Greg Scott, director of the Social Science Research Center and associate professor of sociology, collaborated with Wesley Shrum, a professor at Louisiana State University, to launch the Journal of Video Ethnography (JVE), a one-of-a-kind, bi-annual release of academically rigorous, peer-reviewed ethnographic films. (Access to the journal is free and open to all at www.videoethno.com/).
Here, Scott talks about this innovation in social science research and publishing.First, what exactly is video ethnography?
It’s a certain kind of video or filmic documentary and a certain kind of ethnography.
Ethnography is a research method in which a social scientist becomes embedded in a culture while using texts, field notes and photographs to document it. An ethnographer might spend two to 10 years trying to understand a culture on its own terms. One of the documentation tools used in ethnography is film. In fact, ethnographers were among the first serious scholars to use professional grade, handheld movie cameras as a way to capture the nooks and crannies of what they were studying. Why does video ethnography need a journal?
Not surprisingly, academia has always been text-obsessed: We privilege print over all other media. Academics distrust film as a rigorous research method, and I think one reason for that is because moving images—say, of homeless people living under the streets of New York City—have more emotional valence than a print article can ever have. That unsettles many scholars and raises their suspicions about the potential intellectual rigor—that is, the scientific merit—of material conveyed in a film. Many scholars still consider print, as a medium, to be less susceptible to manipulation and distortion, but that is a deeply flawed and limiting view.
When I was an undergrad at the University of Southern California in the late 80s, my teachers were making anthropological films, but they weren’t getting any credit for them. The films were “just teaching aids”: They didn’t count toward tenure. Why not? Because they weren’t peer-reviewed. JVE corrects that deficit. When a scholar submits a film, it’s reviewed by fellow academic filmmakers who evaluate the theory and the quality of the argument being made, as well as the film’s conceptualization and methodology.
I’ve been lucky: DePaul has always given me credit for my ethnographic films. JVE is the mechanism for giving other scholars the same respect: It gives video ethnography a bona fide place in academic scholarship and publishing. Tell us about the journal’s process. How does a film get included in an issue?
We publish twice a year, in March and September. Also, in December of each year we publish a special issue composed of selections from our companion film festival held in Paris every April (Ethnografilm Festival: www.ethnofilmfest.org). During the festival in 2014, we screened 80 films, from more than 300 that had been submitted for consideration. This year, we’re screening 102 films out of a total of 500 submissions.
From each festival, we select 10 to 12 of the best films and invite their makers to submit them for peer review before possible publication in the journal. (Scholars who do not show a film at the festival can also submit their work for publication, of course.) There are at least three peer reviewers for every film. The filmmaker has to include the film’s background, a bibliography of relevant literature, an argument for the topic’s place in the social sciences, and a synopsis of the film’s methodology and research findings. Based on the peer review, the submission might be accepted as is, accepted with revisions or rejected.
The challenge is the technology itself: We had to provide an interface that would allow for an intense and interactive communication among reviewers and submitters. We created a password-protected site where films could be shown and stored. Then we had to develop, from scratch, a system for doing the reviews: The reviewer had to be able to pull up a film, watch it, and annotate it, and then send back to the filmmaker the annotated version along with a narrative review of the film’s quality and originality as an ethnographic document. Is the journal catching on?
In our first issue, we published five films from more than 30 that had been submitted. Even though we have not promoted the journal aggressively, interest in it has exploded. More and more submissions are coming in; more and more people are talking about the journal.
Right now, the Journal of Video Ethnography is the only one of its kind in the world. But we want more video journals in the social sciences to sprout up, because that’s how the discipline and the methodology become recognized as serious academic scholarship. Greg Scott has credits as director, producer, cinematographer and/or camera operator on documentary productions for TLC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, MSNBC and BET.