Ethno-what?

What is ethnography? It’s definitely not something we hear everyday, and it is not something we really notice until pointed out. Merriam-Webster dictionary’s short definition of ethnography is ‘the study of human races and cultures’. Pretty straight-forward right? Essentially yeah, it’s as easy as that. But there are some other things involved in understanding ethnography, like the different methods used to study, how studying humans and cultures benefit us, and also its challenges.

Ellen Isaacs is an ethnographer who spoke about ethnography at TEDx Talks on Broadway in 2013. She explains what ethnography is, how it is conducted in the everyday and how it has evolved. A great example of explaining ethnography is when Isaacs introduces the audience to her recent study of parking in New York City. Although this seems unusual to study parking in New York City, it also sounds obvious that parking on the streets of NYC is problematic with the population and heavy traffic. She explains the term ‘hidden obvious’ as “insights that are obvious only after you point them out”.

“A lot of times when you point things out to people they’ll say well sure it’s obvious that’s a problem, but they don’t think to tell you about it when you ask, to notice it you have to get out and watch” Ellen Isaacs, 2013 TEDxBroadway

Gradually, Isaacs and her team noticed that the main problem that occurred were the parking signs. The complexity of the signs were getting in the way of what a driver wants to know in the few seconds they are driving by, which is the relatable ‘can I park here?’ question we all face in any busy city. Isaacs points out that the restrictions concentrate more on what you can’t do than what you can, thereby studying this Isaacs and her team have come up with a solution for easier parking access in New York City. Although this seems fairly obvious, the signs didn’t come into focus as a problem until later in their investigations. Once the team noticed it though, that’s when it became more obvious. The solution was to redesign the signs to make them more easily read and/or create a more efficient parking meter.

That method of ethnography is called collaborative ethnography. According to Luke Eric Lassiter, collaborative ethnography is ‘literally, to work together, especially in an intellectual effort. While collaboration is central to the practice of ethnography, realising a more deliberate and explicit collaborative ethnography implies resituating collaborative practice at every stage of the ethnographic process, from fieldwork to writing and back again’ (Lassiter, 2005).
Reciprocal ethnography however is quite different and it encourages a giving/receiving method. Lassiter quotes Glen Hinson in his work, saying, ‘Reciprocation entails an act of return, a giving back for something received. In the ethnographic process, this sets up a model of exchange where one thing granted (e.g., an interview) yields an appropriate reciprocal response (e.g., help planting a garden). What this does not imply is constant ongoing discussion, where the project that yields that interview in the first place is co-conceived by both participating parties’ (Lassiter, 2005).

So how does ethnography benefit us? Well collaborative ethnography is beneficial as a group of ethnographers create and discuss the study together throughout their project findings, which in turn helps the receiver (say the people of NYC who need to park) more efficiently. Challenges of this however are not only the length of time and effort it takes to find a ‘hidden obvious’ but it can also jeopardise the nature of the intended study, as Lassiter states, “Collaborative ethnography moves collaboration from its taken-for-granted background and positions it on center stage” (Lassiter, 2005).

References:

Lassiter, L.E 2005, ‘The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography’, University of Chicago Press, Illinois USA, viewed 18 August 2016, http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/468909.html

Merriam-Webster 2015, Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, viewed 19 August 2016 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethnography

TEDx Talks 2013, Ethnography: Ellen Isaacs at TEDxBroadway, online video, 01 March 2013, viewed 19 August 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV0jY5VgymI

 

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TV: Then and Now

Have you ever thought what it was like when television was introduced for the first time? Or the impact it caused once this magical-box-of-moving-pictures entered the homes of many, stealing precious revenue from the movie studios? Or how about the dear fact that introducing a television into the family for the first time could change the relationships with everyone you love, altering household dynamics and family interaction forever?
Yeah, neither did I.

It’s always amazing when reflecting upon history and how far we have evolved through time. Imagining what it would’ve been like introducing new technology into the household is exciting to think about. We take so much for granted now as we’re around technology 24/7. Children are born today and brought up in houses already fit for wide screen televisions, computers and anything else with Internet connectivity. It’s just nice to reflect back to a time when it was all being introduced and new.

In a short interview with Maureen McCluskey, she reflects on the time when television was introduced into her household as a child during the 1950’s, and when colour TV became available in Australia in 1975.

Maureen McCluskey grew up with her parents and four other siblings in Sydney’s South-West suburbs. Although she is the second eldest child, she claims she is the ‘middle child’ of her five siblings. She fondly reflects how her and her siblings would sit on the floor while her father and mother sat in armchairs behind them. Maureen smiles upon the reflection of her memory and says, “My father would sit in his arm chair with a beer in his hand, and my mother would sit in the armchair next to him, with a chocolate bar and Pepsi in each of hers [hands].” Maureen strongly reminiscing with light-heartedness continues, “Us kids though, we’d sit on the floor and watch TV until my father got up and changed the channel to the evening news. It was his own way of signalling it was time for bed because we all hated watching the news” she laughs.
“What kind of shows did you and your siblings watch?” I ask curiously. “We use to watch comedy shows like Benny Hill but I never thought he was funny; I actually thought he was more silly than funny, so I never understood his humour. My brothers and sisters laughed more at me not understanding the jokes than they did watching Benny Hill. They laughed at him too don’t get me wrong, they thought he was great, but they also thought it was hilarious I didn’t get the jokes.”

During the interview, I also found it surprising that Maureen hadn’t seen a colour television until she was 20 years of age. I found it surprising because I’m not much older than 20 years and television has always been around me. To think I wouldn’t have seen a colour television until the age of 20 is shocking. It’ll probably be the equivalent when I have kids and tell them I once had a VHS player.
“We were the first family in the neighbourhood to own a colour television.” Maureen proudly remembers. “It was big and bulky, and you had to get up to change the channel; there weren’t any remotes back then. It wasn’t like the TV’s we have now that come with remotes or ones [televisions] that are mountable on the wall. It was just a set box on legs.”
When Maureen got married the same year colour television came available in Australia, she received a colour television as a wedding present from one of her guests, “I wasn’t expecting to get a colour television as a wedding present but I was so excited to have one! When we moved into our house, my husband and I sat in our own armchairs and watched television together.” Little did anyone know that one day we would be blessed with a little something called the Internet and it’s amazing friend Netflix.

Television has definitely come a long way to be able to reach as far as WIFI enabled wide screens, projectors or even a 4K UHD HDR Smart OLED 55” Curved TV ranging at over $5000 AUD. When televisions were introduced though, they didn’t just change the way we consume media and entertainment, rather it changed family relationships, and threatened the revenue of film production companies. That was until the companies realised that people liked watching repeats of movies on television and therefore creating revenue off VHS sales.

Family relationships changed as TV went from something new and exciting, to more of a way we consume entertainment. When you look at images or hear stories of when television was introduced to the family homes, children and adults are sitting together. When you look at what it is like now, the average household today is not quite the same. It’s something like the images below.

The introduction of television created a shift in the ‘space’ of communication and intercepted interaction with ones immediate surroundings. It was also the beginning of home entertainment that reverted society from being outside to now wanting to be inside.

What’s it like in your home? Do you sit with your family and watch TV?