Visual ethnography: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations

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    te and credible methodology inauthentic interpretations inioneerh co-ak as earacterad andereas cmer cn, cons

    cultural turn (Rose, 2001, p. 5) this paradigmatic shift includes an

    pictures of real people consuming Nutella. From another analyticalperspective, Grow (2006) uses visual methods to study the mediated

    ways, consumer experience and (brand) consumption is demonstrated

    Journal of Business Research xxx (2012) xxxxxx

    JBR-07490; No of Pages 4

    Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect

    Journal of Businuptake of visual methods as an effective means to study the construc-tion of social life through social practice. The premise of this form ofsocial study is that different groups in society will make sense of theworld in different ways and that these varying meaning structuresdirect the way people behave.

    Demonstrating the value and meaning of the Nutella brand andbuilding on the earlier work of Muniz, Albert, and O'Guinn (2001),

    as central to the cultural construction of social life in contemporaryWestern societies. Accordingly, Rose (2001) argues that researchersincreasingly regard cultural constructions as the primary analyticalfocus. Visual text therefore, is a window on the world of consumerexperience.

    1.1. Describing reality and consumer experience

    Cova and Pace (2006) for example, show hof consumption holds a particular meaning wworld as understood and shared by the m

    Corresponding author. Tel.: +61 407 969 143.E-mail addresses: (S. Sch (M.V. Boyle).1 Tel.: +61 7 3735 7704, +61 457 426 356 (mobile)

    0148-2963/$ see front matter 2012 Elsevier Inc. Alldoi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2012.02.021

    Please cite this article as: Schembri, S., & BBusiness Research (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jbhave started to shift thetly understood. As the

    narratives that reect the cultural and social experience of luxury asdepicted on the big screen. Analyzing visual text in these variousmessy and accordingly, many social scientistsway social life is studied and consequenVisual ethnography is an appropriathe quest to achieve rigorous andmarketing and consumer research. As pMargaret Mead, in conjunction witbravely put visual technology to worgraphic analysis of the Balinese cha1942). Within the Balinese culture Meand documenting native culture, whand consumer researchers study consu

    As a social and cultural phenomenos of visual anthropology,uthor Gregory Bateson,rly as 1942 in a photo-(see Mead & Bateson,Bateson were studying

    ontemporary marketingulture.umption is complex and

    construction of community life within the world of Nike women'sadvertising. Using a semiotic analysis of 27 Nike print campaignsthat were implemented across a 10-year period, Grow (2006)shows how the advertising creatives effectively reect the culturaland social experience of women in an authentic manner where story-telling is the bind. Another study analyzing visual text but using ahermeneutic approach and contextualized in 50 years of James Bondlms, Cooper, Schembri, and Miller (2010) uncover a range of brand1. Introduction community. The depth of detail is in part achieved by using visualdocumentation with Cova and Pace (2006) incorporating realVisual ethnography: Achieving rigorous a

    Sharon Schembri , Maree V. Boyle 1

    Grifth Business School, Grifth University, Nathan Campus, Nathan QLD 4111, Australia

    a b s t r a c ta r t i c l e i n f o

    Article history:Received 1 May 2011Received in revised form 1 September 2011Accepted 1 November 2011Available online xxxx

    Keywords:Marketing researchConsumer researchVisual methodsVisual ethnographySocial constructionHarleyDavidson

    Visual methods have a lonused to gain a depth of inapproaches. As a rigorous anand consumption as socialimmersion serves as an effecas well as disseminate reseation of Schembri (2009).ow Nutella as an objectithin the online Nutellaembers of that online



    rights reserved.

    oyle, M.V., Visual ethnograpusres.2012.02.021authentic interpretations

    story in ethnographic research and ethnographic methods are increasinglyht and understanding not achievable with traditional marketing researchalid research method, visual ethnography enables documentation of marketingcultural phenomenon. Visual text collected through the process of culturaland credible research tool in the quest to collect and analyze empirical evidencendings. As a case application, this paper builds on the ethnographic investiga-

    2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    ess ResearchAssuming the interpretive focus of ethnography and the descriptiveoutcome of ethnographic research, Bryman (2001) considers ethnogra-phy as a creative process in experiencing, interpreting, and representingculture and society. The subjectivity of experience and the multiplicityof reality are implicitly fundamental assumptions. More specically,ethnography as an interpretive methodology assumes that reality issocially constructed alongside a non-dualistic ontology, where person

    hy: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations, Journal of

  • 2 S. Schembri, M.V. Boyle / Journal of Business Research xxx (2012) xxxxxxand world are considered inseparable. This underlying philosophydirects how to conduct (visual) ethnographic research in that theresearcher aims to come as close as possible to the phenomenonunder investigation, through themember's eyes and in this case, visuallyrecorded.

