior that is required of the audience—is often undesirable, undesired, or unachievable. Watching, on the other hand, gives you a fighting chance for your work to be disseminated.

    The failure of public scholarship generally is not that the goals are unworthy or uninteresting—but that its means are not adapted to contemporary tastes and habits of consumption (Shrum & Castle, 2014). Audiovisual methods are a big part of the solution to this problem. Even as the debate was at its fiercest, changes in recording, capturing, and editing technologies were underway and social websites such as YouTube and Vimeo became free global distribution venues. Actual, real, ordinary people developed an interest in the documentation of their own lives—as well as their pets—in excruciating detail. What would once have been possible only for Robert Flaherty and his crew, filming Nanook of the North, 3 is achievable now with a Web phone. Part of our inspiration for learning to film and edit was watching Japanese tourists—who were both well equipped and quite interested in the sites they saw on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It seemed clear they were collecting richer and more detailed information than our natural abilities allowed observing with pen and notebook. It was time to follow suit—visual scholars of all disciplines now had a moral imperative not just to study the visual or use visual data but to record social life and make movies.

    Before going further, it is worth mentioning that apart from one solitary exercise, this book is not about pictures, except the moving kind. While your authors disagree on the matter of whether photographs are even worth taking, we agree that video ethnography is really about the use of recording technology to record moving images with sound. Such images are superior to static images for both methodological and epistemological reasons. As you capture footage, you are taking at least 24 photos each second and you can always use a freeze frame if you need a photo. Second, since understanding the social world is our central objective, the nature of that understanding is a foundational issue. The understanding we seek is an understanding of social life, that is, social processes that occur over time. The best way to do that is to collect and communicate nonstatic information. Video is better than photography.

    The Course in Brief

    The basics of movie making are covered in five chapters. We begin with an introductory chapter on the conceptualization of the enterprise, followed by strategy, recording, and editing and a concluding chapter on distribution and related matters.

    Certainly the most significant assignment of the course is to produce a rough cut of a short movie. In one sense, video ethnography is simply training in close observation of the social world, but given the many pitfalls to be avoided—even some that can be turned to your advantage—we recognize making a film is different from “just” observing. There are two different stages in the process of recording and presentation, what film people call production and postproduction. Emphasis is placed on taking you through the stages of the process that require technical knowledge, shooting, and editing.

    In Chapter 1, we provide historical and theoretical backdrop for your work as a video ethnographer. We then outline three kinds of movies you might want to use in thinking about getting your footage, based on actors, events, and locations. The central point for social research and understanding is that general theoretical notions must be viewable and not just verbalized. We want you to get specific about what you want to do. Such specificity is an inoculation against grand theorizing, grounding conceptual work in videographic evidence. You have no obligation to know your hypothesis in advance but you do want to think about the meaning of your subject. What kind of thing is your subject an instance of, as you collect the traces of sound and light that form images? An idea, whether emergent from data or shaping the times and places of its collection, must have some audiovisual focus, a focus recognizable by a target audience. Space aliens may indeed cause poverty, but if the only evidence for that is the poverty they are alleged to cause, that’s a problem. People talking about the alien causation of poverty is a different story entirely and is not as interesting. By the way, the space aliens would be fabulous, if you can film any.

    Like research, making a movie can be a collaborative process. Chapter 2 deals with how to find and film your subject, manage event filming, work with your participants, and decide when you should film. You will not be a specialist. Like Stephen Soderbergh, back when he was a curious student at Louisiana State University (LSU), it will serve you better if you develop skills in all aspects of the process. The practice of video ethnography involves a diverse skill set, one that allows you to be a “one-woman band,” single-handedly strategizing, selecting equipment, getting your footage, thinking about your audio, backing up, selecting clips, and finding music.

    Chapter 3 covers the basics of shooting the footage for your film. The process begins with understanding what kind of equipment, or gear, you’re going to need. You’ll also need to know how to manage your gear in the field. The heart of this chapter, however, is a detailed guide on how to actually use your camera to capture the kind of footage you need in order to make the film you want to make. You’ll learn the fundamentals of cinematography—how to decide on types of shots, how to compose and frame your shots, how to use lighting to your advantage, and how to capture good audio. By the end of the chapter, you’ll be ready to go out and start making your film.

    Chapter 4 covers the basics of editing your footage into a full-fledged film. Here you’ll learn a little bit about the conceptual side of editing—what editing consists of, what it means, what are some the guiding principles, and so on. But mainly you’ll learn the core maneuvers of using a software program to cut your footage into small clips that you can arrange and rearrange for the purpose of telling a compelling, intelligible story about some aspect of human interactions with each other and the world around them. By the end of this chapter, you will have learned what you need to know in order to turn all of that raw footage into a solid short film, if not a Hollywood blockbuster.

    The concluding chapter discusses what to do after you’ve made a movie. The first thing is to get feedback. To us, the most frightening moment of the entire process is showing your movie to your subjects. What if they don’t like it? It turns out that rarely happens, but the fear is still real. But after you finish, you want to show it somewhere. We accept the imminent wisdom of Web publication, but we also recommend other venues, and shamelessly plug our own film festival and Journal of Video Ethnography. Chapter 5 also includes a discussion of ethical issues—as represented by Institutional Review Boards—and activist commitments that might include using your film for advocacy purposes.

    Throughout the book, there are exercises that you might try, or your teacher might assign. It’s really valuable to do a few small things before you try to make a movie, even a short one. Some things we find difficult, others easy. The exercises have to come fast and furious, so if you need to know “how to record audio,” you have to skip ahead to that section of the book. But when we give an audio exercise early in the book, you could just record it on your phone.

