Arts-based engagement ethnography


Here at the Sefrou Association for Multidisciplinary Arts – SAMA – we are always looking for new ways to gather and present knowledge and research with and about Sefrou and its community. 

One current trend in ethnographic studies caught our interest for its novel approach to studying communities:

Arts-based engagement ethnography (ABEE)

ABEE is specifically directed at facilitating research that accounts for the experiences and narratives of multiculturalism and diversity. It is “arts based” in that it asks participants to express ideas, perceptions, views, and experiences in ways and through channels that go beyond the privileged use of denotative language characteristic of most traditional social science methodologies. 

It uses imaginative and engaging techniques based on the use of a selected set of simple items to elicit and record participants’ creative responses to their experience, such as cameras, maps, journals, postcards and sketchbooks, collectively referred to as cultural probes. The artifacts produced through cultural probes require a rethinking of the way in which researchers engage with participants, which then informs the use of focus group and individual interviews that complete the ABEE research process. 

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Why not use traditional research approaches?

Traditional approaches to research tend to privilege the researcher over the research participant. Methods often encourage, albeit implicitly, nonreflexive tools for research. For example, the traditional structured interview leaves little room for a participant to tell the story they want told; a survey leaves little room (even with qualitative questions) for the elicitation of the unknown or unanticipated. 

Focus group and individual interviews with participants are shaped in ABEE by the images, narratives, and issues raised by participants themselves through their creative work elicited through the cultural probes. Essentially, this shifts research from being about communities to research that seeks to respectfully and ethically engage partnership and participation with and for communities.

Cultural probes

The visual, with its importance as a means of shifting beyond language as a means of expression and a route to understanding, sits at the heart of ABEE. ABBE seeks to use visual research techniques to go beyond the visual to the imaginative, the empathic, the playful, and the informative qualities often associated with design rather than social science or health research.

Used to elicit subjectivity, probes, through interactive and creative means, can include, but are not limited to, cameras, maps, diaries, sketchbooks, videos, smartphones, postcards, and timelines. The use of probes encourages both documentation and creativity. As participants are asked to use familiar “tools” in unusual ways, the probes work to encourage participants to respond to and reflect on certain everyday practices and experiences in new and unexpected ways. 

The guidance given by the researcher is less about prescription and more about encouraging individuals to capture any and all the elements that impact on, direct, or determine their experience of a given phenomenon. 

In ABEE, cultural probes have been purposefully repurposed to invite participants to be, and to act, as agents. As agents, participants are given the space, the permission, and the opportunity to reflect on and verbalize their experiences, feelings, and attitudes as well as to locate and contextualize their experiences. They are particularly encouraged to visualize their identity as manifest through experiences, action(s), and context(s).

Researchers need to be actively and attentively involved in the design of any cultural probe tools. ABEE cultural probes need to be sufficiently interesting to stimulate the participant to think about the questions/prompts/activities being asked of them; to think in ways that are a little “outside of the box”; challenge them enough to engage, but not so much as to leave them feeling “out of their depth”; encourage their imagination; and support them to feel enabled. Most importantly, cultural probes must be visual: photographs, drawings, sketches, objects.

A past community arts engagement project in Sefrou.

Qualitative Interviews and Focus Groups

While cultural probes and the artifacts they produce are foundational to the research process in ABEE, the qualitative interview continues to have an important and deliberate role in the research process. Interest in what, how, and why participants produce their artifacts, in direct relation to the overarching research question, directs the development and advancement of the research interview type (individual/focus group) and protocol. 

In ABEE, planned discussion groups are used. Planned discussion groups have most of the characteristics of traditional focus groups except that participants are “likely to be a naturally occurring group” rather than a group of strangers brought together to explore a particular topic.

Focus groups are carefully planned around the artifacts that participants have produced and the discussion interviews that researchers have with individuals as they seek clarity on what the participant has produced. Thus, each project will have its own combination of focus groups, which vary in length, numbers, and topic areas.

Engagement Ethnography and the Public Mobilization of Knowledge

The nature and visual presence of the artifacts used as cultural probes means one can creatively share the knowledge gained from research. The artifacts of the cultural probes capture the social reality of the experience being studied.

Crucial to the dissemination of the knowledge …[is] the use of gallery-type exhibitions… . The exhibitions… allow the viewer to empathize with the experience captured in the study … alongside the context, negotiation, and inter-subjectivities through which the presented knowledge was produced … Arguably, the richness of this ethnography is that the knowledge presented will be accessible to the “common person,” as well as the philosopher/academic.

The making of knowledge translatable for, and engaging to, a diverse audience is the final intent of ABEE. ABEE’s capacity to capture narrative, experience, and insight through visual, written, and spoken mediums means that researchers are left with rich and multi-layered findings. Such richness in data opens new possibilities for knowledge translation and exchange.

How SAMA is using similar methodology

At SAMA, we have used cultural probes before. When speaking to local people, we have at times used photographs and historical objects to promote discussion. Indeed, the Sefrou Museum of Multiculturalism is a physical container of photographs, drawings, objects and sketches which we use to start discussions about Sefrou multiculturalism. It is a space we use to create videos and thereby situate them within a multicultural spatial context.

A still from our interview with local poet, Soufiane, surrounded by objects, including his published work, in our Museum.

In previous and upcoming public arts projects, we have worked and will work with the community to produce public art that will help to create dialogue about multiculturalism and will be exhibited publicly to foster further discussion.

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