Cultural Anthropology

The Importance of Ethnography in Media Research

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It could be argued that some mass communication research methods constrain the audience to an entity that is empowered by the media, and not something that is actually enriching it. Taking art and taste' as an example, when trying to differentiate between high and low culture, good and bad taste, one must look at and evaluate such issues as social context, political outlook, and ideology. One must appreciate that the text can be interpreted differently based on an infinite set of social and cultural positioning. The issue becomes not whether an object is good or bad, but how it functions in society.' (Bird, 2003, pg 119) Bird explains, as we are analyzing a work of art, we need to consider its context in a particular time, place, socio-political structure and so on' (Bird, 2003, pg 119) The problem therefore is that some earlier mass communication theories localize meaning between the text and the receiver and not necessarily view culture as empowering the media by using it as raw material to symbolically fashion identity. Paul Willis, through his ethnographic research, would argue this is an important concern in understanding what culture is in regard to everything else.

Willis' belief in ethnography as vital to understand everyday lived cultures' comes down to that of contextualization. In television consumption Morley and Silverstone (Morley and Silverstone, 1990) divided their research into two contextual frameworks, namely the domestic and the technological but as Ang discusses, they rightly state these contextual frameworks cannot be separated from the wider context of social, political and economic realities.' (Ang, 1996, Pg 73) In essence Ang claims that Morley and Silverstone have a lack of perspective (the confusing consequence is that they seem somewhat unclear as to how to articulate the plethora of other contexts they theoretically envisage' (Ang, 1996, pg 73)) because as Jonathan Culler states: Context is boundless, so accounts of context never provide full determinations of meaning.' (Culler, 1990. pg 128) Therefore, Willis' understanding of ethnographic research leads him to believe that it better articulates everyday society because the researcher is immersed in the ever changing contexts of the receiver. What such research does is offer a means to overcome the artificiality of mass communication research since it's based on naturally occurring data.' (Ruddock, 2001, pg 128) . Ruddock claims, one place to begin is to identify regular patterns of human behavior, then to work backwards to address how these patterns came to be.' (ibid.) Willis sees the audience as cultural producers and therefore we must work backwards from the context' (whether that be class grouping, political bias, or even time of day) of which any particular text is received in order to better understand culture and the media's place within society.

Taking television as an example, Ang sees that the:
audience is becoming increasingly fragmented, individualized, dispersed, no longer addressable as a mass or as a single market, no longer comprehensible as a social entity, collectively engaged and involved in a well-defined act of viewing'. (Ang, 1996. pg 67)

In essence, more focused research is required like ethnology, that enables the researcher to see these fragmented' and individualized' receivers in their own environment to understand more fully how cultural identity is formed, how it changes, and why. Television is seen as an entertainment medium but for instance, some people find horror movies entertaining' and some do not, while a sitcom may be entertaining after a hard days work but not at other times. Ang questions which meanings are concretely actualized, however, remains undecided until we have caught the full multicontexually determined situation in which historical instances of television consumption take place.' (ibid.) In other words, to fully understand audience interpretation of the media and their consumption of it, the researcher must see it as it happens in the ever changing contexts of which it occurs, and ethnography allows one to do this.

One of Willis' investigations concerned itself with young people and their relationship with pop music. He saw this relationship to be on three levels the indexical' , the homological' , and the integral' which basically brings the indexical and the homological together. Firstly, the indexical stage looks at to what extent the music is indexed into everyday lifestyle and goes back to what Ang was discussing about context. Here the culture has to be observed, as Willis states, The indexical formation of culture is to be seen wherever a human group is in contact with a particular artefact or object.' (Willis, 1974) Therefore the context of which the interaction occurs is vitally important when is the music listened to, when is it switched off, when is music bought etc.? The homological aspect then attempts to understand these actions in a formulation of meaning. The essential base of a homological culture relation is that an artefact or object has the ability to reflect, resonate and sum up crucial values, states, and attitudes for the social group involved with it.' (ibid.) What Willis is seemingly arguing is culture is formed on a two-way basis where identity is informed by the media, and the media is in turn informed by the receiver. The artefact or object must consistently serve the group with the meanings, attitudes and certainties it wants, and it must support and return, and substantiate central life meanings.' (ibid.) Because context has largely infinite possibilities it is only when the text is seen in a particular context that meaning can ultimately be found. Yet to substantiate central life meanings' (ibid.), Willis goes further through the integral level of meaning'. He states,
the analysis would investigate the degree to which the music exerts and has exerted a direct creative influence on a life style, that is the way it not only reflects central attitudes, values and activities, but actually takes part in determining the nature of these things.' (ibid.)

Simply put, how has the music influenced behavior and the way the society is driven? A very recent example would be the What's Up' Budweiser commercial that had many people reciting the words. Other examples would be hair styles, fashion, and political outlook, but that this would not only be supported and reaffirmed by the music but it would in turn influence the music itself. Therefore, to better understand everyday lived cultures one must base meaning within the context of which text and receiver collide, as Willis concludes:
[if] the music exerted an influence on consciousness, and the social group exerted an influence on the form of the music then it can readily be seen that a dialectical process will have occurred in which life and music were continually brought closer together in to basic homologies.' (Willis, 1974)

That is, to fully understand culture we must accept the audience as producers, and interpret the two-way identity formed by media consumption, and a media influenced by that consumption.

