The Reckoning of Art & Science

Video-based Ethnography Blog #5

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash.

I have a mentor (who’s a dentist) who regularly reminds me that my work is both an art and a science; the mediums which I use to craft stories and accounts is technical in nature and requires a certain level of skill and ability. However, storytelling and video production is also an art, and requires the right eye to effectively capture a scene. These readings, on one hand, threw this notion into tension, as video ethnography, as a method, asks the researcher to abandon the “art” of filmmaking. However, I assert that it’s not an abandonment of art, rather ethnography is an art in and of itself.

Shrum and Scott (2017) provide an excellent and clear definition of video ethnography in their text, stating, “you must observe the world closely and make decision about whether and what to film” (2). However, the authors also acknowledge the importance of micro-perspectives in ethnographic filmmaking. Video ethnographies typically do not focus on filming countries, governments, and whole people groups; rather, they are focused on interpersonal situations, social environments, and daily activities of life to open up a window into an authentic view of human activity (6). This micro level work of blends together human interaction with Latour’s network theory to help us understand the social order around us more effectively (8).

I totally agree with this concept — however, I struggle with the anonymity of research. As Shrum and Scott (2017) state, “Your goal in telling a story about a person is not to see them as unique individuals. True, that’s your job as a moral person but not your job as a researcher. You want to see people, situations, and events as examples of other things, with the possibility of understanding more than what you started with” (9). I understand what they are trying to say; however, I’m not sure I fully agree. Telling individual stories and focusing on individual experiences can point to those greater narratives which Shrum and Scott (2017) are trying to produce. Without the part of the whole (the individuals who make up the collective), I feel that miss the nuances and connections between individuals, which the authors go on to acknowledge, just in a different way.

de Brigard (2003) also speaks to the importance patterns in behavior which can be revealed through ethnographic research (15). In this piece, the lines between documentary film and ethnography are stark — specifically, that documentary is theatrical in nature, where research is academic. de Brigard (2003) speaks to the technology differences often present in film, stating, “The method of the research film can be summarized by the statement that the ratio of analysis to observation is high at this end of a continuum which extends, at the other extreme, to the purest, most uninterpretable aesthetic experiences. Research film technique is expected to behave with a modesty befitting the handmaid of the mind” (33). Why? Why can we not reconcile that beautiful/aesthetic productions can also be research oriented in nature. Why must these two viewpoints be found in tension rather than in harmony? Research film has an important role to play in both the academic and public spaces; Science and art should not be in tension, but rather work together to make something interesting and unique and contributory to the academic space. de Brigard (2003) does ultimately acknowledge this explaining, “the use of ethnographic film as public information depends upon the presence, in self-contained form, of visual attractiveness and intellectual substance — a most demanding format (35). Ethnographers and researchers and filmmakers — we can do both. We can be both.

In contrast, Ball and Smith (2001) frame ethnographic films as a subset of documentary film, with blurry distinctions, as both types of work are still claiming a kind of “realism” embedded in the facts of a given social order. (15) However, the authors acknoweldge the debates surrounding realism in the ethnographic film/documentary which are firstly, that realism cannot exist because documentaries are rehearsed construction of life. Secondarily, postmodernists critique on the basis that ethnographic film is not broad enough to capture culture; “culture description of any kind if a good deal more complex and political than envisaged…” (17). These critiques are reasonable, and ones that I have to reckon with regularly, and have in previous posts. The camera and equipment change how individuals interact with a scene; however, that does not make the scene less “real.” The postmodern critique feels more apt, as I agree that social situations are more complex. However, we have to use the tools that we have to try and understand the world us.

I’m still reckoning with my role as researcher and as artist/creator. I don’t think we have to abandon making “beautiful/aesthetic” pieces in order to more effectively research. However, I do think that aesthetics should never trump the research. There is a happy medium to be found in the midst of the reckoning of the art and the science of the visual methodologies.


Ball, M., and Smith, G. (2001). Technologies of realism? Ethnographic uses of photography and film. In Atkinson, P., Coffey, A. & Delamont, S. (Eds.) Handbook of ethnography (pp. 302–319): SAGE Publications Ltd

De Brigard, E. (2003). The history of ethnographic film. In Hockings, P. (Ed.). Principles of Visual Anthropology (pp. 13–43). Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Shrum, W., & G. Scott (2017). Video ethnography in practice: Planning, shooting, and editing for social analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage.