John Postill: Ethnography for theorising media and change

Notes from the workshop Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home within the cycle of seminars Innovation in Digital Culture Research. Internationalization at Home, organized by the Mediacciones research group, and held in Barcelona, Spain, in November 25, 2013.

John Postill, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.
Ethnography for theorising media and change.

Anthropology is now very much focussed on change, more explicitly on change, and how media is related with this change. Change is normally addressed by default, that is, it is actually analysed, but it is not that very common that change is problematized as it is being these days.

Media and social changing

Researchers are usually busy analysing what is happening right now, what is emergent, what is imminent to happen. The problem is that then research focuses only on the present continuous, the nearer future, and thus forgetting about the immediate past or just the past. We need to thing more about metaphors not to be slaves of them.

The biography of an actual change

How to overcome the swamp of being caught up by the present continuous? Biographies (or people) have a beginning, a middle and an end, have a live course, have a curriculum, have a story, and a past. The same can be said about a process of change: it has a beginning, a middle and an end… even if it is an abrupt change, it normally does not come from nowhere.

Technology adoption cycle, diffusion of innovations, domestication model, etc. are all models that take the idea of a process as a basis, an approach that could also be used in ethnographic analysis.

Changing models, applying them to other scenarios or disciplines, etc. is a good way to advance and improve the models themselves.

Diachronic ethnography

Besides — or in addition to — multi-sited ethnography (George Marcus) we have to introduce multi-time ethnography. In ICT or digital ethnography this is more possible than ever: one can dig in digital archives for the past, but a past picturing the real thing (not chronicles: just archives of what was really said and done online); and, of course, one can go on analysing the “future” by keeping connected to the virtual community, etc. that one is analysing. It is now possible, then, to perform multi-timed ethnography, by taking multiple points in time in our fieldwork.

This practice may help us not only to tell what is happening, but why and, even more important, why in this way and not in another way… or what is changing socially despite the fact that all other factors may apparently remain unchanged.

Media-related changes

What is media? What is change? Do we have simple definitions for these concepts?

Changes: actual transformation from state A to state B.

Media-related changes: actual transformation from state A to state B where media have played a significant role in the way.

The change may not be at the macro level, or measured at the “end” of the process, but at the micro and meso levels, or measured withint the process. For instance, the Spanish Indignados movement may have not led to a change of regime, but there actually was a change in how civil society organized, and in this change media had a very important and significant role.


  1. Treat processes of change as collective biographies where actors use technologies that influence social practices.
  2. Combine synchronic ethnography with diachronic ethnography, to add a time dimension, to conduct multi-time ethnography.
  3. Media-related changes as a way to focus on the role of media without falling into techno-determinism.


Rosa Borge: in a multi-time analysis, where should one begin or when should one stop analysing? Postill: one of the problems is that there will usually be discrepancies between what the researcher thinks are the milestones or the important stages of the process (e.g. beginning, end) and what is the perception of the participants. What the researcher has to provide is a good foundation on how the research decisions are taken.

Lídia Arroyo: is this about putting the accent on different approaches as the micro- and macro-levels? Postill: Ethnography is not necessarily about the micro-level. Indeed, many micro-level changes can lead us to macro-level and/or systemic changes, and the micro-analysis can really help on figuring out what happened at the macro-level.

Open Science: redefining the boundaries of the Academy

Live notes at the eResearch seminar by Antonio Lafuente (CSIC) and Ismael Peña-López (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) entitled e-Research: oportunidades y desafíos para las ciencias sociales (e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences). Citilab, Cornellà de Llobregat (Barcelona), Spain, May 14th, 2009.

See also e-research tag.

Open Science and expanded authority
Antonio Lafuente

Open Science

What is open science? Can science not be open? Are we the product of the scientific revolution or is it the scientific revolution a product of the modern era?

The scientific revolution during the XVII and XVIII centuries was not about a dire change in methodology, but opening the process and results of science, making them public and transparent, opening knowledge to many. And it does seem now that we’re revisiting that era again, threatened by the menace of a closure of science.