    Ethnography is the study of culture and ethnographic descriptionsare creative endeavors that allow researchers a window to the worldof a particular culture. Ethnographic knowledge is typically achievedvia eldwork involving participant observation and in situ interviews.Combining these traditional eldwork techniques, with the additionof visual technology, generates ethnographic knowledge in the formof visual text. World renowned anthropologist and strong advocatefor visual research methods Sarah Pink (2009, p. 97) asserts, [T]heuse of visual and digital methods and media in ethnographic researchis now common practice. Evidence to this effect in the eld ofconsumer research is provided by Pealoza (1998) employing visualandmaterial cultural approaches in attending to the design, architectureand accoutrements of the market spectacle in relation to culturalmeaning. Also presenting a visual ethnography, Schembri (2009)demonstrates the use of visual text as a credible researchmethodwithinmarketing and consumer research where the validity of a collaborativeand reexive approach is shown to maintain integrity throughout theresearch process.

    A collaborative approach to visual research assumes the researcherand member consciously work together to produce visual images thatare authentic representations of the research context (Pink, 2007).Collaborative visual documentation combines both researcher andmember interpretations, thus representing a negotiated outcome(Pink, 2007). At the extreme as a postmodern twist, collaborationmight also entail members' handling the camera and taking the leadas to what is recorded and how. Taking digital photographs and lmare tasks that members might identify with. Indeed, some membersmay be avid photographers or may offer technical hints in otherinstances. In this way, the visual images and technologies themselvesbecome commodities of exchange and sites of negotiation (Pink,2007). By the researcher releasing control and allowing members tohandle the camera, this visual expression effectively captures theconsumer/member view. For example, Schembri's (2009) ethno-graphic investigation of the experiential meaning of HarleyDavidsoninvolved members voluntarily taking on camera duty. One member inparticular lmed a ve-day 4000 km (2485 mi) ride of about 30members travelling from Wollongong NSW to Ayres Rock (Uluru),Northern Territory, for an annual rally. This member also interviewedfellow members about their HOG experience. In this way, collabora-tion between researcher and participant enhances the validity ofethnographic knowledge.

    Participants engaged in the documentation process become partnersand collaborators in the negotiation of experiential meaning. Capturingcultural experience with visual text therefore allows a transformativepotential (Pink, 2007). Recognizing this transformative potential inemploying the visual within ethnographic research highlights the needto take a reexive approach throughout the research process. A reexiveapproach underlines the centrality of the researcher's role as researchinstrument (Pink, 2007) as the researcher is intimately involved in theproduction and representation of ethnographic knowledge (Silverman,2001). In order to arrive at an authentic description reexive researchersideally focus on the member's subjective reality in terms of how themember experiences the world, rather than how the researcher seesthe phenomenon. This inter-subjectivity then enables a negotiated ver-sion of reality, a validated interpretation, and effectively the generationof authentic ethnographic knowledge (Bryman, 2001).

    1.2. Analyzing visual text

    The analytical approach to visual research aims to explore the

    meaningful links between the research experience of the culture

    Please cite this article as: Schembri, S., & Boyle, M.V., Visual ethnograBusiness Research (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2012.02.021under investigation and ethnographic knowledge generated, includingvisual text. Just as there is no set method for organizing ethnographicresearch in terms of specic evidence collection and analytical processes,visual ethnographers also develop appropriate systematic modes andmanners, as the project unfolds. Analysis is concurrent with and drivesevidence gathering and although eldwork ends when the researcherleaves the site, the process of analysis continues until there is no moreevidence to consider (Sayre, 2001). Taking a reexive approach inattending to the analytical process involves organizing eldnotes,transcribing interviews, and arranging the visual text in a meaningfulway.

