The Role of the Participant-Practitioner in Ethnography: The Methodology of Street Fashion Portraiture as a Lens of Social Investigation

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

Main argument

The paradigm of the "participant-observer" who studies a group as a "fly on the wall" while observing but not interfering has shifted for certain ethnographers into one of the "participant-practitioner," or an actor in a field on the terms defined by the other actors in it, and who, by being as specifically interested (whether commercially, personally, or otherwise) as other members of the field, is able to learn the "rules of the game" more effectively and accurately, along the lines defined by an effort to describe the social reality of the field according to the rules of its ethnomethodology.

I have been doing just this -- and developing the theoretical rationale along the way (see "grounded theory," Berthelsen et al)-- using street fashion photography as a figurative lens, along with the actual one attached to my Canon EOS 6D camera. My take is one of a new kind of photo-sartorial elicitation in which I position different field actors into a new relationship centered around the production of picture that can not be of specific use to the actors in the field, but also elicit new angles and insights on what is happening on the literal field of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during the bi-annual Seoul Fashion Week event. Unlike traditional forms of photo elicitation, this is something far beyond simply giving cameras to subjects and hoping they will produce photographs that will shed light on an aspect of their identity or better outline the nature of their social status within a group or field or even showing images to interview subjects.

Indeed, this project onvolves the active recruitment of field participants in the process of creating a picture, a common project. I will be acting as not a mere participant-observer. The status of participant-practitioner is a function of my status as a practitioner within the field itself -- and while this involves technically "interfering" with or actively altering field conditions, the important point to remember is that as a participant-practitioner, my practices are bound by the rules of the field and the dictates of my interests as defined via the other field actors.  Both approaches/positions are actually quite similar in that they involve more than mere "participation" but actually abandon the front of objectivity-as-putative-social-neutrality and the decision to inevitably change the nature of field conditions in order to elicit an observable effect in/via a photograph, which can yield considerably useful insights. 

Some points to consider about different ways of looking at the street fashion (or any ethnographic) portrait:

  1. as a mere illustration of the photographic subject
  2. as an integrated summary of all the ethnographic interactions that happened behind the picture in order to produce it
  3. as a collection of visual data points and a map of their spatial, semiotic, or social relationships

 

Working Bibliography and Reading List

Berthelsen, Connie Bøttcher, Tove Lindhardt, and Kirsten Frederiksen. "A Discussion of Differences in Preparation, Performance and Postreflections in Participant Observations within Two Grounded Theory Approaches." Nordic College of Caring Science: METHODS AND METHODOLOGIES 31 (2016): 413–20.

Harper, Douglas. "Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation." Visual Studies 17, no. 1 (2002): 13-26.

Katz, Jack. "Ethical Escape Routes for Underground Ethnographers." American Ethnologist 33, no. No. 4 (November 2006): 499-506.

Oliver, John and Keith Eales. "Re-Evaluating the Consequentialist Perspective of Using Covert Participant Observation in Management Research." Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 11, no. 3 (2008): 244-357.