Tag Archives: ethnography

Visual methods with young people: encouraging creativity or bad photography?

I have just seen my final paper from my PhD project be accepted for publication, which offers me a chance to reflect back on the five publications that project prompted (all linked to at the end of this piece). It was a visual ethnography with secondary school students over one academic year, with students creating photo diaries of their engagement in physical activity (and also what they do when they are not active). The creative and participatory elements of this methodology gave me plenty to write about in these publications and I noted the additional insight into young people’s worlds that a photography project can provide – especially their lives outside of school or otherwise beyond the ethnographic site where we cannot physically go. I was also keen to share the participants’ photos as much as possible by reproducing representative pictures alongside the interview data we generated in talking about the photos and the participants’ experiences of physical activity. It felt important to share because this was something that the participants put time into making – and perhaps in some way it would work to deprivilege words in academic publication.

Participatory methods are often active or creative, and work to engage participants in the research process (Enright and O’Sullivan, 2012); they are a part of listening to and privileging student voice over doing research ‘on’ young people. For Gauntlett and Holzwarth (2006), visual creative methods are enabling, reflective, and a good starting point for examining identity and self.

What happens if participants engage with these methods but aren’t particularly … creative? What are we really looking for, something pretty or artistic or evocative?

There were indeed many wonderful photographs created by my participants, who wanted and were able to tell a story with or through their images. Examples include the boy I called Mitesh in Hill (2013 and 2015) who brought back more than 50 photos of his attempts in PE and out-of-school play to work on a body that would provide him with more status. It was really easy to decide to share some of these photos to add emotion to his verbal explanations. The visual was really powerful.

If this doesn’t happen, should we not bother reproducing the images in our publications?

In this project, of a total 539 photos created by the 25 participants, I received 78 photos of empty spaces, 75 photos of objects, and 112 self-portraits or snaps of friends. Many of them would not go in a photo album nor would they be chosen for an art exhibition. In short, they are not ‘great photography’.

Collectively, they contribute to telling stories about these young people’s engagement with and access to physical activity, its importance to them and how they try to fit it into their lives alongside school work, visiting family, relaxing with friends, worship and helping out at home. This side of the story showed that finding time for physical activity was difficult; it also showed that taking photos during physical activity is not always possible; and importantly the ‘storyless’ photos prompted some participants to explain that this was not all they did – they were able to talk about their other activities that the photos did not show. Photos in that sense provided elicitation, prompting further ‘feelings and memories’ as Douglas Harper has discussed (2002, p. 13).

I think the risk is that the ‘boring’ images that are not shared become the story not told, the hidden elements of the research project, and we might find ourselves at risk of not telling the whole story, simply because the data itself has little to ‘show’. This is obviously something that can happen with other forms of qualitative data, with mundane accounts or short answers possible in interviews. But I feel that there is still something to prove with creative methods, something that needs displaying to prove they are worthwhile forms of data generation, in the face of scepticism. I want to be proud of the project as a whole and that means reproducing elements of the data, not hiding it because my 13 year old participants had bad photography skills. In a journal publication where reproduction of four or five images might be possible, how do we make choices about what to show? If you claim to have used visual methods, but only reproduce the text or verbal data, that might render readers disappointed or confused as to what the visual data were for. In order not to privilege verbal accounts over visual, even if they are contradictory or less … instantly valuable? … the visual should, in my view, be shared.

Perhaps ultimately, this reflection contributes to calls for accessible datasets – provided we have ethically prepared for this – to let viewers see for themselves. Leonard and McKnight (2014, p. 2) highlight that the ‘seemingly mundane’ image is open to interpretation and might be seen differently by different viewers (citing Pink, 2007).

All data reproduction, whether from qualitative or quantitative projects, is a manipulation of the whole that will always involve some level of subjective decision making on what and how to present snippets of data in publication. In analysing and sharing data, researchers distill, shorten, concentrate, categorise – however you would like to call it – meaning that even the bad photography should be chosen if it contributes to emphasising the story or the decisions you’ve made for that publication.


Enright, E., & O’Sullivan, M. (2012). “Producing different knowledge and producing knowledge differently”: rethinking physical education research and practice through participatory visual methods. Sport, Education and Society, 17(1), 35–55.

Gauntlett, D., & Holzwarth, P. (2006). Creative and visual methods for exploring identities. Visual Studies, 21(1), 82–91.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Anthropology, 17(1), 13–26.

Leonard, M., & McKnight, M. (2014). Look and tell: using photo-elicitation methods with teenagers. Children’s Geographies, 1–14. doi:10.1080/14733285.2014.887812

Pink, S. (2007). Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

The five publications from this project

Hill, J. and Azzarito, L. (2012). Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17(3), 263-276.

