During my 501 class this morning, we were studying various forms of unstructured research – the ambiguous kind that is hard to replicate or verify – and ethnographic research came up for discussion. This research method strives to capture the “native point of view.” It was very popular during the Victorian days when England was a major colonial power and it was a way, as one classmate said, “of finding out about their property.” Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson are two famous ethnographic researchers of the time.
As the discussion flowed along I couldn’t help but think of the plethora of reality shows which document the lives of different “cultural groups” within western society. For example, there’s Little People Big World that follows the lives of individuals who have dwarfism, the Duggers with their 20 children (at last count); celebrity families like the Family Jewels, or the tatooed world of Kat Von D or 7-up which follows several boarding school students at seven year intervals. Then there’s the disturbing documentaries that follow the lives of drug addicts in downtown Vancouver or prostitutes in Vietnam where viewers become voyeurs into a dark culture far removed from their manicured lawns and matching deck furniture.
It’s not research in the regular sense, where an academic paper will be produced with literature reviews and recommendations; but is it not a form of ethnographic study that makes all viewers an observer of these cultures? In class today, our classmate mentioned missionaries in the early 19th century who would visit the wild men in the new world and then return home to “civilized” society, where they would make a comfortable living travelling to speaking engagements about their experiences. It seems to me that this fascination with studying natives from different “cultures” has simply moved into a new medium where we can become ethnographic observers with the click of a remote.