Professor Wesley Shrum: Video Ethnography

Wesley Shrum, professor at Louisiana State University and chair of the Sociology Department, will be on hand Monday night (April 9, 2012) at DePaul to share his insights on video ethnography and screen his movie “Brother Time.”

I recently spoke with Professor Shrum about his movie, visual methodology, and the state of video ethnography.

Through your research you have developed an approach to digital video methods for ethnographic research. How did you develop your approach to this method of collecting data?

WS: I developed that in Africa and then we brought that to Hurricane Katrina, which is similar to Africa in many ways, so it was easy to apply the same approach to that study. The African study was essentially a three-country project that was designed to study all three countries, all at the same time. The countries are Kenya and Ghana in Africa and the state of Kerala in southwestern India. It began maybe ten years ago and during that time we were thinking about whether there was another way we could go about getting our findings and our communication out there.

A guy on the project, who used to be a Hollywood actor and screenwriter, asked if I had ever thought about getting a camera. I said I had a camera, a little instamatic thing. And he said, “No, I mean like a real film camera or a video camera.”

At the time we were trapped in a YMCA in Nairobi in the middle of a police student riot with tear gas coming through the windows…so we had some time to talk between looking for places to hide. It was during that time we decided to give video documentation a try.  We didn’t know exactly what we were doing but we got started back then.

Is the design of your method more systematic in the approach to collect video data?

WS: Well, there is no systematic way of knowing what is going to happen in the world. So, when you do video ethnography you need two different types of recordings and I would divide them loosely into actors and events.

You need to film your actors, and by that I mean actors in a social sense. You’ve got to have interviews with people, you’ve got to talk to people, and you’ve got to get their views of things. You also want to film real life events occurring or people interacting. People and events would be the way to approach things.

Now, the trick to doing good video ethnography is the centering of the researcher in time and space and in order to be able to do that it is not really any different than traditional ethnography. It’s more exciting, it’s more vivid, but it’s not any different. You have to know when to be where and there’s some luck involved. Essentially, you’re trying to predict the point in the time/space continuum that you want to be at so you are there when something happens and not when something doesn’t happen.

While you were working on “Brother Time” did you look at this first from a sociological aspect or more of a visual documentation aspect?

WS: “Brother Time,” as in “all men are brothers”, was an off-shoot of the main project which was talking to scientists, educators, and researchers mostly in the field of agriculture in these countries and because it had happened shortly after the violence, almost all of them wanted to talk a little bit about it. The guy who became the leading character was just such an appealing character that I thought of a way I could put him into the story. As we got serious about it we came back the next year to finish it.

I discovered two things, one good and one bad. He had become friends with his neighbor again which is kind of the central human-interest part of the story is his friendship with his neighbor from a different tribe. That is why I say it is a mythic tale. Well, that was the good thing and that became the end of the movie but the bad thing was that he didn’t have the spirit, he didn’t have the energy, he didn’t have the fervor that he had previously and that was because he was friends with his neighbor again. Too much time had elapsed and so the trick was, how do you use the first footage when it was really jumpy from riding in the car, it was really just awful. Even though you could say the same words again you can never reconstruct the beauty of the energy. But still we made it work, I think. We did the best we could on cleaning it up to make it less terrible.

Two-part question here: Do you look at this as a sociological study or a documentary presentation? The difference being, do you look at this as presenting your sociological findings through documentary or do you look at this as more of a structured narrative in documentary form?

WS: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, in this case I believe “Brother Time” is using a movie or video format to present an account of what happened and to smuggle in some good sociology in the process so that it can be seen by a wider audience and have that wider audience understand some sociology as well.

We do have some sociologists narrate the key parts but they are Kenyan sociologists and they are just talking from their experience. We don’t use any jargon or sociological terminology.

In sociology, the general rule to follow is to present an unbiased perspective of the social world we are investigating or the social facts we are attempting to display. Is this a sociological attempt to present an unbiased portrayal, or is this more to tell a story and gain awareness? When you show this, what do you hope to accomplish?

WS: Well, it definitely is not an unbiased anything. It is biased towards peace and we’re very explicit about that and we know who our audience is and our audience is not Americans and our audience is not Canadians or people from other countries. We’d love them to watch it and we’d love them to learn something, but we made it for Kenyans and we need to keep that in mind.

The “Brother Time” movie was made for Kenyans to see before the next presidential election because a good Katrina analogy here is that because you know people really have forgotten Hurricane Katrina and its only been seven years since the hurricane and seven years is just a really long time and even though people were there and can remember it, it doesn’t really cause them to change their behavior sometimes. There are some violent scenes in “Brother Time” and I think it is good for Kenyans to watch this before the election and remember they hated it at the time. They can’t just say the violence didn’t really impact them. This was something that wracked the whole country. Its good for them to remember before they go voting again.

