Chapter 8


Participant Observation: open access, independence, and identity


This chapter focuses on three issues: Exploding Cinema's ethos of open access; how the group's finances relate to their independence; and issues of group identity. My main source of information are the logbooks I compiled in the two years I was a member of the collective. Before presenting my observations on these topics I will consider ethnographic methodology in general.

I joined the Exploding Cinema before the period of the research began at the beginning of 1997 as a way of ascertaining that such a project was feasible. I then took part in the collective as a fully active member and researcher keeping a log of my activity from November 1997 to December 1999. This meant attending meetings, making the programmes and setting up the shows. I doubt if a non-contributing member could have been put up with for very long - in such a small group there is usually a need for 'all hands on deck'. The other members were aware of my research and were in agreement with the general aims of my thesis, however I did not seem to have a special position as an 'observer' within the group. Although people did occasionally joke about me scribbling in my black books, mostly I was seen as a fellow artist/activist. After December 1999 I stayed part of the group but without keeping a regular logbook. In fact for the first half of 2000 there were only three shows and relatively little activity.

I recorded my observations in the most classic literary mode of ethnography - by writing up regularly soon after meetings, shows or other events and when thoughts about the group and its activities formed in my mind. When I compiled the logs I deliberately included other activities I saw as relevant contexts both to me as artist and researcher and to the Exploding Cinema.[1]

I did also record a few still photographs and some documentary video footage of shows.[2] A series of formal interviews with each member of the collective is written up in a separate chapter framed by the practices of Oral History.

Introduction to Ethnographic Method

Daniel Miller has suggested that, at least within common Western cultures, the main skill that may be required of the ethnographer is the ability to drink![3] This is because much ethnographic material comes by way of gossip, so you need to be able to hang out and get on with people, which in the West often includes drinking alcohol. This is certainly true with Exploding Cinema and there is a sense that the reward of getting through a meeting is a session down the pub. However you also need to write up what is heard and observed on a regular basis, something which may not easily follow a session of drinking.

Miller pointed out that the methodology of participant observation was in practice highly pragmatic. A researcher should, 'use whatever works well'. He emphasised just one crucial critical principle - There is invariably a difference in what people say and what they do. People are, for instance, often concerned with normative appearances in social settings whereas individually they may admit to being, or may be observed as being, more idiosyncratic.

An important consideration is in gaining the trust of a group and achieving an empathy with them. This entails seeing the world from their point of view. This typically takes at least a year and the tradition in anthropology points to a minimum of 18 months of fieldwork research. This also has the advantage that all seasonal cycles of activity are likely to be witnessed after there has been a period for the observer to settle within the group.

As with all methodologies there are advantages and problems associated with this research. If we are aware of the limitations of the methodology in relation to its subject we are likely to be more aware of the partial nature of the knowledge that results. I will consider these under the following sub-heads.

a) The effects of the intrusion of the research programme.

b) Subject positions and cultural differences between the participant observer and the subjects being studied.

c) The cultural and historical baggage and technical limitations carried by the methods of observation and recording.

d) Interpretation of data.

e) Ethics.

A Short Historical Introduction to Ethnography.

Observation of a phenomenon within the context within which it occurs is one of the most basic methods of empirical research. When the study is of a group of humans this methodology is usually known as ethnography. If the observer becomes a part of the group in some way the methodology is called participant observation.

Ethnography was first used in the mid C19th and came to mean the scientific description of contemporary human societies and their cultures with an increasing emphasis on culture. The participant observer records what s/he observes on a regular basis. This record is then used as the basic source of data from which knowledge about this group and its activities is constructed.

There have been three paradigm shifts in the history of anthropology. The classic first period was in the context of Nineteenth century imperialism. Fieldwork was usually undertaken by untrained colonial officials who sent their observations to armchair scholars who studied these reports at their desks. The subjects of study were the 'other' to the codes of Western civilisation. The field workers usually based their reports on interviews with 'informants' rather than by being participants in the society that they were studying.

As colonialism collapsed in the Mid-Twentieth century and Sociology established the usefulness of rigorous studies of Western populations, ethnography came to be used in the West's homelands. While people were still studied as isolated and static groups who were outsiders to the civilised culture within which the professional discipline of anthropology was based, a participant observer methodology was increasingly used.

Then in the 1980s there were a series of major intellectual challenges to the methods and conceptual frameworks of anthropology. The first may be represented by Eric R. Wolf's book Europe and the People Without History, which was published in 1982. This book showed that the vast majority of human societies and groups were not isolated from waves of influence that resonated across the globe from the earliest times. No group could be adequately studied as an isolated phenomenon that was fixed in its behaviour. All humans groups were an integral part of global forces. Wolf pointed out that between 1670 and 1760 the Iroquois tribe was demanding scarlet and blue dyed cloth from the Stroudwater Valley of Gloucester in England. And at this time this was one of the first areas 'in which English weavers lost their autonomy and became hired factory hands'.[4] After a lengthy analysis of the forces of global history he conclude that human culture was more dynamic than it sometimes appeared to be:

We can no longer think of societies as isolated self-maintaining systems. Nor can we imagine cultures as integrated totalities in which each part contributes to the maintenance of an organised, autonomous, and enduring whole. There are only cultural sets of practices and ideas, put into play by determinate human actors under determinate circumstances. In the course of action, these cultural sets are forever assembled, dismantled and reassembled. (Wolf 1982 p391)

The next major challenge surfaced with the publication of a collection of papers under the title Writing Culture: the poetry and politics of ethnography, edited by James Clifford and G. Marcus. Published in 1986 this challenged the scientific model that had been applied to ethnography. Whilst science was good for a study of things it was shown to be drastically limited for a study of what was now being increasingly seen as the study of an interaction between two different cultural subjectivity's. The subjective dimension suddenly surged to the fore. Culture was seen as a composed of dynamic and contested codes, and in these contests the poetic and political were inseparable. Science was a product of culture rather than standing above it. The literary interpenetrated with the academic and writing about culture was always political and ethical. Cultures so described are as much invented as they are simply described by the written form. This last point had already been made by Hayden White in his celebrated essay 'The Fictions of Factual Representation'.

The process of fusing events, whether imaginary or real, into a comprehensible totality capable of serving as the object of representation is a poetic process. Here the historians must utilise precisely the same tropological strategies, the same modalities of representing relationships in words, that the poet or novelist uses. (White 1985 p125)

This led to a more self-consciously narrative based ethnography, which emphasised variety and idiosyncrasy rather than a norm established with statistical data. It accepted the literary aspect of the writing-up process, which was freed of an often pedantic pseudo scientific style. This was in the context of more extreme challenges to the idea of a unitary subject coming from an emergent post modernist theory. Identity was no longer seen as a fixed single entity but a complex phenomenon that shifted and changed with context.

Nonetheless certain aspects of the scientific model persisted. The power of a generalisation that can be deduced from a representative sample is too useful to be completely undermined by the critique of positivism, as is the use of an explicit methodology which can be repeated to allow later verification of, or challenge to, the conclusions reached. It is important that methodology can be accountable rather than claiming an arbitrary authority. [5]



1 These other cultural activities give some sense of what else was going on in my intellectual life whilst I was doing this research. This further dimension of reflexivity is not discussed in this chapter for reasons of space.


[2] This video material is part of the archive that will accompany the presentation of this thesis.


[3] Daniel Miller, RCA Research seminar 19-11-97


[4] Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, (University of California Press, Berkeley & London, 1982 p4)


[5] For a full discussion of these issues see the second edition of Michael Agar's The Professional Stranger: an informal introduction to ethnography (Academic Press 1996)