    Researchers repeatedly review the different forms of text, includingvisual text to identify themes or patterns of behavior (Mead, 1995).Similar to the treatment of written text, visual text is compared,contrasted, and sorted into categories until a particular aspect of theculture is identied. Segmenting and shifting the text around (withvideo editing software) into relevant and meaningful units that hold aconnectionwith thewhole cultural experience is the goal of this analyt-ical process. Sayre (2001, p. 189) explains, sorting eld notes andtranscriptions is like organizing your closet everything goes intopiles of like kind; socks with socks, trousers with trousers, shirts withshirts and so forthafter an initial sorting, each pile can be sortedagain; dress socks from athletic socks, jeans from dress slacks, and T-shirts from tailored shirts. Sorting and resorting text, including visualtext, in this way categorizes the evidence according to an organizingsystem that derives from the evidence itself. While this inductiveapproach may not be a simple task, a depth of understanding thecontext is achieved via cultural immersion in order to capture anauthentic interpretation. For this reason, the analytical process beginsduring the early stages of eldwork and continues beyond exit of theresearch site. As Wolcott (2009) explains, a more astute place to getgoing with analysis is in the eld with some basic questions that in-clude: What is going on here?, How do things happen as they do?What do people in this setting have to knowin order to do whatthey are doing? ((Wolcott, 2009, p.37)). Such questions guide the ac-culturation process and aid the analytical focus. From there, initial cate-gorization begins with the identication of a few broad categories thenrened as more specic categories.

    What enables researchers to read cultural experience and interpretvisual text is the process of cultural immersion, as per authenticethnographic research. Within this process Sayre (2001) suggests thateldwork involving visual text provides a means of documentation,description, and disclosure for eldwork. Still images and/or videogra-phy enable recording and documentation of the happenings, eventsand artifacts (Belk & Kozinets, 2005); the camera is a tool for membersto document and describe an experience where images and visualmaterial potentially encourage member disclosure.

    Key events, for example, provide a lens through which to view aculture because cultural symbols and language indicate what theculture entails. The use of photographs or lm to record these keyevents, symbols, and use of language therefore achieves a documen-tation of the cultural experience. Just as anthropologists visuallydocument eld nds, marketing and consumer researchers can visuallydocument (consumer) cultural evidence. As well as a tool of documen-tation, the camera can also facilitate description, in this waymaking theaudience empathize, feel, imagine and recognize human conditions(Belk & Kozinets, 2005). Just as the camera is a valuable tool, visualaspects and material objects within the culture are also valuable toolsto elicit disclosure from members. In Pealoza's (1998) research, shegenerates insight regarding how the arrangement and position ofdetailed personal stories of once underdog but now professionalathletes transcend physical and mental challenges. These stories incombination with strikingly beautiful images stimulate not just feelingbut thinking and action by consumers as they process and relate tothese personal stories. In Schembri's (2009) study of the meaning of

    HarleyDavidson, the prominent cultural object eliciting disclosure is

    phy: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations, Journal of

  • 3S. Schembri, M.V. Boyle / Journal of Business Research xxx (2012) xxxxxxthe bike. Given that Harley ownership enables membership in this(HOG) culture and customization of the (HarleyDavidson) bike isconsidered evidence of commitment to the culture, the bike can beinterpreted as a symbolic artifact demonstrating the enactment ofcultural values and the transcendence of both gender and stereotype.

    Martin, Schouten, and McAlexander (2006) unearth the hyper-masculinity of the Harley subculture through feminist theory andfemale voices, thus adding a complexity and richness to the under-standing of an evolving subculture including motivation and behaviorsof womenwhowant to expand the power and reach of their femininity.Dialogue and visual text addressing the different aspects of this culturalartifact therefore generates valuable ethnographic knowledge. Visuallycapturing member conversations about the central cultural artifactseffectively enables the researcher to discover the essence of the culturalcontext and the experientialmeaning of different phenomenon of inter-est to researchers and scholars. Notably however, who says what aboutwhat, whom, and how, has political implications when a visual accountis the ethnographic outcome.

