How does the practice of ethnography help us understand media audiences? Discuss with reference to published ethnographic studies involving media audiences?
“Go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research”
– director of sociology at the university of Chicago Robert Erza Park
Over the last century, researchers of the world have been promoting the use of ethnography as the appropriate research method for social research studies, the qualitative research method has become a very popular method used for the study of media audiences because it enables the researchers to understand the impacts and qualities of the groups they studied and can often use their findings to further advancement in the creation of better suited material for future audiences. While ethnography has existed since the 1700’s it has expanded and adapted throughout the years, varied under the rule and use of both British anthropologists and Chicago School sociologists.
In this essay I will look into how the practice of ethnography, helps us understand media audiences, I will discuss this question with focused reference to published ethnographic studies revolving around media audiences, I will look into why ethnography is the preferred research method to use when studying media audiences. I will look at the different approaches to ethnography including a look into the advantages and disadvantages of its use as a research method, furthermore, I will focus on the critical reflexivity of using ethnography and the usefulness of fieldwork in ethnographic studies compared to participant/non-participant observation, and then I will talk about the reliability and validity of ethnography. I will discuss the practice of ethnography as a research and the other qualitative research methods it uses. Finally, I will conclude on the subject.
Firstly, one must explain and identify the definition of ethnography and also define and identify what a media audience is and who is considered an audience. Ethnography is the term applied for the research method used mostly for social research studies, it’s derived from the practice of anthropology. Ethnography is a qualitative research method that is made up of the combined use of varied other qualitative research methods; it uses interviews, focus groups, questionnaires and many other methods (as long as they apply to the type of study).
Furthermore, some researchers argue that “Since the 1980s the meaning of ethnography has been expanded to such extent that it encompasses forms of research extremely diverse from a methodological point of view”(Gobe, 2011: 16) Media audiences are in retrospect the people who individually make up a collective group of spectators pertaining to any particular media production. Thus this brings us to the combination of the two terms, which created the term ‘media ethnography’. Since the 1970’s there has been a higher than ever amount of research studies being conducted about the various types of media audiences. There are many opinions surrounding the overall effectiveness and usefulness of media ethnography in audience studies. After all, “the advantage to using ethnography to engage in audience studies rests on its potential to provide both a domestic and a communal context of television and telenovela reception among the different groups of the community” (La Pastina, 2003)
Throughout the rich history of the ethnography research method, there has been varied approaches to the applied practice of ethnographic research studies; while we have established that ethnography as a research method is a thoroughly qualitative method of research, there has been evolving stages to the approaches taken to the applied practice of ethnography. Before the Chicago school, we would have seen ethnography research practitioners approach their studies by purely using a wide variety of existing qualitative research methods such as interviews and questionnaires etc. It was only during the early 1900`s and under the influence of the director of the department of sociology at the university of Chicago, Robert Erza Park, that this evolved into the next stage of ethnography practice approaches in research studies. He urged his students to follow a different approach during their ethnographic research by incorporating the method of observation in their studies; he described this observation approach as “Get your hands dirty in real research. Those who counsel you are wise and honourable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one thing is more needful: first hand observation.” (Bulmer 1984: 97) So park must have been emphasising his belief that to practice ethnography, the way it was best practiced was through observing the subjects of the ethnographic study in their natural setting. The ‘observation’ method was purely the researcher sitting watching the subjects from an outside role, never getting involved or interacting.
However, the next evolved stage of ethnography required its practitioners to go further than just “first-hand observation”(Bulmer), came the ‘participatory’ addition to the ‘observation’, it was not simply enough simply observe the subjects in their natural setting; but rather to interact with the subjects of the research study in their natural setting and to participate in their rituals, habits, culture and to even learn their language, this was so the research would be more able to find an understanding into the lives of those being studied. The idea has been put forward that all participant observation takes place in social situations, which come in nine dimensions:
- Space: the physical place or places
- Actor: the people involved
- Activity: a set of related acts that people do
- Object: the physical things that are present
- Act: single actions that people do
- Event: a set of related activities that people carry out
- Time: the sequencing that happens overtime
- Goal: the things people are trying to accomplish
- Feeling: the emotions felt and expressed
(Spradley 1980: 78)
However, the final stage and approach to ethnographic study over the years is the ‘fieldwork’ approach, fieldwork mirrors the idea of ‘participant observation’ rather than just ‘observation’. Nevertheless, fieldwork is ever so slightly different from participant observation; it is more concerned with the theoretical ground or ‘field’ study of the subjects, to gather as much information on the nine dimensions before being the process of participatory observation. So, fieldwork is a step further than the participatory observation and observation because it is going above and beyond observing and participating with the subjects of the studies, but providing and interacting with them by utilising a variety of qualitative research methods to gain a understanding of the culture or community they are studying. It has been suggested by Bulmer (1900-1987) “social research must adopt a ‘naturalistic’ approach and rely on fieldwork in order to grasp the perspective of social actors and see reality from their point of view”(Gobo 2011: 20)
We can observe the transition of approaches to ethnographic studies by looking at these various media audience studies… Jenkins suggests that ‘anthropology and sociology have entered a period of experimentation as ethnographers seek new methods… the newer ethnography offers accounts in which participation is often as important as observation’ (Jenkins, 1992: 4) He goes on to say that both approaches to ethnographic research ‘fieldwork’ and ‘participation’ were central to his study. “Covered from conventional forms of field research but also active involvement”.
