Doing documentary films in social science research

Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.

Introduction

In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.

The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology.[2] Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986) [3] who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.

My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.

Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.

There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.

This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.

The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.

Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues?  It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.[4]

For the full paper, please contact the author.

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