Video as research method and research subject: a critical analysis of ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’: Protest Video and the Production of Unruly Subjects’.

Submitted as part of MRes in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow, critical analysis of methods deployed in a Human Geographical paper / research project, January 2016

Introduction to ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’ and its Research Design


In this essay I explore the useof digital video as both the subject of study and the qualitative researchmethod. I  specifically look at its use in participatoryresearch and ‘Activist’ / ‘Militant’ Research  as deployed in ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’: Protest Video and theProduction of Unruly Subjects’ (Razsa, 2014) - here after referred to as‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’.  I will focuson how video is employed by the researcher as a means of data gathering andprocessing, as a method for gaining access and initiation into the group thatis the subject of study, examining how the boundaries begin to blur between‘researcher’ and ‘researched’.  Iwill examine how this level participation and use of video can be a catalystfor innovative research methods, gaining insights to otherwise overlookedexperiences, but while equally posing significant ethical concerns for bothresearcher and participants. I propose that what makes this paper particularly excitingis found within these blurred boundaries - that within this undefined zone lienot only pitfalls but also great potential for generating new knowledge(s) andunderstanding human experience that would not otherwise be revealed.

‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’ looks at how globalization activists in formerYugoslavia have embraced the use of digital video as part of their protesttechniques. The paper looks at activists whose actions are highly critical ofNeo-Liberal Policy in Europe and advocated strongly for freedom of movement. ‘Beyond‘Riot Porn’’ fits under the geographical subfield of ‘Anthropogeography’[i],a hybrid subgenre of Geography and Anthropology, along with Activist Geography[ii]and Political Geography[iii].  Razsa incorporates video into his ownresearch methodology, and reflects upon the potential for video beyond its perceived‘truth telling’ qualities, looking at the “sensory, affective and bodilyexperiences” (Razsa, 2014, 496) it provides, which is both advantageous forRazsa’s research, and for the activists’ political aims. Within this affectivepower of video, however, lie potential pitfalls of the medium – for bothresearcher and activists.  Forexample, the prolific violent content of activist video valorising andsensationalising clashes with police is criticised as ‘riot porn’ by otheractivists, and the researcher is placed in a difficult ethical position forbeing associated with its production. Razsa examines the issues arising as he observesthe use of video by his participants, and reflects upon his own use of video asa research method.

Razsa does not explicitly identify the research design used, but it isevident from the descriptions that first hand ethnographic field-work wasundertaken within a qualitative methodology between 1996 and 2011 in formerYugoslavian states, along with accompanying key activist organisers to eventsacross Europe. Razsa’s use of video as part of this research, and partaking invideo production for activists during protests, reflects Trochim’s definitionof qualitative research, that  “forsome qualitative researchers, the best way to understand what’s going on is to becomeimmersed in it.” (Trochim, 2006, 5) and that is exactly what Razsa did.


Access, and all the ethical conundrums that accompany it


Razsa’s use of video allowed him to gain intimate access to hisparticipants, “while there was little interestin my ethnographic writing project, filming protests transformed my presencefor many of my informants into a productive (and comprehensible) part ofactivist life.” (Razsa, 2014, 505) Video is transformed from simply the subjectof study into the both the data gathering method and method for gaining accessto and respect from his research participants. It is a powerful tool forcommunication and generating connections both among activists and for Razsa withthe activists individually, and as a group.

Videoinfluences Razsa entire research approach and perspective. This is expressedexplicitly in the paper, “video, therefore, played a crucial role in myincorporation into daily life and became central to my methodology, as I shotextensive video ‘field notes’… video profoundly influenced by perception andthinking.” (Razsa, 2014, 505) Razsa’s reference to field notes in this wayhighlights the experimental nature of the incorporation of video into hisresearch methodology. Razsa replaces the notebook with the camera, and in so doing so becomes involved in theproduction of video material as part of the movements, becoming a participantin the activist’s techniques and methods. For example, “these videomethodologies, and the presence of my own camera, at the Noborder camp,indicate how my own knowledge production came to be woven into the fabric ofactivist struggle, reflection and political articulation.” (Rasza, 2014, 506)and their struggle became woven into his approach and knowledge production. This relationship betweenresearcher-participants-video production is quintessential of ActivistGeography and Activist Research, where “the researcher both seeks to study aswell as contribute to social struggles” (Razsa, 2014, 506). This has a veryclose relationship with Militant Research:

“…it is not enough to say that militantresearch is about studying radicals, their actions or their ideas. More oftenthan not, it entails the researchers’ active and committed participation in thepolitical movement of their subjects. As opposed, say, to participantobservation, which is favoured method among ethnographers, militant researchinvolves participation by conviction, where researchers play a role in actionsand share the goals, strategies, and experience of their comrades because oftheir own committed believes and not simply because this conduct is anexpedient way to get their data.” (Ross, 2013, 9)

Razsa’s use of video has a strong tie to this approach – it is not enoughfor the study to be of video, but for video to contribute to the overallstruggles and outputs of the activism and research undertaken.

