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.