Centre for Creative Media Research > Video Critical


There is a chapter discussing the theoretical foundations and precedents for this method in the book version. This online version provides an abridged account of the more practical aspects.

Basic methodological procedure

Seven different videos about 'the environment' were made, with groups of (usually) seven or eight children, over the course of five or six weekly sessions. Here, the process which each of the groups went through is outlined.

In the first week, the children were introduced to the researcher , who then led a group discussion which explored what the children understood by the term 'the environment', what came to mind in relation to 'environmental issues' and 'environmental problems', and where they had learned about these subjects - their sources of information. Picture cards were passed around the group, each suggesting a particular environmental concern - such as industrial pollution, litter, deforestation, recycling, nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer - to see if the children recognised and could comment on those subjects. The children were also asked about their level of interest in, and concern about, these issues. The discussion then focused on television in particular, and the children's recall of environmental material from that source. The group would then be told that they would be making a video about 'the environment', under the supervision of the researcher, over the course of the following weeks. Some discussion of ideas for the video would follow, and the children were shown how to work the video camera, and each had a turn at filming and performing for the camera. Suggestions of material for inclusion in the video came from the children, and were not proposed by the researcher.

Over the following weeks, once the children had got used to using the camera (which they all did very quickly), the video was produced . (The scope of what could be filmed varied from school to school, depending upon the extent to which the children were allowed to leave the school grounds, and other such constraints upon available locations). The filming and presenting roles were continuously rotated so that each of the children had opportunities to work on both sides of the camera. In the final week of production, the children were encouraged to interview each other, on camera, about the experience of making the video, as well as their feelings about the environment more generally. This footage served multiple purposes, providing interesting material for inclusion in the edited video - whether as a 'talking head' or as an audio track to accompany other shots of the subject in question - as well as being valuable for research purposes, highlighting the children's concerns at the end of the several weeks of video work, both through the questions asked and answers given.

Observations of the production activity with each group appear in the subsequent webpages. The study of this whole process of producing each video - the ideas, the planning, comments and suggestions made during filming, debates which took place between the children, the narrative style and tone favoured, and so on - is at least as important as the finished video, to the project as a research method. Indeed, the final video - with music, titles, and a basic structure - was edited together by the researcher after the production process with the children was complete. Although each 'polished' video was put together with the intention of representing as closely as possible the themes and concerns which the children had apparently sought to highlight, and generally included all of the usable and meaningful footage, this finished presentation could almost be seen as irrelevant to the research. Each video provides the best available summary of the material produced by the group, but was carefully edited - with the addition of effects such as music and on-screen credits - more as a gift to the children and the school, than for research purposes.

The children and the schools

All of the schools involved in this study were in the city of Leeds, the commercial, industrial and financial centre of West Yorkshire in the North of England. The fourth largest city in Britain, Leeds has a resident multi-ethnic population of over 705,000. Five of the seven schools were within one and a half miles of the city centre. The city's Asian population, of 25,000 people, predominantly reside in inner-city areas which include those around these schools. Trouble in these areas, in the mid-1990s, has generally been centred around white drugs-and-crime problems, rather than racial tensions. In July 1995, as the last of these video projects were being completed, apparently frustrated young people initiated some violent disturbances - including a public house and several cars being burnt out - in an area right next to Royal Park Primary School, close to Brudenell, and half a mile from Burley St. Matthias .

The general pupil population of four of the schools would be described as working class; two other schools had a mix of working and lower middle class children; and one school, located in suburban Far Headingley, had a notably white middle-class population. These labels are obviously crude, and this particular range of schools was not intended to represent schools in Leeds, or elsewhere, more generally. The school populations do differ sufficiently, however, for comparisons to be made.

The overall age range of children in the study was seven to eleven, with an average age of just less than nine and a half years old. This age group was selected for a number of reasons. Much of the published material on making videos of any substance with children involves those in their teenage years, and it was felt that it would be more interesting to test the capacities of younger children. Such findings could also be compared more directly with those of the psychological and effects studies which seem to credit children with few constructive capabilities, and also tend to involve younger children. On the other hand, the research had to exclude children so young that we could not expect them to have seen a variety of television material about the environment, or who could not reasonably be expected to do anything meaningful with a video camera. Children aged seven to eleven were therefore ideal, and are an age group whose media interests have been less fully researched, even though it is the period in which children watch most television (Buckingham, 1993, p. 34).

The children in each group were chosen by their teacher, prior to their first session with the researcher. This was either done by 'pulling names out of a hat', or by the teacher selecting children from across the ability range. Teachers were asked to avoid choosing a group of the most 'able' children.