    1.3. The political implications of visual ethnographic research

    The current approach to the governance of ethical conduct ofhuman research places a strong focus on obtaining voluntary andinformed consent from potential participants. As with all forms ofinvestigative eld research, the priority responsibility for theresearcher is to protect participants from both physical and psycho-logical harm. With visual ethnographic research however, theresearcher must be aware that displaying the outcome of the workvisuallymay amplify ethical dilemmas, political dynamics, and sensitiveissues. Potential participants within the cultural context under investi-gation may willingly talk to ethnographic researchers when givenassurances of condentiality and anonymity. Yet, asking participantsto be part of a visual ethnography is equivalent to requesting them toshare with the world their insight and perspective. Disclosing a partici-pant's face and words for all to see and hear can be problematic and/orhigh risk. Given protection of participants and minimization of(physical/psychological) risk is the utmost importance researchersshould consider the consequences of particular persons or statementsin the visual documentation resulting from the research process. Thispolitical sensitivity reinforces the signicance of a reexive and collab-orative approach.

    People willing to share their thoughts, comments, and views, helpresearchers to understand and interpret a phenomenon of interest;willing and articulate participants are a precious nd in the quest ofvisual ethnography. Researchers must therefore be astutely aware ofthe political dynamics relevant to the cultural context in order to besensitive to these undercurrents. This consideration and sensitivityincludes historically signicant political undercurrents, which mayor may not be apparent at the time of conducting the study. Toacquire this form of knowledge, researchers must immerse themselvesinto the context and get close to the people within that context. Mutualtrust needs to be developed and protected at all times and this can onlybe done by spending an extended period of time in the eld engagingwith the people in their cultural environmental. Active participationin the culture generates credibility.

    In seeking to ensureminimization of risk for participants, continuousefforts towards validating the ndings with relevant insiders are essen-tial. Good and valid research is always the goal, so documenting anddescribing deliberate efforts to achieve a depth of insider knowledgecontributes to the rigor of this form of research. Collaborating withparticipants throughout the research term and across the research sitein an effort to ensure authenticity may however unintentionally conveya sense of power. Again, the researcher must be astutely aware of thepolitical dynamics and potential power plays throughout this process.In this way, the visual ethnographer takes on a great challenge; walking

    a ne line on ethical grounds and sometimes sinking sands on political

    Please cite this article as: Schembri, S., & Boyle, M.V., Visual ethnograpBusiness Research (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2012.02.021grounds. Researchers generating ethnographic knowledge throughvisual methods therefore need to detail the research process clearlyand transparently, including articulation of how any issues or concernswere handled.

    In the case of Schembri (2009), the informed consent processinvolved a verbal consent script which informed potential participantsof an intention to lm group activities, interview members and that allparticipation within the study was voluntary. Those members choosingnot to participate were omitted or edited out. Incorporating a visualcomponentmeans there can be no promise of anonymity and conden-tiality of information, as is the norm with other traditional forms ofmarketing research. This openness, together with the emphasis on acollaborative approach can translate to a hot bed of politics that maybe very difcult to handle at times. Some members for instance, maymistakenly interpret the emphasis on collaboration as a right to approveand direct editing of the visual text. As an active member in the culturalcontext the researchermust necessarily becomeverymuch aware of thepolitical dynamics within the culture. As Schembri (2009) shows in hervisual ethnography of HarleyDavidson in Australia, the challenges ofvisual ethnography are many and varied.

    1.4. The HarleyDavidson case application

    Acknowledging the process of consumption as basic to socialcohesion, Schembri's (2009) visual ethnographic project comprisedmore than three years of eldwork within a local (Australian) HOG(Harley Owners Group) chapter. In visually documenting the experi-ential meaning of the HarleyDavidson brand the process of culturalimmersion involved participant observation and interviews thatenabled a depth of insight. This activemembership facilitatedmemberdisclosure and propensity to discuss issues of interest as (visually)recorded in eld interviews. The result was more than 48 h of capturedlm edited down to a 20 min documentary (

