Ethnography is a research methodology that acknowledges the complexity of human experience (O’Reilly 2005, p.3). It involves direct and sustained contact with human beings in the context of their daily lives, drawing on a family of methods including participant observation and detailed interviewing to produce rich, sensitive and credible stories of the lived complexities of the social worlds (O’Reilly 2005, p.3).
While collaboration between researchers and their subjects is central to the practice of ethnography, Luke Eric Lasseter (2005, p.84) proposes a more mutually-beneficial form of ethnography that engages with the needs of the people it studies. This involves the production of community-based ethnographic projects that are co-conceptualised and co-authored with research subjects in the pursuit of a common goal (Lasseter 2005, p.83). Lasseter refers to this practice as collaborative ethnography.
The central principles of collaborative ethnography were practiced in a research task I recently undertook to capture individual recollections of television. Interviewees Peter and Veronica were active creators in all phases of the task, co-producing the interview data, clarifying and reviewing their contributions, and co-authoring the final text to ensure that I respectfully recorded and represented their stories. Conducting this research upon a set of mutual relationships, framed by moral and ethical responsibilities to one another, set the foundation for achieving the common goal of sharing stories of personal, collective and national significance.
Collaborative ethnography is also a valuable tool for researching audience practices and patterns of consumption in a changing media landscape. In traditional audience research, the abstract categories of survey data and quantitative analysis simply cannot capture the complex, contextual nature of daily life (Herbert 2000, p.556).
A collaborative ethnographic approach would involve consulting with informants to determine urgent research topics (Lasseter 2005). For example, parents may identify concerns about the impact of ‘presence bleed’ (Gregg 2009) on their family dynamics. The research agenda could then be designed to investigate this issue, with qualitative methods including ethnographic observation, interviews and media diaries helping parents to ponder the meaning of their domestic routines, family communication patterns and social interactions, and critically reflect with the researchers on how these parts of their everyday life are impacted by media technologies and content.
Commercial researchers can also benefit from the deeply reflexive nature of collaborative ethnography. These in-depth ‘insider’ perspectives provide a richer, deeper and contextual understanding of contemporary media habits and experiences in the home and can be utilised by media and advertising clients to gain a more vivid and detailed view of their target audience (Bermejo 2007, p.37). This is important if media and advertising agencies are to stay ahead of current trends towards the increasing personalisation and contextualisation of media experiences.
Increasingly, researchers are recognising a responsibility to publics outside of their institution (Hill 2000, cited in Lasseter 2005, p.84). Collaborative ethnography offers a powerful way to address public issues and concerns while still achieving the goals of the researcher. This engenders a more socially responsible form of research, thus providing a more respectful alternative to the tracking and surveillance methods used in traditional audience studies.
Check out one of Australia’s first qualitative audience studies here.
Bermejo, F 2007, The Internet Audience, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York.
Gregg, M 2009, ‘Function creep: communication technologies and anticipatory labour in the information workplace’, New Media and Society, accessed 20 August 2015, <http://homecookedtheory.com/wp-content/uploads/functioncreepnms.doc>.
Herbert, S 2000, ‘For ethnography’, Progress in Human Geography, vol.24, no.4, p.550-568.
Lasseter, LE 2005, ‘An excerpt from The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography’, University of Chicago Press, accessed 15 August 2015, <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/468909.html>.
Lasseter, LE 2005, ‘Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol.46, no.1, p.83-106.
O’Reilly, K 2005, Ethnographic Methods, Routledge, New York.