A total of over 66 hours was spent working with the children, the equivalent of spending one and a quarter hours with each of the 53 children. The children recorded a considerable amount of footage between them, with the total length of the videos in their final, pacey edited form being 95 minutes.

The video method: philosophical foundations

Although Hammersley & Atkinson (1995) assert that positivism 'has become little more than a term of abuse among social scientists' (p. 3), one still feels the need to make a full defence of a method such as the one developed here, which side-steps any attempt to shroud its procedures and results in conventional scientific rhetoric, and which puts the act of creating not only the content but some of the form of the research 'data' into the hands of the research participants. The basic thinking behind the method is elaborated below. Particular themes should be illustrated further as the reader makes their way through the material.

The use of the video equipment in this new method means that mediated perceptions of contemporary society can be explored with the media tools of that culture. The researcher spends time with the subjects, in the manner of ethnography, but the video camera provides a structure and a focus for the use of that time. The subjects themselves are able to make a statement about society or experience through the video material they produce. This will not be 'pure' in the sense that they cannot record the image of their dreams or hopes, and because it is likely to be affected by their experience of television, the popular version of the medium. Nevertheless, these factors add further layers of interest, and the method's open invitation to creative response has the benefit of allowing the researcher to collect complex and mediated responses which it is impossible to obtain with the rigid and formal procedures of experimental and questionnaire survey research, these being methods which define the responses which they are looking for in advance.

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How it works: Video production providing reflections on media readings and influence

It should be made clear that the video production process is used in this study as an alternative way of studying children's media consumption and readings. Since most audience studies purport to be analysing the relationship between media product and media readings, it might be argued that the present study 'skips' the exploration of the latter stage, jumping straight on to a third stage, of children's media production. However, this misses the point that any of the studies which consider 'media consumption' do in fact use another kind of production as their starting-point - that of the talk or written responses produced by research participants in focus groups or interviews. Video production, in this sense, is not meant to be considered as a 'third stage', any more than the production of talk about media consumption is in other studies; and video production is taken to tell us something about the 'second stage' - the audience's readings of the media which they consume - in much the same way as other studies assume that they are able to.

At the same time, the video productions are taken to present rather more revealing and carefully-considered reflections of the influence of this process. In other words, for a subject where the audience have received most of their input on the subject from the mass media, as it was established was the case with the environment and children in this study, then the videos which they produce can be assumed to reflect their understanding of which issues and angles are the most pertinent and pressing; and this can be presumed to have been influenced by the media. Of course, in areas where the audience encountered discourses on the subject in question from a range of sources, or could be expected to be in a position to readily challenge claims and forms of presentation in the mass media, it would be much more difficult to make such assumptions. With children and the environment, however, where the mass media could be distinguished quite clearly as the primary information source, and where the children were (relatively) free to include in their video whatever materials and emphases they felt to be appropriate, the video production process could be studied as the indicator of important elements which the children, as media consumers, had taken on board from television and other media.

Authoring the video

For six of the videos, the material was edited together in an order which seemed most 'natural' or as the children would have intended. However, of course, this involves some selection and supposition being imposed on the finished project by the researcher, and weakens any claim that the final video represents the children's collective view alone. This weakness was circumvented at the seventh school, where a brief description of all of the usable sections of video was written on separate pieces of paper, and then the children - with much discussion - ordered the clips into a running order, effectively planning the edit. The video was then edited in this order (with only some additional stylistic overlaps of pictures with sound being introduced). Obviously, this addition to the method enhances the children's claim to complete authorship of the finished video.

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Advantages of the video production method in summary

As in other ethnographic methods, the amount of time spent with the participants means that the researcher is able to access talk about the issues under investigation which is more likely to be representative of their deeper feelings about a subject than the 'staged' discourse produced in one-off interview or focus group settings. The video camera and brief to make a particular kind of film, however, structures the use of that time, and gives participants an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of discourses relevant to the subject in question. Observation of every aspect of the process of producing the video provides one substantial block of research data, but at the end of the project we also have the videos thus produced - constructed, mediated accounts of a selection of the perceptions of the social world held by the group members. Combined with the understanding of the circumstances in which these came to be put onto videotape, gained in the time spent 'immersed' with each group throughout production, the videos themselves provide a companion block of data for analysis.

The method may also have benefits for the children involved as well, serving as a form of media education, potentially empowering them about the issues in question, and giving young people a way of expressing themselves which is generally found to be novel, exciting and unusual. Perhaps most importantly, the method constitutes a real break from those investigations of media use and impact which have confined the participants' responses to those available within a predetermined range. Whilst effects studies have traditionally based their approaches on a 'seek and you shall find' model, the video project researcher celebrates their own inability to predict what will happen - a 'risk' worth taking.

The text and images on this site are by David Gauntlett, © 1997, 2004.
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