During these centuries, a new character appears in science: the fact. And, with it, quantification and measurement of phenomena. But then the possibility appears too to register and appropriate knowledge through intellectual property rights. This leads to a process of privatization of knowledge (and universities…).

Threatening knowledge

We live in a Damoclesian era (Moran), scared masses are easier to lead/manage.

On the one hand, there are increasingly powerful lobbying activities that include positioning “experts” in supposedly independent scientific committees, with manifest conflict of interests. Neutrality, thus, is at stake.

Second, secrecy is a growing practice of which there’s evidence to be dragging the efficiency of the practice of science.

The crisis of peer review, affecting the “market” of scientific reputation, which, at its turn, affects tenures, prizes, grants… and indeed most policy-making and decision-taking depends on expertise and reputation.

Endogamy of citation procedures creates a resonance where most articles state the same discoveries but rely, aggregately, in just a few of them. Thus, there is few practice and experimentation and most (vague) citation and repetition of preceding literature, reinforcing — instead of testing or refuting — ungrounded (or poorly grounded) discoveries.

The speed of times also plays havoc on the slow path that science needs.

Uncertainty — or risk, according to Ulrich Beck — also requires more open and collaborative science, as the complex is too difficult to handle by few scientist working together.

Examples of Open Science

Innocentive: a community “to broadcast problems”. Innocentive has put into practice disperse and multidisciplinary talent.

Scott Page: The Difference, with examples of “why 1+1 is not 2″, or how to join efforts in solving problems.

The US Patent System: Not only the system has to grant patents, but research the prior art of the submitted patent application. But the prior art is so huge, that it just cannot be tracked. To solve this, a peer-to-patent project has been created: when a patent is submitted, it is published and whoever is affected by it (i.e. has some prior rights to what the patent claims) can object to that new patent application.

Electrosensibilidad: 13,000,000 Europeans state being electrosensible, meaning that electrostatic waves disable people to work and even live comfortably. But this “disease” is not acknowledged as so. A citizen platform has been created continent wide to share knowledge in order to define the symptoms, the consequences and force governments to acknowledge this disease.

Open Access: is a claim from scientist to recover an image of people working for the common good. The idea is that all knowledge publicly funded should be made public — and not transferred to private hands by giving away intellectual property rights e.g. to publishers. Besides moral issues, open access pays back both economically and scientifically (in citations, publishing impact, etc.).

How can eResearch contribute to enhance Research?
Ismael Peña-López

Please see How can eResearch contribute to enhance Research?

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Q & A

Adolfo Estalella: It is an acknowledged truth that most collaborative projects (e.g. Wikipedia, Linux) are run by minorities, though there might be a huge community around them. Is it a problem of values? or what? Antonio Lafuente: Yes, it is a matter of values. Another issue is that authority cannot be automatized and requires curation. In an open review system, there’ll be more transparency and less probability to trick. And technology can enable this. On the other hand, there are several evidences where multitudes can produce quality.

Adolfo Estallella: but, will everyone review everything they read? how can we engage readers of open content to review, without explicit incentives, e.g. the papers they read? Antonio Lafuente: Maybe we should acknowledge and accredit comments and reviews, so that there is an incentive making them.

e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences (2009)

How can eResearch contribute to enhance Research?

On Wednesday 13th May 2009, 17:30, I will be speaking at the 4th session of the seminar series e-Research: oportunidades y desafíos para las ciencias sociales (e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences), side by side with Antonio Lafuente.

My part of the seminar will give a practical insight into eResearch — or Enhanced Research —, a concept that meets in the same crossroads as Open Science, Science 2.0 and e-Science do. Unlike what is generally believed, I don’t think about eResearch or Science 2.0 (the two more neighbouring approaches) as opposite to “traditional” science, but as a complement, as a next step, as an enhancement as the name itself implies. Of course, the more an enhancement is mainstreamed, the more it is likely not to enhance but to transform the enhanced subject. Thus, I believe that the Internet brings an inflexion in the practice of Science (and all knowledge-related practices — dozens of them), and that it is only a matter of time to see how new literacies are a must to keep on with such practices.

