What is anthropology? Anthropology is a discipline devoted to studying people’s habits, social relationships, and cultures, all which reveal larger societal patterns and phenomena. In other words, anthropology seeks to understand social life in its multiple forms. In recent decades, the discipline has been under scrutiny. Many have brought up the colonial roots of anthropology, its self-proclaimed objectivity, as well as its focus on capturing and exoticising ‘other’ cultures. Instead of seeking to factually and scientifically explain entire societies, anthropologists are now more aware of the fragmented and subjective nature of this field of study. In researching different ways of being, anthropology also challenges the researcher’s own beliefs and behaviours. One of the aims of contemporary anthropology is to present perspectives on the world today. These can include studying current political, economic, or environmental aspects of our societies and communities.
What do we mean by ethnography as methodology? In the social sciences, ethnography is a qualitative methodology which is carried out in the researcher’s own living and working environment. Observation and note-taking on people’s behaviour and interactions is an example of popular ethnographic methodology. Ethnography can often be a time-consuming methodology, however it also produces thoughtful understandings on people’s behaviours and ways of thinking. In ethnography, the research subject becomes a researcher and knowledge-producer themselves. It is usually acknowledged that the researcher, with their own biases and worldviews, is also an integral part of the knowledge production process. Centering the dynamics within and between groups, as well as the power relations and hierarchies between researcher and research subject, is a vital aspect of ethnographic research. Ethnographic methods have branched out to other fields, such as commercial fields, service design, and the arts, in the form of ethnographic films.
How is ethnography applied in documentaries? Ethnographic methods and documentary film have been closely related to each other from the advent of the documentary film. When a pioneer of ethnography, Bronislaw Malinowksi, travelled around the Trobriand Islands in the 1920s carrying out fieldwork, Robert Flaherty, considered a forefather of the ethnographic documentary, was simultaneously filming inuit groups in Canada. They both used similar ways of understanding and documenting the groups they studied. Even though they were unaware of each other’s work, ethnographic methods quickly became a valuable tool for documentary filmmakers during this era. Ethnographic methods are continually changing. We have recently seen ethnographic films being shot in the same location where Flaherty had filmed on his 30 kg film camera over a century ago. One of these films is Leviathian (2012), which presents North-American fishing communities through the lens of a 360-degree lightweight action camera.
What is the difference between ethnography and regular documentary? There are still ongoing discussions about the various styles of documentary films. A commonly used yardstick has been Bill Nichols’ ‘modes’ in which documentary films are made. These are the poetic, expository , observational, participatory, reflexive, and the performative. The ethnographic film is often positioned in the realm of the observational mode, as a sub-genre of documentary film. This style has also been called ‘direct cinema’, which gained traction in the 1960s and 1970s alongside cinema verité. The idea behind the observational film is to allow the action to unfold without any external intervention. There are as many definitions of the ethnographic film as there are interpreters. If we consider its roots in anthropology, the ethnographic film requires extensive background research, and is of high quality. It seeks to understand the subject of the film in all of its dimensions. Additionally, the filmmaker puts in the time to understand what they are filming, just as the researcher does in anthropology. In this sense, an ethnographic film follows similar methods to ethnographic research.
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