    The cultural immersion process for Schembri (2009) involved theuse of a digital stills camera and hand-held (video) camcorder tovisually record monthly club rides, social meetings, and associatedconsumption activities, such as philanthropic efforts and annualrallies. The open disclosure of the purpose and aims of the researchreduced the distance between researcher and members to the extentof establishing a collaborative relationship and site of negotiation.Members facilitated the research process by indicating and explainingwhat most accurately depicts the meaning of HarleyDavidson. Avisual recording of these artifacts and cultural indicators then derivesthe authenticity of the descriptive outcome. In this way, the researchercollaborates withmemberswhile reexively focusing on the phenome-non as experienced by the members. Reexive use of visual technologytherefore enables an experiential view. Integration of the visual dimen-sion therefore enhances the reexive process and the descriptiveoutcome as well as the ethnographic knowledge that results.

    The visual (ethnographic) design of Schembri's (2009) projectwas particularly suitable for this investigation, given the experientialnature of this phenomenon. Indeed, some members' described themeaning of HarleyDavidson as indescribable, with the quip, If Ihave to explain, you wouldn't understand. If that is accurate to anydegree then visual methods are an appropriate research methodologyin this context. Moreover, cameras and camcorders are frequentlyused by members in the HOG context. Using a camera thereforeenabled the researcher to better blend into the crowd. Other strategiesto enable better acceptance in the group includedwearing the standarduniform of jeans and black leather. Acquiring a HarleyDavidson bikefurther facilitated acculturation because the researcher then movedfrompillion passenger to owner and rider.Most specically, participatingas an active member and collaborating with other members generated

    a degree of credibility within the Australian HOG subculture and

    hy: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations, Journal of

  • simultaneously enhanced the validity of the ethnography but potentiallimitations were managed throughout this visual ethnographicadventure.

    1.5. Managing potential limitations

    A primary criterion of social science research is a demonstration ofvalidity. The goal of credible ethnographic research similarly requiresthat issues related to validity be addressed in detail. Credible ethno-graphic research aims to provide a depth of understanding that isnot achievable with other research approaches. Astute ethnographicresearchers recognize, however, that threats to credibility may weakenthe authenticity of ethnographic knowledge, regardless of the researchquestion. Hence, priorities need to be set of rigor needs in conductingvisual ethnographic research along with appropriately managing anypotential limitations.

    The inclusion of visual methods in marketing research facilitates acontextual reading of behavioral patterns and aspects of culturalsignicance. As a cultural investigation, ethnographic work assumescontext dependency therefore dening an investigative space thatcontains the work. Unlike traditional marketing research, generaliz-

    is therefore achieved via a negotiation and collaborationwithmembersand researcher. Incorporating a visual dimension may amplify ethicaland political consideration given there can be no promise of anonymityand condentiality. Hence visual ethnographic researchers walk a neline on ethical grounds and sometimes sinking sands on politicalgrounds, which necessarily reinforces the need for a reexive approach.In this way, visual ethnography achieves rigorous and authenticinterpretations.


    The authors acknowledge Colin Mackerras (Department of Inter-national Business and Asian Studies, Grifth University, Gold Coastcampus 4222, Queensland, Australia for his insightful comments inreading this manuscript. Email:


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    2. Conclusion

    Demonstrating the value and validity of visual ethnography, thispaper has showcased the intricacies involved with conducting visualethnographic research and achieving rigor research. Emphasizing acollaborative and reexive approach to visual ethnography mayintroduce researchers to perspectives beyond their own. Capturingconsumer experience within visual text therefore allows a transfor-mative potential. Achieving a rigorous and authentic interpretationPlease cite this article as: Schembri, S., & Boyle, M.V., Visual ethnograBusiness Research (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2012.02.021customer empowerment The case of my Nutella The Community. EuropeanJournal of Marketing, 40(9/10), 10871105.

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    CA: Sage.ability is not the goal and validity is in part established throughmemberphy: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations, Journal of

    Visual ethnography: Achieving rigorous and authentic interpretations1. Introduction1.1. Describing reality and consumer experience1.2. Analyzing visual text1.3. The political implications of visual ethnographic research1.4. The HarleyDavidson case application1.5. Managing potential limitations

    2. ConclusionAcknowledgmentsReferences


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