Some Thoughts on Social Change through Story-telling

In addition to their obvious contributions to non-fiction narrative media, the unique characteristics of interactive documentary may find another area of usefulness in cultural and social anthropology, especially as paradigm shifts continue to evolve regarding the power relationships between those being “studied” and those who are doing the “studying.” Beginning in the 1960s, traditional techniques for conducting ethnographic field research began to morph, as part of the much larger societal changes which characterized that turbulent decade.

By the 1980’s, a significant proportion of practicing anthropologists – and their intellectual cousins in cultural studies – began moving away from two ideas that had defined fieldwork for almost 80 years. The first of these was the notion of that the researcher was capable of obtaining complete “objectivity” during fieldwork, a notion which eventually resulted in an alternative methodological philosophy known as “reflexive anthropology.”

In a nutshell, the guiding idea here is that the cultural worldview, personal experience, and unique identity of the researcher have an impact on what he or she “sees” when conducting his or her research – or, at the very least, on the way in which researchers are likely to interpret their observations about the population, society, or phenomena they’ve been observing. This concept of inter-subjectivity is closely related to the concept of the “social construction of reality” found in some aspects of sociology as well as in philosophical circles. This methodological stance seems quite commonsensical today, but in its day which triggered a roaring and vivid battle between “relativists” and “positivists.”

In all of these instances, the bedrock principle is that both the observer and the observed contribute to shared experiences which, eventually, yield “information,” or “data,” or, possibly, even “truth” of one sort or another. This is consonant with the fundamental nature – and mission – of the interactive documentary as a new media genre, in which the actual material of the documentary “product” is released from the constraints of linear presentation as well as from the sometimes limited point of view that a single-author, top-down production process must dictate.

In other words, in an interactive documentary, just like in a reflexive ethnography, multiple authors shape the narrative from a series of different perspectives regardless of their respective positions within the production chain. “Audience” is also “author,” in an interactive documentary, in much the same way that the “target population” is permitted a “say” in its anthropological description within reflexive anthropology.

The net effect of this, in anthropology, is to re-empower the target population (those under anthropological scrutiny) by including emic (insider) as well as etic (outsider) information in a much more balanced ratio than was previously the case, when anthropologists came, saw, and defined as normatively as possible. The very vocabulary of ethnographic field work reveals this conceptual shift; we no longer refer to target populations as “subjects,” but as “respondents” or “informants,” or, in some cases, as “consultants.” This suggests a willingness to enter into a more equal partnership with the potential for the ethnographer than has been the case in years gone by.

Ethnographic filmmakers, then, are a rich secondary community for the notion of the interactive documentary, especially those who already employ visual media in their anthropological practice. Both interactive documentary filmmakers and ethnographic filmmakers can put into concrete experience this conceptual shift in thinking about film and video as uniformly and exclusively linear, top-down storytelling genres. Instead, both groups can benefit from exploring the marriage of very small screen (VSS) image capturing devices (such as mobile telephones, blackberries, and Flip-type point and shoot video cameras that upload directly to the Web through a computer’s USB port) with the dynamic, non-linear narrative format options made possible by the Web design and delivery technology that underlies interactive documentary as a whole. In the end this gives both constituencies the option to co-create the final product with full support and participation of their subjects.

Two other applications of interactive documentary-type thinking suggest a more activist, socially engaged approach to anthropological practice than was acceptable before the sea changes of the 1960-1980s and the technological revolution of the last ten years. One of these is the notion of using the same technical platforms that support interactive documentary in order to craft and coordinate a specific type of Drama for Conflict (DCT) Transformation technique, which is called “playback theatre” in North America and “forum theatre” in Europe. In essence, this entails working directly with a specific group (cultural, political, economic, and so on) to write a short skit based on their collective experience of a particular social problem or political dilemma, and then exploring the consequences of decisional moments in that narrative by re-mixing the story at key points along the way and seeing how each change triggers a different set of outcomes.

Once the core skit has been developed, different iterations of it are “played out” for a carefully designed audience – a mix of people affected by the problem and those who are the decision-makers around it, such as homeless people confronted by a change in municipal policy that would put them at greater physical risk and the city officials responsible for that policy. Each different “version” of the play, however, offers a different set of options for dealing with the problem at the key points along the way, options that are supplied by the audience during the “unfolding” of each version of the skit when they, literally, stick their hand in the air and call out “Stop! What if THIS happened instead of THAT?” Actors in the play respond with improvised but logical enactments of how each potential solution offered by an audience member would affect subsequent effects in the “world” of the play.

This combination of ethnographic discovery and social activism problem-solving is one of the things I’m exploring in my own research as I look for bridges between anthropology and interactive documentary. The second is using game theory – specifically, the notion of alternative reality based game structures, in which audience members “play through” a multi-media release of real-world information rather than watch a program about it.


This post was kindly sent to us by Kerric Harvey from the George Washington University