Hill, J. (2013). Rejecting the weak Asian body: boys visualising strong masculinities. In L. Azzarito & D. Kirk (Eds.). Physical Culture, Pedagogies and Visual Methods, 76-91. Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415532778/

Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151.

Hill, J. (2015) ‘If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet!’ Boys investing in their bodies in physical education and sport. Sport, Education and Society 20(6), 762-779. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.U15a1VVdWiw

Hill, J. Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education. Gender and Education 27 (6), 666-684. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875#.V2RNQrsrLIU


Book Review: Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education (Sara Delamont)

A few months ago I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Sara Delamont’s text Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas, thanks to a Sage giveaway on Twitter. They didn’t ask for a review, but I’ve put together my thoughts on the book.

Delamont presents the book in part as a companion to the four volume reader she has out called Ethnographic Methods in Education. That reader has clearly informed the work in Key Themes. The significance of the Key Themes book for me is in the depth of the literature review in each chapter. Delamont takes us through the major works in ethnographic study from anthropology and the sociology of education to map developments in specific themes.  For researchers embarking upon a methodological journey and requiring solid rationales for the choices they make with ethnography (or even any form of educational social research) the support is here in the traditions of ethnography. From the previous literature, Delamont then offers her own key issues for current and future work in each area. As a guide for structuring your own work within contemporary and classic ethnography in education, this is highly valuable.

For instance, chapter 3 on space and place, something that I have been interested in in my research, opens with a reminder of the importance of rich descriptive accounts of places in ethnography, something that sets ethnographic work apart of other forms of inquiry. Chapter 4 on time recalled for me the questions that participants or gatekeepers often ask (fair enough) of ethnographers: how long will you be here? Have you finished yet?

Sport and PE researchers may be particularly interested in the chapter on movement, which notes how ethnographers’ experiencing of individuals/groups’ movement or restriction of movement is important for understanding their lives. Restrictions on women’s movement is now thought backwards in the West, Delamont notes, with criticism of places such as Saudi Arabia where girls’ PE is largely unavailable, but that situation was common and thought civilised in nineteenth century Britain. Delamont draws attention to the difficulties faced in providing access for girls and women to physical activity in the early years of educational change, yet also highlights how in her own research in girls’ secondary PE immobility was as much a part of the lesson as mobility: girls’ movements and freedom still restricted. Although only a short snippet in this chapter, the narrative strongly expresses restrictions on girls’ movement and appearance – comportment, dress (whether to cover or reveal, whether to restrict free movement) that have been reproduced in PE.

Sport related researchers will also find interest in the chapter on bodies and performativity as many of the examples used are drawn from dance, PE, and boxing settings. These little examples are also really useful for teaching research methods, with snippets of real research to draw upon.

The book finishes with an examination of autoethnography, not something previously covered in the book. So it’s not so much a conclusion on the book as a whole as a contrast of what Delamont considers valuable empirical data collection and the (problematic) “look at me!” that might be found in autoethnography. This came as a bit of a surprise but it is easy to see why Delamont wanted to establish the value of empirical and analytical work in unfamiliar worlds and with hard to reach populations in contrast to introspective or experiential writing. I’d have thought that there are examples of good autoethnography by practitioners or participants in a field who have become social researchers, but its a worthwhile point that we must write analytically not just about experience. One or two examples of ethnographic research throughout the book emphasise for me the value of prolonged engagement in the field for understanding local meanings and thinking beyond dominant or expected representations or readings. This emic perspective can really help to access what something means to the community, not to say that an outsider reading is not at all useful but that it cannot assume what things mean to insiders. But it is the dialogue between insider and outsider that succeeds in making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar that creates rich ethnography.

The book is not a how-to guide on designing and carrying out ethnography, but each chapter has a page on key things to remember if you are doing ethnography: elements of experiencing a setting if you are to create successful ethnographic work: space, time, memories, movement, bodies, groups and identities, narrative, senses, knowledge. What ethnographers might be looking for, and how they will write about it, are key elements. Then there are notes on research for the future: what’s not been done yet or what key aspects of education still need to be investigated?

As the embodied experience of the ethnographer affects the research they create, so the experience of reading this book will be different for different readers. As a lecturer in research methods I most commonly read texts aimed at undergraduates which do have that “how to” approach. Delamont’s text is very different and reading from start to  finish provides opportunity to contemplate how your own ethnography can be shaped in response to thinking about classic ethnographies in education. This will be great for doctoral researchers situating their thesis in the methodology.

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