By all accounts, my MA dissertation thesis is probably ‘good enough’ to be published. It was awarded with a Distinction grade: the highest grade I could achieve and, indeed, a grade I was flattered by. But I won’t be publishing it.
The subject of my study was how a small group of filmmakers in South Yorkshire, hallmarked as a ‘Local TV’ organisation, have sought to represent their local town through film. Specifically, the thesis was interested in how local filmmaking might be used as a vehicle for representing communities – particularly those that are often dimly regarded by mainstream media outlets, such as the post-industrial villages of the North that I have come to know as home. And I won’t be publishing it.
My research was, and has always been, completely ‘above-board’. I have always sought to treat anyone I have worked with, with the utmost respect; and recognize the miasma of ramifications that unethical practice can bring about, particularly when working within wider communities, as my research has often seen me do. I have made mistakes along the way, but on the whole, I like to think that the fruits of my early research career – modest though they are – have done more good than harm.
And yet, looking back my ethically-sound 2017 MA dissertation thesis, something seems utterly unethical about it.
My research has taken me to many places, seeing me assume a variety of identities:
I’ve never been entirely comfortable in any of these guises. And my latest, ethnographer, has left me feeling rattled. If I knew there was no point to the thing, I’d discard it, and probably tell everyone how s**t it is. But ethnography is good. I truly believe that. At least, it holds the potential for good things to happen. Just like that small band of filmmakers, forging new narratives and unveiling hidden identities, new stories can emerge from ethnography, breaking through the surface of past truths, and leaving new understandings in their wake.
That can happen. Sometimes. But ethnography holds the potential for destruction, too. The cherry-picker, choosing those fruits most attuned to his own taste, can censor the truths that defy his beliefs, and promote those that conform. In short, the ethnographer, if he is allowed to run unopposed, can manipulate the story, intentionally or unintentionally, and present it as evidenced fact.
And that’s why I won’t be publishing my dissertation thesis.
I produced an auto-ethnographic account. I conducted a participant observation. I analysed their films. I chose what went in, and I chose what was left out.
I’ve heard it said that all ethnographies are “coauthored”, because “ethnographer and informant come to share the same narratives”, even if the ethnographer is the only one holding the pen (E.M. Bruner, Ethnography as Narrative, 1986: 148). But to suggest that coauthorship is inevitable is, quite frankly, rubbish. The tabloids choose their headlines. The news broadcasters select their features. The ethnographers pick their details. And we all make up our stories, regardless of how ethical or crooked our intentions may be.
Perhaps we should tell fewer tales about people, and more stories with them.