18 Advantages of visual auto-ethnography for research

Video is now cheap and omni-present

What is it?

Visual auto-ethnography is a form of participant -authored audio-visual storytelling. Still confused? Think video diary and you're almost there. In recent years the availability of more affordable camcorders has meant that researchers and participants can engage in more effective research.

Real examples of practical use of video

In recent projects I have used flip cameras with participants from ethnic minority communities who were recording their experience of  adult learning as enrichment. In another project we used more expensive cameras in a health setting in order to examine what the priorities were for service users. The footage has had multiple benefits and we continue to develop the use of visual technologies and methodologies:

  • to empower and support the participation of service users and clients;
  • to provide evidence and documentation of outputs and project delivery;
  • to support the creative personalization of service delivery; 
  • to inform project evaluation; 
  • to demonstrate accountability;
  • to improve the accessibility and awareness of services;
  • to influence policy and strategic development options;
  • to foster dialogue between groups of people - both vertical (client to manager) and horizontal (client to service user)

What are the advantages of visual auto-ethnography?

1. If the researcher is working with a group that finds reading and writing difficult then it makes sense to tap into their self- or group- expression through visual literacy

2. Inexpensive cameras are very easy to use. Basic training is all that is required on a technical level.

3. The researcher will be hearing the world through the voice of the participant.

4. The research will be seeing the world through the eyes of the participant.

5. The participant rather than the researcher selects what is relevant - using focus, emphasis, frame, duration of shot etc.

6. The film product may more successfully encompass a more private world than would be accessible to the external, "other" world of the researcher.

7. By taking the researcher out of the filming process there is less opportunity for the researcher to influence the proceedings - either deliberately or unwittingly.

8. Participants are likely to have an understanding of their participation based on their experience of popular genres such as reality TV, or fly-on-the-wall documentary.

9. Because it's participant-led the researcher may end up with a degree of personalization that cuts through the tired cliches, social prejudices and/ or imposed expectations.

10. Participants are able to generate a lot of material in a short time.

11. Participants may have the option to edit or delete the footage that they recorded - giving them more power over the research

12. Participation in editing may provide additional opportunities for reflective work by the participants

13. The researcher has a rich database of material on which to work.

14. The researcher can replay clips in order to capture detailed responses and nuances that might other wise be missed. Similarly, the research may also zoom in on visual details.

15. Remember that many hand-held cameras are small and portable; they are ideal for working in confined environments.

16. Camcorders have become so cheap that they will often fit within a tight researcher's budget

17. Because they are inexpensive the researcher need not fear the risk that some cameras may be lost or damaged. There is less need for supervision and security issues.

18. Affordability means that a wider or larger focus group of participants can be employed than would be the case if more professional equipment were employed.

In another blog I will be discussing the practical aspects of setting up a video diary for research. And after that we will be moving on to discuss the dangers and disadvantages of using visual auto-ethnography. We will be discussing ethical issues and the secrets of getting the most out of your participants to create high quality research.

© Dr Ian McCormick. But please do contact me if you want to use this article as a guest post on your blog. With attribution offered I seldom refuse!
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)Further Information

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The International Community Film Forum showcases participatory video from around the world.

If you want to read more, there is a short article from The Guardian that is quite helpful:

Video diaries. "One of the simplest and cheapest ways to start filming is to make a video diary. These are the secrets of making a good one."


  1. Quite a lot of people in South Africa are reading this blog post. I'm interested to hear your views!

  2. Why not follow these blog posts on Twitter with "Postfilm" - all the latest participatory media news.


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