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)

Mobiles in developing countries: hope or mirage?

The World Bank’s last edition of the World Development Indicators stated that Seventy percent of mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies, a mantra that was also repeated on Saturday April 25th, 2009, at Africa Gathering. At least during the second talk it was said that 61% of the 2.7 billion mobile phones in the world are in developing countries, as reported by Ken Banks. Besides whether it is 61% or 70%, the thing is that 83.3% of the World population live in developing countries, a fact that puts in perspective the relative (i.e. per capita) penetration of mobile phones in relationship with the rest of the World’s.

So, is there no reason to be optimistic about mobiles in Africa, then? Well, it depends. Let’s bring some data in for the rescue:

Mobile cellular subscribers 000s (2002) 000s (2007) Compound annual growth rate Cellphones per habitant (%) % digital % of total phones (mobile + fixed)

Source: ITU ICT Eye

Or, graphically:

Graphic: Factors of inequality and exclusion in the Network SocietySource: ITU ICT Eye

Data don’t clearly show the distinction between developing and developed countries, though it can be roughly inferred at least by (sorry for the rude simplification) looking at Africa and Asia (with mostly Low and Lower-middle income economies with very few exceptions — see the World Bank’s Country Classification). The big highlights are:

  • Developing countries have less cellphones per capita than developed ones
  • Most phones in developing countries are mobile and digital
  • The compound annual growth rate of mobile telephony is higher the less saturated is the market

A logical comment about the last statement would be that it’s natural that less penetration leads to higher annual growth rates. Well, it is not that logical: on the one hand, there are countries with penetration rates above 150% (United Arab Emirates, Macao, Italy, Qatar or Hong Kong), so the concept of “saturation” is a tricky one; on the other hand, there are plenty of other commodities and capital goods (e.g. cars or washing machines) that not even dream of reaching these growth rates.

That said, one need to be cautious when stating that there are “many” cellphones in developing countries: this is true in absolute terms, but most untrue in relative ones. But reality shouts out loud that this is changing at an overwhelming speed and that innovation happens at a terrific pace.


World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part II)

(continued from World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part I))

The services are still unaffordable for many people in low-income economies, leaving them yet to realize the potential of ICT for economic and social development

This is quite evident by most data available, so my comment will be headed not on the fact of the digital divide, but on affordability itself.

According to my own research (again, more to come soon), after analysing 55 models that depict digital development and include more than 1,500 indicators, if we let aside the analogue indicators (e.g. GNP), 37% of the digital indicators were depicting the state of infrastructures, of which only one sixth were measuring affordability.

The rationale behind this argument is that not only most people cannot afford ICTs, but, according to what we measure, we can infer that most measuring tools — which are normally built to measure the impact of policies and strategies and projects — simply do not care or care little about affordability. If people cannot afford ICTs and policy-makers and decision-takers (amongst them development institutions) do not care about affordability, we’ve got a problem. A big one.

In developing economies innovative use of ICT services is changing people’s lives and providing new opportunities

Not that I disagree with this statement — have I already cited the Economic Benefits of ICTs? — but there is a shade of meaning to be made here. I increasingly think that ICTs are not a driver of inclusion but a driver of exclusion. In other words, people have to move (or develop digitally) to remain in the same place. ICTs actually do not create new opportunities, but the absence of ICTs or digital illiteracy do decrease the number of opportunities available to those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

See, for instance, the next figure that I presented — among other places — in my speech Digital students, analogue institutions, teachers in extinction and that is based on Manuel Castells’ Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society and Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint:

Graphic: Factors of inequality and exclusion in the Network Society
Mobile phones have captured the market in developing economies […] Seventy percent of mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies

The first part of this statement is absolutely true and people in developing countries — citizens or development agencies working in the terrain — know it perfectly. See, for instance, Mobile Web for Development or Innovative Uses of Mobile ICTs for Development.

But the second part is definitely misleading, as the next chart is:

Graphic: Mobile cellular phone subscribers

Stating that 70% of the total mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies says little about the relative weight of such penetration. According to the World Bank itself, there are 6 billion people alive today: One billion people live in developed countries [while] the other 5 billion live in developing countries. Which is to say: 83.3% people live in developing countries. Compared with 70% of total cellphone subscribers, there still is a gap of 13.3% in favour of developed countries. And if we take into account international agencies, development organizations and tourists (…and troops) — that buy domestic SIM cards to have local prices — the unbalance is even worst.

I am not saying that news are bad — which are not —, but that they are not as good as they might seem at first sight.

More information


World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part I)

The World Bank has published the World Development Indicators 2009. The indicators and the report that accompanies the updated version of the indicators are, arguably, one of the best comprehensive snapshots on the state of the question of development worldwide.

Concerning Information and Communication Technologies, the report devotes 5 pages to comment the subject (see chapter 5, States and Markets, pp.265-269, PDF file 92.5 KB). The main statements of this section are as the following, which I’ll be commenting one by one.