How would you distinguish the difference between general documentary and ethnographic documentary?

WS: That’s a really good question and I have no clue at all how to answer it. I am basically just an amateur in terms of documentary. But when I see documentaries, that is, documentaries made by people that call themselves documentary filmmakers, they seem amateur to me. They don’t seem like amateur films, they seem like amateur sociology to the extent that they are trying to understand the social world or to say something about it. I would hope that you would forgive me – I don’t think that many of them are very good in that respect. But they are good for amateurs.

I think that they are undoubtedly good at what they do. They have their own discipline and they know what they are doing and I am sure they do it very well. But they don’t do social science. There is no competition here; it’s just different,

You recently established the Video Ethnography Lab at LSU. What role will the lab play at the school in social science study?

WS: We have started teaching a course, it has occurred twice and we hope to offer it on a regular basis, and it would be part of our graduate curriculum. It actually just uses the number that we use for a normal ethnographic course and I think that’s appropriate because it’s just a different form of ethnography. We didn’t put in a new course description or anything. We just use video and I would say since that’s the more unusual, possibly the more difficult part of ethnography, then we have to spend a good deal of time on shooting and editing and all of the aspects that you would consider more technical that wouldn’t be involved in a more traditional ethnographic course.

Are you using video as a replacement for field notes or do you think they go hand-in-hand?

WS: I don’t do field notes anymore. I mean, you take notes, but the substitute for me is watching the video. The video itself is not all your knowledge; it is just all you have for your presentation if you are going to go in that direction. When you write a paper, then you have all the other stuff that you know that you can incorporate in that paper that you may not have filmed. But when you want to make a movie, then the only thing you can use is what you filmed.

There is a long, erratic history between visuals and the study of the social world. What do you see as the future for visual work in sociology?

WS: I think that most people would accept that anthropology always did a lot more with it than sociology. But I am very convinced that the future of sociology is in the pursuit of audio-visual methods in its ethnographic component. We’re not going to stop doing surveys, we’re not going to forget doing experiments, we’re not going to forget the other methods – Video ethnography is not a new method, it is a new tool with an old method. We have to consider that students of the future, sociologists of the future, will be using this tool and the way it will be most successful is if we offer it to every incoming graduate student. Some people will take a course in video ethnography and say, “This is the greatest thing. I am so happy; I will never stop making movies.”

So then what would you suggest to a new graduate student who is just getting started in visual ethnographic methods or visual research, specifically video?

WS: It really isn’t a point of advice, if I was going to say how would I tell him or her to approach the subject, I would say it would be good to think about what you are going to shoot. There are some people who benefit more from the opposite advice, which is “Don’t over-think it, get the camera, press the record button, and go out and start shooting stuff in your general area of interest; worry about it later. Now that’s not a very good way of making a movie, but it is sometimes necessary to get people over the hurdle. But you don’t see that hurdle much anymore. What you see is, “I’m shooting everything. I’ll think about it later.” That’s going to bog down your graduate program; you’re never going to graduate. You know, taking footage now is easy. On my current camera, I can shoot for 30 continuous hours without putting my camera down. That’s in AVCHD and with a couple of cards and internal memory. Nobody wants to do that. There is no reason to shoot for 30 continuous hours.

Think about what you are shooting. Try and see who are your main people that you really want to talk to and what events you want to film and be a little bit more selective. I have definitely become more selective over the years.

There are many benefits for using video as a tool for ethnographic study. What do you think some of the pitfalls may be or something that might be problematic in the way we use visuals in sociological studies?

WS: The problem with using visuals in sociological studies is photography. I am a huge opponent of photography. I think that the problem is that you have this fantastic method of capturing social life in process, why would you ever trade a camcorder in your hand for a still camera? It doesn’t make any sense. You know, you’re capturing 30 fps [frames per second] if you need a photo, and apart from an old-fashioned article in a journal, you don’t need a photo. You might need a freeze frame now and then, but there is no point in taking a photograph. Photography is inherently static; that’s the nature, that’s the definition of it. It’s a static depiction of reality, and that is not what sociology is about.

I do apologize if you are taking this approach yourself, but no sociologist should be satisfied with taking a picture when they can take a video.

That is really similar to written participation observation. You’re selecting what you want to look at and who you are going to discuss things with, what you are going to observe and who you are going to interact with.

Wes: Yes, That’s a good point, that’s an excellent point. I think you would say the same thing: You first start out going around talking to everybody, then narrowing it down. But remember then that you’ve got to get to the narrowing. Don’t keep talking to everybody and just keep saying it’s all so interesting. And when you are trying to get to the end of a project, realize that you are never going to get to the end of this project unless you arbitrarily set an end date and let it go.