That said, the presentation begins with a (very) simplified scheme of a researcher’s timeline — again, the extrapolation into other knowledge-based jobs is almost immediate —, from having an idea to seeing it published on a peer reviewed academic journal, and including (some of) the steps the researcher usually goes through.

The timeline is then complemented — enhanced — by some “2.0″ practices that can potentially help the researcher (the knowledge worker) in their work. One of the key points to stress here is that for this potential to (a) materialize and (b) have a positive return of investment, it is strictly necessary to mainstream the “2.0″ practices in the researcher’s everyday life. At least in a higher degree (e.g. 80%).

For instance: this post is but my own guidelines to impart the seminar, which exist not in paper;the presentation that follows is the one I will be using; and the reference to my bibliographic manager feeds the database with the bibliographies I work with, the online repository of my works and my online CV; hence the only “added” effort is uploading the zipped file of the presentation.

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More information

I want to thank Adolfo Estalella, Elisenda Ardèvol and all the Mediacciones research group for the idea of setting up this series of seminars — thanking (or blaming) them for inviting me, this falls on the audience.

NOTE: to comfortably browse the presentation in, open it in a new window, click once in the presentation, and use Page Up and Page Down to move along “slides”.

Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation

Live notes at the eResearch seminar by Roger Canals (Universitat de Barcelona) and Juan Ignacio Robles (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) entitled Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, April 29th, 2009.

An introduction to Visual Anthropology
Roger Canals

Visual Anthropology is the part of anthropology that takes the:

  • Image as an object, an object whose goal is to be seen. And this object creates social relationships, are social enablers;
  • Image as methodology, as a way to approach the reality; either by using already existing images and measuring the reactions of social actors towards these images, or by producing new images (photography, cinema, etc.)
  • Image as a discourse, images being used to transmit the findings, conclusions of the research itself.

Three steps: how images are represented, how a relationship is created between people and images, how a relationship is mediated amongst people through images.

Burke: image is valid in social sciences if it is contextualized.

Specificities of ethnographic cinema: the camera as a special object that needs “problematising”, putting it in context, make evident its use, its influence on what is seen and how it is seen…

On the one hand — a positive approach, by e.g. Vasant — we can believe that the genesis of the photographic image is automatic, unconscious and objective. There is no human intention (e.g. like in painting) in photography or cinema. Thus, we have to believe in the photographed object.

On the other hand — a post-modern approach, by e.g. Deleuze — we can also understand photography as a built image and, hence, it is useless for anthropology.

Of course, both points of view can co-exist. It is the double regime of the cinematographic image, with an immediate component and a complex component.

Use of cinema in anthropology:

  • Register. Though the context is very important to correctly frame this register. E.g. Nanook of the North is not a good ethnography about Eskimos, but it is a good ethnography about the encounter of Nanook and Flaherty.
  • Meeting point (dialogic camera)
  • Performance. As the camera is not invisible, all cinema is, on a certain degree, a performance.

All three combined provide a cinematographic way to approach reality: the data one gets are different (than without a camera), and the way these “data” (findings, reflections, etc.) are explained is also radically different than with other ways of representation (e.g. written language).

It is possible to think cinema ethnographically, as the way we produce the film (lightning, screenplay, etc.) does affect our research. And ethnography cinematographically: as post production, editing and mounting, etc. are also parts of the analysis of our subject of research

Transcultural cinema: camera is a research instrument and cinematographic decisions come (partially) determined by the characteristics of the subject of research.

Examples of visual ethnography
Juan Ignacio Robles

Markets, lives and suburbs

Juan Ignacio Robles presents a visual ethnography that does research on how different retail sellers in downtown markets face competition by supermarkets and illegal groceries. Footage is shot in three different European cities.