ICTs used in e-government projects can reduce corruption

This is a statement I fully agree with. I already wrote about this in my article entitled The end of paper, open gates to on-time democracy (not about journalism) and there is plenty more evidence about what ICTs can do for transparency, accountability, democracy and human rights; and and efficiency and efficacy in the provision of public services.

Some ICTs, such as broadband, can contribute to economic growth

Again, see Economic Benefits of ICTs.

We must not, nevertheless, forget how broadband is unevenly adopted in the world:

Graphic: Broadband access in developed and developing economies

The problem is not, actually, that broadband distribution is unbalanced, but that the trend seems to reinforce this fact. As the International Telecommunication Union report Measuring the Information Society – The ICT Development Index 2009 shows, the broadband divide in the World has increased and the irruption of the mobile broadband has only worsened this unequality:

Graphic: Fixed broadband users

Graphic: Mobile access in developed and developing economies
Good government policies and regulations are creating competitive ICT markets, increasing access to ICT services for people everywhere […] Many countries that have created a competitive market environment for ICTs have more people using ICT services

This is, to my understanding, where long term and broad impact ICT4D strategies should be headed. Thus, there is an urgent need to change the socioeconomic and political frameworks regarding ICTs and the Information Society in general.

My own research shows (more about this soon) that the role of the government has a huge impact in the probability (that is: it is a cause) of achieving higher levels of digital development. To be more specific, the following aspects highly determine digital development several orders of magnitude higher than other issues:

The well known success of mobile telephony worldwide has been achieved through high demand, low-cost technologies, and market liberalization

Complementary to what has already been said, macro-level policies have to be accompanied by grassroots and micro-level strategies and projects. The first one that comes to my mind is the — in my opinion — successful FrontlineSMS:Medic, building on the acknowledged flagship of SMS for development projects Frontline SMS. In a recent — and most insightful — talk I had with the promoter of Kiwanja, Ken Banks, we both agreed that “scalability” in the developing world might not mean the same thing as in developed countries, which follow market-led rules, but could be closer to the concept of “copy-and-spread”. In his own words in Time to eat our own dog food?: we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate.

(continues in World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part II))


The end of paper, open gates to on-time democracy (not about journalism)

Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play is not a (good) film about the end of print newspapers and way not about democracy in the age of the Information Society. But watched under these points of view, it does (totally accidentally) provide some materials for reflection worth mentioning them.

A print paper story

The plot can be summarized as old-school investigative journalism star teams up with junior on-line journalist/blogger to uncover case of political corruption, murder, criminal lobbying, bribery and other US Congress political sphere related issues.

When the whole set of conspiracies are about to be discovered, some things happen (caution: simplifications, biases and spoilers ahead):

  • These news are too good to be published in a blog, they well deserve being printed on paper (approximate quote)
  • As some details lack to complete the news, rotary presses are hold on stand by for hours and the edition is not closed
  • In the meanwhile, some criminals die or almost die
  • In the meanwhile, some witnesses die or almost die
  • In the meanwhile, some reporters die or almost die, risking the loss of absolutely all the relevant information
  • At the end, the pieces of news are written, edited, prepared for printing
  • Newspapers are printed, cut, folded, packed and put on trucks to be distributed… the day after

On-time democracy

It is under the light of some recent news that we have to interpret the preceding list of events. For instance:

There are plenty of other examples, like

The end of paper, on-time democracy

This is not about news, this is about information. This is not about just being “notified” of happenings, but about being informed to debate, create oneself a state of opinion and act. This is not about journalism, this is about government and democracy and freedom.

In the age of the digital revolution, denouncing the Spanish Primer Minister’s lies or the presumably rigged Moldovan election cannot wait until the following day. And, most important indeed, these facts cannot risk not being made public at all because of lack or loss of intermediaries.

In matters of hours — especially in a Globalized and Network Society — governments change hands, people get imprisoned and executed, or citizens lose all their savings.

To me, the last sequence of Kevin Macdonald’s film — a trip through the whole process of printing a newspaper — is not the intended elegy to print newspapers, but a visit to the Jurassic Park of journalism. If newspapers are the guarantors of transparency and accountability, if newspapers do serve the citizenry, they have to do it at the pace of times, at the pace of that citizenry they claim to be pretending to serve.

To me, the first quotation — These news are too good to be published in a blog, they well deserve being printed on paper — should be understood in terms of comfort (paper for the couch and the weekend, online for the mobile Internet and immediacy) rather than in terms of importance (though time will tell what the evolution of e-ink/e-paper will bring).

In the age of crossmedia, McLuhan’s the medium is the message is over. There are no media. No more. As true that there are no Internet users (as an ontology), but people, sheer people that are increasingly adopting yet another device to do what the zoon politikon does best: to communicate and to engage in conversations.


Cristóbal Cobo: e-competence in the European Framework: 21st century literacies

Live notes at the research seminar by Cristóbal Cobo entitled e-competence in the European Framework: 21st century literacies and based in his research Strategies to promote the development of e-competences. How to reduce the gap between the e-skilled and the non e-skilled?. Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Barcelona, Spain, April 15th, 2009.