Social Network Analysis

Long before Facebook, mySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, et alia plainly listed out and included social relationships from the intimate social sphere to the most marginal association and weakest bond, kinship had been studied and diagrammed for centuries. From maintaining historical bloodlines to the systematic study of groups, tribes and families by anthropologists, social networks were memorized, plotted out and visualized.

Today, this systematic method is called Social Network Analysis, which is an analytic approach to aid social researchers in collecting and analyzing data to support theoretical statements. It’s a flexible and helpful method to investigate relationships and networks of all types (e.g., social movements, family relationship, political affiliations).

Take a look at this online lecture to hear about the application of the social network analysis method and discover how it can serve your research goals.

Constant Comparison with Jellybeans


What could be more exciting than watching grounded theory elucidated in stop motion animation? Okay, probably a lot of things, like participant observation acted out in claymation, but we haven’t found that video clip yet.

The methodology may not be obvious at first; however, watching the beans as they apparently categorize themselves is just plain fun. The beans shimmy and shake into groups. Each bean is compared to the other beans and then categorized. Categories are readjusted and new categories emerge and the beans immediately rush to the most fitting spot.

Continue reading “Constant Comparison with Jellybeans”

Social Media: Do I Know You?

This essay marks the first in a series by SSRC’s resident social media specialist, Thom Fredericks, exploring the use of social media in social science research. We’ll be happy to work with you on incorporating social media as a research object or tool, or to publicize your research and connect with other researchers and communities. 

Many of us think we know what social media is, how it’s used, and what it’s all about. However, social media is an ever-changing form, prone to shifting like a leaf in the wind. People, web-users, software designers, and the marketplace are always changing how technology and innovation are used and therefore how they are defined and adopted. Social media is one form of technological innovation that is continually being reshaped and redefined. So then, what is social media and how can we use it in the worlds of social science and the humanities? Let’s begin by taking a quick look at what social media is.

Social media outlets consist of a variety of Internet communications from forums and blogs (text, video, audio) to content sharing (photo, video, social book marking, etc). Each of these forms helps the user develop a social presence, or social identity, through the process of self-presentation, self-disclosure, and content creation. For those who follow the concepts of Erving Goffman, the social media world is a virtual cornucopia of information and an excellent resource to tap into.

Most agree that there are four main types of social media, each with a slightly different use: collaborative efforts (forums, wikis), individual efforts (blogs/microblogs), content communities (photo/video sharing), and social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn). There are also two other large social media enclaves worth mentioning: worlds and virtual social worlds. (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010)*

Social media is made up of user-generated content and relies on an interactive communication that is largely reciprocal (commenting, sharing links, link-backs). At its core, social media is about connecting with others – individuals, groups, and institutional organizations. It’s about networking and building your network. It can be used for marketing, informing, sharing thoughts and opinions, or engaging with friends and family on a personal level. However you choose to participate in social media, it requires a personal investment of time and consistent effort to provide content and engage with others in that particular social media form.

Sharing information and taking part in this highly flexible and easily accessible medium does not necessarily equate to a high degree of interaction. Successfully instituting such an initiative takes time, planning, and careful consideration. When implementing a social media strategy one needs to determine a purpose and an audience, keeping in mind that such efforts are not always easily measured. Successfully measuring your campaigns will depend on your purpose and your intended audience. Most importantly, when developing a social media strategy, especially for the social sciences and humanities, one needs to be creative and think outside the box.

*Kaplan, Andreas M.; Michael Haenlein (2010). “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media”.

Oral History Protections

A brief filed by the United States Department of Justice could significantly affect researchers doing oral histories or working with subject confidentiality agreements. The brief, filed on July 1st, concerns the extent to which courts will respect academic confidentiality agreements between researchers and subjects, and clearly outlines the government’s position against such agreements when measured against court authority. The issue emerged from a dispute between Boston College and the United Kingdom over a Boston College oral history archive on the socio-political unrest in Northern Ireland.  The British government wants access to the documents which they argue relate to criminal investigations in Northern Ireland, while the college has protested that interviewees were promised confidentiality during their lifetimes.

The U.S. government’s position essentially rejects all of Boston College’s objections, arguing that no confidentiality a researcher may grant would withstand a subpoena, regardless of any promises made by the researcher. The brief acknowledges that academic confidentiality has been used to protect documents in civil lawsuits, but states that these protections do not extend to criminal cases, and says courts have not recognized an academic privilege comparable to the attorney/client privilege or Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Not surprisingly, many historians and academics have come out in defense of Boston College’s position, arguing that the loss of trust between researcher and subject will have a chilling effect on research.

Read the full article from Inside Higher Ed: Oral History, Unprotected.