The majority of ethnographic research is based around fieldwork, being part of the society or community that you are researching, one of the most important ways of finding more about your subjects in media audience ethnographic studies is by having conversations with them regarding the topic of the research. These conversations are almost like interviews with the respondent, except in the case of conversations, they can start at one point and end up at a completely different point, however, as conversations tend to be, you will never end up having the same exact conversation with another person, so you never know if you`ll end up asking the same questions and getting the same or relatively same answers or findings to compare the last set of answers to.
Furthermore, it is also a problem when it comes to interpreting the meanings of the answers you give there is a problem with how you as the researcher interprets the answers, because the respondent may have meant something and the researcher could have interpreted the same answer in an entirely different way.
So why is it that we find ethnography being the preferred research method to be used when studying media audiences? Lull suggests that “To know the subjects you are analysing requires intimate and sustained contact with them, this requires a research strategy that enables the researcher to enter into the life-space of subjects and get to know them on their own terms” (Lull, 1990: 2) hence why he chose to pursue a study of family television audiences by means of a ethnographic research study. Matt Hills argues that although the practice of ethnography is a good approach to media audience studies, it is not enough to be dependent on the ‘knowledge’ of the subject and neglect to look at other factual aspects of the study, which is what he accuses Jenkins of doing in his fandom study. (Hills, 2002: 68)
There are many advantages and disadvantages to using ethnography as a research method to study media audience, while it has a low reliability and isn’t fully representative, ethnography is a good way to get insight into the lives of those being studied, but does not necessarily represent the entire population it is covering.
One of the risks of using ethnography in studying any sort of culture/community such as the various media audiences, is the obvious risk of bias among other risks, bias is a problem that can come from the researcher being against the subjects of his study, or being a person who likes them too much as being passionate about the topic could see the researcher being too subjective and not impartially seeking all aspects of the subjects that they are studying. “Writing as a fan about fan culture poses certain potential risks”(Jenkins, 1992: 6); Here Jenkins acknowledges that conducting his research study while holding a personal attachment to the topic of the study was a obvious risk, despite other academic arguments that “the stance of the ethnographer must retain distance from the situation of taking the standpoint of a fan this confusing ones own stance with that of the subject being studied” (David Sholle, 1991: 84) Jenkins disputes this was not a problem he would face “while conceding that such a risk is present in writing an ethnography from within the fan community” (Jenkins, 1992: 6) he believes the risk is not ‘lessened’ by adopting a more ‘objective’approach. He goes on to talk about other existing media audience ethnographic studies which took on an ‘academic distance’ which do not “insure a better understanding of the complexity of the phenomenon”pointing this to be the case in the previous work of fan culture ‘Reading the Romance’ by Janice Radway (1984).
With many research studies, the researcher tends to create a hypothesis at the beginning of the study, this will be a prediction of how they believe their research is going to turn out, this will then be revaluated at the end of the research study to if the prediction was followed through or if not to discuss what it is they found that was different than the original prediction. For example, we look again to Jenkins, he states that he is going into the study hoping to “redefine the public identity of fandom… to challenge stereotypes”(Jenkins, 1992: 7) this came from his belief that “most previous academic accounts of fan culture are sensationalistic and foster misunderstandings about this subculture”(Jenkins, 1992: 7). Here we can see that Jenkins is setting out with a planned target of ‘redefining’ fan cultures and ‘challenging’ previous misunderstandings surrounding fan cultures. This is a hypothesis of sorts, “the conclusion returns to the question of defining fandom and what the study can and cannot contribute to the larger understanding of media audiences”(Jenkins 1992: 2) we will see Jenkins revisit his original hypothesis and revaluate what his predictions for the study were and how the research process changed or proved his original predictions.
In conclusion, we find that ethnography does not provide us with a complete picture on any type of culture, society or community it studies including media audiences however “the critical promise of the ethnographic attitude resides to keep our interpretations sensitive to the concrete specifies, what matters is not the certainty of knowledge about audiences, but an ongoing critical and intellectual engagement with ways in which we constitute ourselves through media consumption” (Seiter and Ang, 1990: 110) so one must understand that the power of ethnography does not go without the limitations of any other qualitative research method, it gives us a reflection clear enough of that which it is studying to change our original interpretations of the audience etc, but does not mean we get an exact representation of every aspect and detail in the existence of those being studied, but enough to let us know of the important aspects that construct the audience of which the study has been conducted. Whereas other scholars have argued that “what passes as ethnography in cultural studies fails to fulfill the fundamental requirements for data collection” (Lull, 1990) Concluding on his research study Jenkins comments on ethnography as his chosen research method for the study as following “ Ethnography may not have the power to construct theories, but it can disprove them or at least challenge and refine them” (Jenkins, 1992: 286) Which is what he hoped to achieve from the start of the study.
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