a reflection on method

This is the text of a short paper we prepared for an AHRC cultural value programme workshop on arts and hermeneutic methods.

Our project

An internationally renowned choreographer ran a five-day dance workshop for volunteer youth. It was filmed by a professional film-maker and an edited selection of film given to the young people. They then edited the films with a professional editor and curated a collective exhibition which was shown at Tate Britain. We participated in the workshop and also took extensive observation notes of what we experienced and saw, and of the conversations we had. We have also written reflections from the young people and some project artefacts – annotations and manifestos.

Methodology and methods

Our intention was to develop an arts-ethnographic hybrid approach appropriate to gallery education (Coles, 2000). Our methodological stance was informed by: (1) Bourriaud’s (1998) notions of relationality and the decentering of expertise to produce more reciprocal and dialogic forms of knowledge production; (2) writings on collaborative and ethical ethnography (Lassiter, 2005; Rabinow, 2008; Rabinow & Stavrianakis, 2013); modes of critical pedagogy that place importance on giving learners a ‘voice’ (Freire, 1974); and (4) contemporary art practice more generally – an unknowing stance (Fisher & Fortnum, 2014).

We have previously worked with visual methods and with young people as co-researchers, specifically – photo and film as trigger and elicitation, photo and film as documentation, and photo and film as representation(e.g. Thomson, 2008) – and participatory evaluation where film was both integral to the art practice being explored and an evaluative tool (Pringle, 2006). To characterise this ‘youth standpoint’ approach(Thomson & Gunter, 2007) – give young people a camera, ask them to make images, use this as means of conversation with them or peers, then edit images (with or without the young people) to produce some kind of representation – either as further data generation or as representation. During all of these co-production processes, researchers stay largely as ‘central controller’ of all stages (Thomson & Gunter, 2011).

By contrast in this project, we handed over responsibility for filming (data production) and initial editing to an artist, then to the young people and an editor (analysis?) and they also curated a collective film (representation and dissemination). We worked as ethnographers in and alongside this process.

We have shown the film three times to invited artists, curators and researchers in arts and arts education, and invited conversation. At one of these events, young people and the choreographer also spoke and were part of the discussions.

Some interim reflections on this approach

Participation. We are sure that participating in the dance activities was crucial for us to experience and understand the somatic processes and affordances of the workshop. We could not have understood the effect of repeated movement and the centering of mind-body if we had not been part of the process, but had stood apart watching. We would not have understood learning a choreographic vocabulary through ‘doing’ and the kinds of embodied spatial knowing that this produces. We also may not have understood some of the subsequent editing choices.

No interviews. Because of our commitment to making this an activity congruent with contemporary gallery education, we hoped to produce a collaborative and reflective shared space, in which no single expertise dominated. We therefore decided not to conduct formal interviews with the workshop participants. We were very uncomfortable with the idea of formal interviewing, as it would dramatically change the relationships within the group. We opted to have documented formal collective conversations during and at the end of each activity (dance, editing) phase. We have tried to work against the prevailing power relations of research – but this decision does mean that we don’t have some information, for example about:

  • the young people’s motivation to attend in terms of their biography (although we do have this for some who volunteered this information)
  • their individual responses to the workshops – although we have some of this for some of them

We were also mindful of the fact that the young people were voluntary participants who gave up an initial five (holi)days followed by a further four Sundays to edit. We knew that their primary interest was to learn about dance and film, and we were keen to keep that as the major focus of their participation as it was also what we were trying to explore. There was a tricky and pragmatic balance between their enthusiasm and learning ‘payoff’ and the research.

Editing. We don’t have a detailed understanding of the editing choices that the young people made. This is because they were generally working quietly and individually on their films. We heard the conversations they had with each other and the editor, but we didn’t sit down with each of them and ask them to explain why they had done particular things. We have some of this information as it was offered to us in conversation. Again, we think a formal interview would have changed the dynamics of the research and been an off-putting imposition.

Analysis We did attempt a conventional content analysis of the final collective film which yielded some information – this largely confirmed the understandings we had from our analysis of the dance workshop. We also interpreted the final film as text, asking what we could see in it, and this provided other insights, in particular about the very ‘effective’ learning of choreographic concepts that occurred. We are still debating how cultural learning and cultural value might be the same and different.

Representation. We discovered from our showings of the film to others that while some aspects of the film were obvious (sociality and concentration for example), most people needed quite a bit of information about the initial dance workshop in order to make sense of what they were seeing. We think that this is because the films were actually contemporary art, not the more usual research social realist approach. Just like any art text, viewers need to work at understanding it and they need to have some knowledge/scaffolding in order to do so. We also now think that collecting the project ‘relics’ is important, and that like much art, the film and its associated archive will be receptive to further interpretation.

Future applications

We are keen to work further with film as an art form in research. It is a research tool which both resists and performs. We are also keen to work further on (1) what it means to use an artistic-research framing rather than simply researching ON cultural activities and (2) what it means to decenter knowledge production in/through/about cultural practices.


Bourriaud, N. (1998). Relational aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Reel.

Coles, A. (Ed.). (2000). Site-specificity: the ethnographic turn. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Fisher, E., & Fortnum, R. (2014). On not knowing. How artists think. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Freire, P. (1974). Education: the practice of freedom. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.

Lassiter, L. E. (2005). The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pringle, E. (2006). Afterword. In S. Tallant & L. Coysh (Eds.), Dis-Assembly. London: Serpentine Gallery.

Rabinow, P. (2008). Marking time. On the anthropology of the contemporary. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, P., & Stavrianakis, A. (2013). Demands of the day. On the logic of anthropological inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Thomson, P. (Ed.). (2008). Doing visual research with children and young people. London: Routledge.

Thomson, P., & Gunter, H. (2007). The methodology of students-as-researchers: Valuing and using experience and expertise to develop methods. Discourse, 28(3), 327-342.

Thomson, P., & Gunter, H. (2011). Inside, outside, upside down: The fluidity of academic researcher ‘identity’ in working with/in school. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.



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