A Word From the DePaul University Office of Research Protections

Susan Loess-Perez, Director

The federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) has indicated that oral history and similar activities (biography, history, journalism) that document historical events or experiences of individuals and do not aim to draw conclusions, inform policy or generalize findings do not constitute research and therefore do not require Institutional Review Board (IRB) review and approval. Only activity with research intent requires IRB review and approval.
Although this article calls the project research and those conducting it researchers, Boston College has confirmed in other articles that IRB review and approval were not obtained for the project. The article indicates that a common protection for researchers working with sensitive data is to obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality (COC). However, since oral history is not research, a COC could not be obtained and it is unclear whether it would hold up against a federal subpoena of this nature. Had this project undergone IRB review, the IRB would have had difficulty in determining whether the benefits of the research (presumably the indirect benefits of the knowledge gained) outweighed the risks (the direct risks of criminal prosecution for individuals).

The article underscores that even activities that are not research can involve potential risks to the subjects of the activity, as well as to the persons conducting the activity and their institution. Although the interviewers had interviewees sign a confidentiality agreement indicating that their identity would be sealed for a specified period of time, the government argues that there is no promise of confidentiality a researcher may grant that can withstand a subpoena. In the context of research, it is important to remember that a consent agreement is not a legal document and usually includes language about the limitation of confidentiality, including a lack of protection from subpoenas requesting the data.

From an ethical standpoint, the interviewees were never told that the content of the interviews might be subject to legal subpoena and therefore could result in substantial risk to them. The oral historians argue that this is an issue of academic freedom, but academic freedom refers to the faculty’s right to discuss or investigate any topic without interference or penalty from officials and does not appear to apply to this situation.

When conducting studies on sensitive topics that could involve risk to the researcher, subjects and the institution, it is a good idea to have a discussion with the DePaul University Office of General Counsel (OGC) regarding local or other laws that might affect the activity, and other legal issues such as limitations of confidentiality agreements and academic freedom.

Digital Ethnography Tools at SSRC

Traditionally, when an ethnographer left the confines of the academic world and ventured out into the field she was armed with only a notebook and pencil—maybe not even a number two pencil at that. Even in these early days of visual observation and note-taking, an ethnographer required specific types of tools in order to record her observations. Today, the need for a specific toolset is no different; however, technology has changed and the possible list of tools available to the researcher has become practically limitless.

After patiently enduring all the difficult work of gaining entrance and establishing relationships, a researcher, now thoroughly immersed in the culture, must be confident that he has brought along the right tools to observe social interactions, people, and places. When an ethnographer arrives in the field to begin the work of gathering information about everyday life, he uses all of his senses. Although nothing can replace the physical senses or the personal interaction of the pencil-to-paper thinking process, in our digital age researchers can take advantage of technology that can replicate the senses and enhance the data gathering process.

Observing the world, recording culture, and documenting society can take many forms (photographs, audio recordings, video recordings) and require several different media formats; deciding on which can be a difficult task. To this end the SSRC takes pride in being able to offer high-quality digital audio and video recording technology to researchers who engage in all types of research and data presentation. Whatever your needs are—recording interviews, audio or visual documentation, or digital software—we have taken great care in selecting high-quality instruments (hardware and software) and designing packages that are effective, dependable, and easy to navigate to aid you in your observation, data collection, and analysis process.

Being in the field doesn’t require the most expensive equipment or instruments of the highest precision; however, it is extremely important that the tools you choose are of high quality and dependable. In this digital age you must be confident that your equipment can record your observations and provide data that can be analyzed—although we do have high-quality paper and dependable pencils if those are your preferred tools.

Whatever your needs may be we are happy to consult and offer assistance.

Observing the Observer

Finals week at DePaul University this quarter included the fifth installment of the jump/cut ethnographic film festival ─ the result of the Ethnographic Documentary Film Production class in the department of sociology taught by Associate Professor and SSRC Director Greg Scott, Ph.D.

The festival is ultimately like a poster session, designed to present the culmination of each student’s hard work. Many students enter the class without any experience in video production and move from having never created a film to conceiving, directing, and editing a completed work. Some students begin with little to no knowledge of what ethnography is or what ethnographic methods are. In all cases, each student experiences this as a rite of passage and a foray into actually thinking about filmmaking from an ethnographic perspective, which is not as easy as one may think. Ethnographic filmmaking is not simply interview style documentary with a few non-interview images edited in. It is an elusive and sought-after filmic expression establishing a sociological argument through visual means. The most common method of ethnographic data collection is observation; therefore, in ethnographic filmmaking, observation is the key.

This year’s festival included nine, eight-minute films with topics ranging from hipsters and dog walkers to communal living and educational inequality. However, the most profound moment of the festival was during the Q&A session with the student filmmakers that concluded the program, although the coffee was good too. Through this conversation, you learn how challenging it is to make an ethnographic documentary and how profoundly the process affects each student and further develops their critical skills of observation.