Problems: sometimes it is difficult not to break the space-time environment of the representees as sometimes it is not allowed to tape inside supermarkets. On the other hand, the quality of the equipment also determines how and what you can tape, depending of the circumstances of the people to be taped (e.g. noise in open air markets).

Rachida’s Kids

Project to show how Islam is taught in Spanish public schools. The camera enabled a higher degree of openness of the taped people, showing more things and shadows that would have remained hidden had not been the camera there. The people taped were the main characters of their own story and were able to explain their own point of view without intermediaries.

Muñeiras, Cows and Churches

How the franquist regime used the NO-DO to show Spanish traditions, to praise the dictator and to foster tourism. The NO-DO was said to be “ethnographic”, and the research wants to deconstruct how the different documentaries from the NO-DO were really designed and built.

Social Theatre

The Spanish-Equatorial association create performances on the street to transform feelings of hate, apathy into social vindication. It’s a Francisco Boal’s approach to activism theatre, to humanize the oppressor-oppressed relationship.

Q & A

Ismael Peña-López: how does the camera causes fake performance instead of empowering taped people to talk with their own voices? why not use invisible cameras (with the due permissions ex ante or ex post)? how do we go from describing to finding relationships of causality, from the how to the why?

Isidor Fernández: does anthropologist have to master the language of cinema? Roger Canals: yes, of course (though I don’t think there’s such a thing like cinematographic language).

Adolfo Estalella: what’s the responsibility of the researcher when “stepping into” the performance that is being ethnographed?

Francesc Balagué: how does the media (cinema, TV, etc.) affects not only the result, but the research itself?

Ruth Pagès: Not make the camera invisible but even more visible, more present, and include the ethnographer inside the ethnography itself.

Juan Ignacio Robles: I don’t want an invisible camera, as the camera induces actions and events. The characters of ethnographies usually attribute the camera a leading role too. The camera is but another character.

Roger Canals: If the camera is not active in the ethnography, maybe it’s not ethnographic cinema at all. It is all the remainings of the positive approach that the reality is “pure” and we should not affect it. But this paradigm has been set aside as we believe there’s no “pure reality” at all. Anthropology only happens when there’s an encounter, hence the appearance of the camera is an absolute need for this encounter to happen.

Elisenda Ardèvol: the ethnographer is a participant and the camera mediates.

Edgar Gómez: technicalities (e.g. is the audio ok?) are not distractions from the core of the research? Won’t the camera get most attention that due? Roger Canals: it is not a matter of putting the camera in the middle of the scene/research, just to give it the appropriate attribution.

Roger Canals: for the anthropologist, the field research is very important. Before taping, there’s a lot of work to be done on the field and master the nature of the subject to be studied.

More information

e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences (2009)

e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences

Colleagues Adolfo Estalella and Elisenda Ardèvol (members of Mediacciones) organize a series of seminars called e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences, to debate about the consequences that digital technologies have on the production of knowledge, especially in a scientific framework (it’s worth noting that e-Research here stands for enhanced research, not electronic research).

I’m really proud to have been invited to take part of these sessions side by side with some people whose opinion I most value. I am very likely to be speaking about the Personal Research Portal and see whether this practice can be mainstreamed or not.


From eScience to e-Research: challenges and opportunities for social sciences, with Eduard Aibar and Adolfo Estalella

Research in the Internet: new ethical challenges for social research, with Elisenda Ardèvol and Agnès Vayreda.

Visual methodologies: knowledge production and ways to represent it, with Roger Canals and Juan Ignacio Robles.

Open Science: redefining the boundaries of the academy, with Antonio Lafuente, Ismael Peña-López and Juan Julián Merelo.

Social networks analysis: new ways of visualization, José Luís Molina, Tíscar Lara and Mariluz Congosto.

More information

Official page of the seminars, with complete schedule, how to get there and related information.