How to reduce the gap between the e-skilled and the non e-skilled?

Research questions:

  • Why does the Knowledge Society requires highly qualified labour force?
  • How effective have the IT & education initiatives been?
  • What means e-competence?
  • How should the coming labour force be trained?

Why does the Knowledge Society requires highly qualified labour force?

In the last years, complex communications and expert thinking have been increasing in the share of tasks performed by workers, while PCs increasingly do the tasks that consist of rutine.

The World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index is an appropriate framework to measure this shift towards more qualification in labour demand.

This shift has implied a huge gap between what is being taught at schools and what is being needed — and will be needed in the next generation of professionals — in the labour market.

How effective have the IT & education initiatives been?

And though there are plans (e.g. in Europe or the OECD) to foster and assess these needed skills, the implementation is not straightforward.

The European Commission has established three levels of ICT skills:

  1. Access to ICT
  2. Basic ICT Skills
  3. Advanced Use of ICT (Participation+Transaction)

But there is a physical digital divide, a growing demand of e-skills unmatched by a declining supply, a gender gap, half the population are non-users of the Internet…

Who needs digital literacy: age gap, gender gap, education gap, location gap, employment gap. Not new, but strengthened. Indeed, most non-users are due to lack of skills or e-awareness.

Still, self-learning still is the most relevant option when acquiring digital skills. Maybe policies should focus informal training instead of formal training.

Some issues in European assessments:

  • The majority of teachers in most advanced countries (Dk. Se. Fi. Ne)* use ICT in less than 5% of their classes
  • Students using PC more frequently at school do not perform better than others.Highest performances: students with a mediumlevel of computer use
  • Impact of ICT on students’ performance was highly dependent on teaching approaches
  • No correlation: ICT access & Øof teachers having used ICT in their teaching.No correlation: Levels of ICT use & levels of perceived learning gains from ICT use
  • No clear advances (last decade) that can be confidently attributed to broader access to PC.
  • Most educators use technology @ school for administrative tasks (fewer for class)
  • The positive impact of ICT use in education has not been proved

BUT, the reason could be that computers/Internet are just used in old ways of teaching, reinforcing old methodologies, instead of focusing on educative innovation and applying them in new ways of teaching.

What means e-competence?

e-competence: Capabilities and skills to manage tacit and explicit knowledge, as well as to use digital technologies in a knowledge-based economy. There are several ways in which this general concept is put into practice or defined in deeper detail: the European e-competence framework, OECD, the ECDL by the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies.

Five stages of e-competence:

  • e-Awareness: understanding the framework
  • Technological Literacy: confident and critical operation of ICT
  • Informational Literacy: read with meaning
  • Digital Literacy: integration of instrumental and strategical skills.
  • Media Literacy: understanding how traditional mass media and digital media are merging

How should the coming labour force be trained?

  • Long Term Agenda and dialogue between education and business sectors
  • e-Inclusion: forget the “ideal knowledge worker” but focus in potential excluded. Try to reach e-awareness, beyond just basic digital literacy.
  • Standardization: set standards for ICT competencies: definitions, assessment, certifications… Standardization for the mobility of the workforce.
  • e-Awareness
  • Pedagogical Shift: avoid reductionist approaches
  • e-Skills Teachers: impact of ICT on students are highly dependent on the teaching approaches, their skills and incentives
  • R&D

Q & A

Q: where do we focus in ICT training for teachers? A: Probably most innovation comes from digital literacy, from the capability to analyse, criticise and assess, which somehow requires exploration.

Q: how do we teach how to innovate? A: a pedagogical shift is required prior to engage in innovation.

Q: where do we put the threshold in what is “sufficient” e-kills? A: it depends. This is why we have to draw standards depending of economic sectors, purposes, etc.

Ismael Peña-López: there’s evidence of ICTs being not a driver of inclusion, but a driver of exclusion: the question is not whether I’ll be more employable if I got specific e-skills, but whether I’ll remain employable at all if I do not have them. On the other hand, is not about e-skills, but e-competences. Skills might vary as technology does, but competences do not (e.g. a competence is going from A to B as fast as possible; skills, which change along time, would then be riding a horse, riding a bike or driving a car).

Q: if ICT in education is useless, because teachers are not prepared or committed, why don’t focus in informal learning? is it worth it? are policies correctly addressed?

Edgar Gómez: there’s a problem of fundamental skills like reading, talking and speaking, that undermine higher level skills.

Ismael Peña-López: why focus in informal learning? why not fix what’s broken (formal education) instead of fostering a patch (informal education)? (note: I’m actually for informal learning). A: Fixing formal learning is really costly — and not only economically — and its success, when there’s some, is long term. It might be cleverer to make technology pervasive and invisible in every day life, and make using it (and learning its use) more transparent and also pervasive. It’s not about teaching, but about embedding. It’s about making irrelevant the computer by using it very much.

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