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Critical ethnography rejects the positivist notion of an objective social science that produces value-free ethnographies. Influenced from the 1960s onwards, by discourse on new race, gender, feminist, sexual identity, and post-colonial social movements, it applies a critical theory approach to ethnography. ‘Critical’ is described by Willis and Trondman (2000: 5) in its broadest sense as “recording and understanding lived social relations, in part at least, from the point of view of how they embody, mediate and enact the operations and results of unequal power. This is to trace and to try to make explicit, in ways difficult within lived practice, the lineaments of what Dilthey calls ‘to be aware of being a conditioned being’” (Willis and Trondman, 2000, p.5).
As a critically positioned researcher I intentionally adopt an action agenda with the purpose of empowering people and transforming political and social realities. Carspecken (1996: x-xi) considers ‘critical qualitative research’ to be a form of social “activism”. In line with Freire’s idea that reflection without action is empty ‘verbalism’, and that action without reflection is potentially worse, manipulative ‘activism’ (Freire and Macedo, 2001b: 47). I consciously seek to introduce critical development education pedagogy to UCC, using community-linked and multimedia pedagogical approaches. Critical ethnography allows me to act and reflect alongside the participating students and communities. It links to Freire’s view that educators should be problem-posing and engaged in a critical and liberating dialogue towards a mutual conscientisation, one which includes empowering participants to take action (ibid: 47). My research approach is not just to observe the world, but to transform it by critically viewing dominant beliefs, values and oppressive structures in society. The research is itself a process of conscientisation.
This means that awareness of my ‘researcher positionality’ as an educational ethnography is important. I endeavour to acknowledge my “own power, privilege, and biases just as we denounce the power structures that surround our subjects” (Madison, 2012: 8). ‘Critical reflexivity’, in the critical theory tradition, is vital. It involves researchers locating themselves within political and social positions, so that they remain mindful of the “problematic nature of knowledge and power inherent in human relationships and organisations” (Rolfe and Freshwater, 2010: 185). This critical approach aligns with Bourdieu’s notion of Habitus, which, as noted earlier, is a system of beliefs, assumptions, or dispositions of a group or individual that are shaped by their environment. It also aligns with Giroux’s idea of critique as a “mode of analysis that interrogates texts, institutions, social relationships, and ideologies as part of the script of official power” (Giroux, 2011: 4).
Critical Digital Ethnography
Digital ethnography should perhaps not appear as a separate section since inevitably ethnography also responds to changing technologies, both online and offline. Pink et al.,. (2015), do not seek to formulate a new definition of ‘digital ethnography’. They favour Karen O’Reilly’s understanding of ethnography as an ‘iterative-inductive’ (ibid) process which draws on the role of theory as well as the researcher’s own role and that views humans as part object/part subject”. However, they argue that digital ethnography does have some distinguishing characteristics which may not apply to other approaches to ethnography. The first is multiplicity, the idea that there is more than one way to engage with the digital. Digital technologies and media (and the things that people can do with them) are interdependent with the infrastructures of everyday life, for instance access to a reliable energy source, or the ability of participants to use them. The infrastructures that exist to support digital media use have an impact on both the participants and the researcher. Another is ‘Non-digital-centric-ness’ meaning that by putting media at the centre of analysis too little attention is sometimes given to the ways in which media are part of wider sets of environments and relations. Openness, a third characteristic, refers to how digital ethnography is open to other influences or to the needs of a multiple disciplines and external stakeholders. It invites different collaborative ways of co-producing knowledge with research partners/participants. The distinguishing feature of reflexivity in digital ethnography relates to the ways in which digital ethnographers theorise and encounter the world as a digital–material–sensory environment. We need to ask questions about how we produce knowledge. Finally, digital ethnography is ‘unorthodox’. Pink et al., see the term as referring to digital approaches which enable ways of knowing (about) other people’s worlds that might otherwise be invisible or unanticipated by more formally constituted, and thus less exploratory and collaborative, research approaches. Modes of dissemination may also be unorthodox, for instance, a website might feature ‘raw’ footage of participants in daily activities, blogs and archives might be used to curate conference and paper presentations, digital content created by research participants and available on a website might share examples of a research process. These enable new forms of continuity between digital ethnography fieldwork, ongoing collaborations and dialogues with research participants, and a certain bringing together of the temporalities and sites of the research, analysis and dissemination processes (ibid: 8-15).
Critical Multimedia Ethnography
Some participants use other media forms to engage with this research process. Once again the critical ethnographical paradigm can include whichever method is being used by participants but the fundamental critical inquiry remains the same. Kankkunen (2011: 1) discusses the subversive potential of critical ethnography, particularly when methods used in the research approach challenge paradigms which see science as the only ‘truth’ or the only valid means of ‘telling the truth’. The post-structural critique of science, she says, has brought out the triple crisis of representation, legitimation and practice in ethnographic research. Kankkunen suggests that validity and objectivity should be abandoned as criteria and new criteria adopted from outside science. Thus, the value of a text could be that it makes you think about the ways power and ideologies construct people through discourses. Its validity could be in its ability to emancipate and empower the society studied. Instead of reproducing and supporting the old structures by simply representing them in its descriptions, the text could aim at both deconstructing and reconstructing reality. Where interactive multimedia in general is concerned Kankkunen references Denzin (1997: 77) suggesting that it allows for the possibility of emphasising the image and the nonverbal in ethnography, thereby increasing both the openness and the fictiveness of the story. This openness to multiple interpretations can still contain political potential (Kankkunen, 2011). Horst et al.,. (2016: 13) argue that the visual as a research method can serve to evoke feelings, relationships, materialities, activities and configurations of the things that form part of a research context. Qualitative research paradigms that pay attention to the context, to the nuances of students’ artistic activity, to making the researcher visible, and to creative ways of writing have been seen particularly useful for pedagogical research (Kankkunen, 2011). Gürcüm and Arslan (2015: 1) challenge designers to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of ethnographic research in textile design and explain qualitative techniques that can be used in ethnographic researches for textile design, searching for meaning in socially constructed reality or a traditional context. Integrating artistic expression as a research method thus opens up new perspectives and widens the options for ethnographic presentation from written text to more varied approaches.