    A word about style—It’s true that this book does not maintain certain stylistic conventions usually seen in textbooks. We are not very serious and we do have a lot of fun. This is not because our topic is more or less serious than others (if you want to see real college humor, have a look at Andy Field’s statistics textbook). It is an abomination beyond words that it has taken movies so long to develop into legitimate social scientific products. No, the reason we write like this is that we’re professors, which is another way of saying that we’ve been in a college environment since, well, we went to college. To put it bluntly, we never left college. We’re not hip. We’re not 18 years old. We just never grew up.

    1. The notable feature of this journal is that it has no textual component at all.

    2. Michael Burawoy, then president of the American Sociological Association, was the most prominent intellectual to actively promote the idea, but far too much of the debate was concerned with his particular style of radical sociology and far too little was concerned with how to do it (Shrum & Castle, 2014).

    3. In case you’re interested, the film cost $55,000 and was released in 1922 (over $660,000 today). http://www.filmreference.com/Films-My-No/Nanook-of-the-North.html.

  • References and Recommended Films

    Arce, A. , & Zirion, A. ( 2015 ). Out of focus/Fuera de foco [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 2(2). Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Atkinson, C. , & Delamont, S. ( 1999 ). Ethnography: Post, past, and present. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(5), 460471.
    Becker, H. S. ( 1974 ). Photography and sociology. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 1(1), 326.
    Bishop, J. M. ( 2014 ). In the wilderness of a troubled genre [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 1(2). Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Burawoy, M. ( 2005 ). For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 428.
    Carvalho, J. ( 2015 ). Kora [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 2(2). Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Choi, T. ( 2011 ). Ecologies of comparison: An ethnography of endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
    Curry, T. J. , & Clarke, A. C. ( 1977 ). Introducing visual sociology. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
    Denzin, N. K. , & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). ( 1994 ). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    Depeli, G. ( 2016 ). Being an activist camera: The case of the Karahaber Collective in Turkey. Current Sociology, 64, 122139.
    Follows, S. ( 2013 ). How many film festivals are there in the world? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://stephenfollows.com/many-film-festivals-are-in-the-world/
    Kanstrup, A. M. ( 2002 ). Picture the practice: Using photography to explore use of technology within teachers’ work practices. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(2). Retrieved from http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/2–02/2–02kanstrup-e.htm
    Katz, J. ( 1997 ). Ethnography’s warrants. Sociological Methods & Research, 25(4), 391423.
    Lane, J. ( 2002 ). The autobiographical documentary in America. Madison: Wisconsin University Press.
    Latour, B. ( 1987 ). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Merryman, M. ( 2014 ). Country crush [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 1(2) Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Moser, A. ( 2014 ). Grrrl love and revolution [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Wohl, M. ( 2001 ). Interview: Walter Murch. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=23895
    Orbuch, T. ( 1997 ). People’s accounts count: The sociology of accounts. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 455478.
    Pink, S. ( 2015 ). Doing visual ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    Quiller-Couch, A. ( 1916 ). On the art of writing: Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Ragin, C. C. , & Amoroso, L. M. ( 2011 ). Constructing social research: The unity and diversity of method (
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    Sampson, R. J. , & Raudenbush S. W. ( 1999 ). Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105, 603651.
    Shrum, W. , & Castle, L. ( 2014 ). Visionary sociology: Problems of public sociology and audiovisual solutions. American Sociologist, 45, 412431.
    Shrum, W. , Duque, R. , & Brown, T. ( 2005 ). Digital video as research practice: Methodology for the new millennium. Journal of Research Practice, 1(1), M4.
    Shrum, W. , Duque, R. , & Ynalvez, M. ( 2007 ). Lessons of the lower ninth: The methodology and epistemology of video ethnography. Technology in Society, 29(2), 215225.
    Shrum, W. , & Kilburn, J. ( 1996 ). Ritual disrobement at Mardi Gras: Ceremonial exchange and moral order. Social Forces, 75(2), 423458.
    Stasz, C. ( 1979 ). The early history of visual sociology. In J. Wagner , Images of information: Still photography in the social sciences (pp. 119136). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
    Thornton, S. ( 1995 ). The social logic of subcultural capital. In K. Gelder & S. Thornton (Eds.), The subcultures reader (pp. 200209). New York, NY: Routledge.
    Tilman, A. ( 2014 ). Cadences [Documentary]. Journal of Video Ethnography, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.videoethno.com
    Weiner, J. ( 2012, December 20 ). Jerry Seinfeld intends to die standing up. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/magazine/jerry-seinfeld-intends-to-die-standing-up.html?_r=0

    About the Authors

    Wesley Shrum is professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, and has been teaching and practicing video ethnography for over 10 years. He is director of Ethnografilm, a festival of non-fiction film, which takes place every April in Paris, France. He created the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Archive for the National Library of Scotland and a film about ethnic conflict in Kenya called Brother Time. Professor Shrum is one of the directors of LSU’s Video Ethnography Lab, which provides training in qualitative research methods and maintains an archive of ethnographic films. He has also been the treasurer of the Society for Social Studies of Science since 1987.

    Greg Scott is professor of sociology at DePaul University, director of the university’s Social Science Research Center, and founder of Sawbuck Productions, Inc., a non-profit film production company. He is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Video Ethnography, the first peer-reviewed journal of ethnographic films and videos. He has produced more than 50 documentary films, and his work has been broadcast on the National Geographic Network, BET Network, and MSNBC.


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