In summation, it's interesting to look at the work of Fiske and his beliefs in audience dominance, because they illustrate an integral importance between culture formation and media text. For example, in video games Fiske argues that the players are using the games as a form of resistance in that they are able to assert their own control over the narrative of the game.' (Abercrombie/Longhurst, 1998, pg. 24) Yet in a similar but more symbolic and grounded way Willis goes further in that media:
invite certain expectations, that young people have not only learnt the codes, but have learnt to play with interpreting the codes, to reshape forms, to interrelate the media through their own grounded aestheticThe meanings they derive from these things inform all their activities.' (Abercrombie/Longhurst, 1998. pg. 24)

There are criticisms of ethnographic research, particularly in respect to the negotiated reading of the research undertaken and the basic subjectivity of the researcher. On a simple level J. Walter Thompson argues: I am always interested in original approaches to analyzing problems, but my concern about ethnography in a commercial context is that it will not lead to original explanation, but to microscopic reflections of the everyday.' (Thompson, 2003) He goes on to say that ethnography is merely a recollection of behavior filtered through the eye of the researcher and that it can be an additional input, but it is no replacement for thoughtful and intelligent analysis'. (Thompson, 2003). This however appears to be a rather superficial argument given that most research is governed in some way by the politics, motivations and subject matter of any mass communication study undertaken. At its core it seems to be criticism of media ethnography in that while it strives to find meaning in culture, only creates a filtered negotiated meaning based on the any number of biased anchoring on the researcher's part. Thompson believes in old-fashioned research techniques, that it is the actions of people that are the insights. It is not the way we interpret them, how we might apply them to the problem, or what they signify, but literally the behavior itself.' (Thompson, 2003)

The issue it seems is that it is impossible to differentiate method and organization of knowledge from knowledge itself simply, the method of ethnographic research is fundamentally flawed because the formation of conclusions and meanings are based on the filtered', grounded and constrained knowledge' created by the researcher. Murphy explains further, Thus, to speak of negotiation', in the study of media reception is also to engage the notion that the ethnographic encounter itself is squarely based on a ongoing negotiation of the researcher's identity.' (Murphy, 2004) In essence, such research is entirely anchored by the researcher's own background, that of his/her political upbringing, social status, ethnicity and perhaps an infinite amount of cultural' variables. Whilst post-modern thinkers advocate interpretation of results, anti-posivitists/pro-objectivists see all interpretation as false, as Murphy writes: Interpretative anthropology is a covering label for a diverse set of [biased] reflections upon the practice of ethnography and the concept of culture'. Melford Spiro concludes:
while insight and empathy are critical in the study of mind and culture...intellectual responsibility requires objective (scientific methods) in the social sciences. Without objective procedures ethnography is empirically dubious and intellectually irresponsible' (Spiro, 1996)

Ethnography, it seems, takes too much for granted in that cultural construction here is to be understood in terms of the unequal distribution of power.' (Abercrombie/Longhurst, 1998. pg 25) Because this type of research is still essentially marxist' and based on different kinds of power relations, especially class' (ibid.), it could be argued that beyond the criticism of subjectivity, in a media saturated world the ethnographer cannot be everywhere and risks the issue of positioned truths' (Ang, 1996. pg 80). In essence, the ethnographer is anchored by cultures that he/she already believes they understand to some extent (ie. For Willis, teen life in Britain he experienced this himself, the culture was not alien to him). That in ignoring this, we risk succumbing to sweeping generalizations which could only slight the scope of difference and variation that still exist.' (ibid.)

For example, ethnographic flaws can be seen in the work of British based market research company Gutsy' who use such techniques to create advertising plans for their clients. In one such case study, they tried to gain people's thoughts about the new Smart' car by parking it in view of the subjects (mainly upper-working and middle class Londoners during their lunch break from work). It was constrained to a pre-conceived target audience busy London streets populated by people with fairly' secure jobs and disposable income and underpinned with the notion of making profit, both from the client and the ethnographic researchers themselves. Gusty' had to produce what the client wanted so instead of studying behavior itself (Thompson's argument), they created such behavior instead of people's reaction as the car drove by, they placed the car in direct view and through direct and anchored questioning, forced the audience to form some interaction with it. In negotiating meaning from their findings the researchers are therefore in the fundamentally flawed position of conclusions based on an artificial reality that they created for their own needs.

In conclusion, it seems that ethnography does indeed have flaws in the validity of its investigations but it is still vitally important in studying culture. Despite a sense of generalization, ethnography has to be anchored in some way like any other research method that has its own set of goals and influences. Willis' investigation into young people and pop music in Britain, exampled in his opinion, how the media and the audience interrelate. His investigation showed us that context' is of all importance, breaking down the barriers of later questioning by witnessing what was occurring in context with how and when it occurred. As Ang questions and Willis investigates, context' and its infinite possibilities are vital to understanding culture, and ethnography is the research method best suited to record it.


Abercrombie, N. and Longhurst, B. (1998) Audiences London:SAGE

Ang, I. (1996) Living Room Wars Rehtinking Audiences for a Post-modern World London: Routledge

Bird, S (2003) The Audience In Everyday Life London: Routledge

Culler, J (1983) On Deconstruction, London: Routledge

Luck, R (2002) The Madchester Scene London: Pocket Essentials

Morley, D. and Silverstone, R. (1990) Domestic Communications: Technologies and Meanings (Media, Culture and Society) London: Routledge

Murphy, P.D (2004) On Negotiation Notes on the study of reception and ethnology in global media studies [online] available from (accessed 19th November 2005)

Ruddock, A. (2001) Understanding Audiences : Theory and Method. London: Sage

Sandbrook, D (2005) Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the "Beatles" - Britain in the Sixties: 1956-63 London: Little, Brown

Spiro, M (1996) Postmodernism and its critics [online] available from (accessed 19th November 2005)

Thompson, J.W. (2003) Market Research Living Their Lives [online] available from (accessed 19th November 2005)
Willis, P (1974) Symbolism And Practice: A Theory for the Social Meaning of Pop Music [online] available from (accessed November 19th 2005)

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