Further qualities of digital video also assist Razsa in his access tothe activist groups, and smooth the process of his ‘field note’ gathering. Itis the same quality that allows activists to produce and disseminate video soeffectively. Video production has been radically democratised with the adventof digital video technologies that are compact and affordable; video is nolonger the domain of the professional. This accessibility to technology meansthat “participatory video, if used within carefully negotiated relationships,has potential to destabilize hierarchical power relations and create spaces fortransformation by providing a practice of looking ‘alongside’ rather than ‘at’research subjects.” (Kindon, 2002, 142) The power imbalances of the medium have been shifted, and themasses, rather than the initiated limited few, now have access to acommunication method that can be disseminated globally – this suits theintentions of the activists, and also those of the ethnographic researcher thatis attempting to negotiate the power imbalances between researcher /researched. It allows Razsa to be one among many videographers present, ratherthan the only one with all the representational power. It could be argued thatthrough the use of video Razsa becomes part of a horizontal hierarchy ofvideograpghers employing the medium to document and advance social change. 

However, there are major ethical concerns that come hand in hand withthis radical approach. As Ross highlights, the militant researcher is not usingsuch techniques simply to gain access to data, but there is no denying thatthere are research benefits from the strong ties formed during Razsa’s filmingand the position of trust his gains as a videographer. There is the risk ofexploiting his position of trust, either intentionally or unintentionally. Alternatively,there is the concern that the researcher will develop bias towards particularviews on the group because of his intimate relationship with them and theircause(s), or that his relationship with the activists would alter theinformation they provide to him. These are issues that thwart all researchpractice, but it is necessary to highlight that just because the Activist /Militant Research approach and the use of video is a radical one, does not meanit is void of difficulties. It is noteworthy that Kindon’s point refersspecifically to participatory video where the participants have control of thecamera, which defuses the hierarchical power divisions of the researcher /researched. However, in Razsa’s paper, although there is evidence of hisinvolvement in activist video production, there is no explicit indication thatactivists where involved directly in the production of his video field notes.

I also argue that if video induces such “sensory, affective and bodilyexperiences” (Razsa, 2014, 496) then is Razsa not also potentially subject tothis experience?  Razsa emphasisesthe potential video has in creating affect among activists - generatingsolidarity and action across geographically disparate activist groups.  This exciting capacity of video couldhave a negative effect on the validity of the research method.  In other words, could the affectivenature of video skew Razsa’s interpretation of data as he reviews the footage(especially if he does so alongside participants) – experiencing the very sameaffect activist encounter.

Razsa’sclose involvement with activist activity poses other ethical concerns-  of physical and emotional safety. Thestills from video footage included in the text, along with descriptions ofprotests, demonstrate the danger that the researcher and the participants werein. Razsa was in immediate danger, and it could be argued that he exacerbated the potential danger of his participants by identifying them partakingin violent and illegal acts, which could perhaps be more exaggerated because ofthe presence of the camera.


Video’s potential to capture, and processing the outputs


Within these violent actions, however, are embodied knowleges that videohas the potential to document.  Thereis the possibility “to render visible many of the invisible aspects of embodiedencounters with space that are often left outside the remit of academicinterest.” (Merchant, 2011, 54) This contributes to the argument in favour of videomethodologies, encouraging the idea that video can break down the dominantpower positions by allowing the participants to be presented in a manner thatpotential word based representation could eliminate the nuances of. However,this is a potentially simplistic argument, not least because video can beedited just as much as the written word, but also because Razsa does not fullyexplain how the video data (over 200 hours’ worth) was processed, and thereforeit is difficult to conclude how the embodied knowleges of the activists documentedin the video material is translated into the published form.

However,Razsa does comment on the reflective relationships he had with his participantswhen reviewing video footage: “watching and discussing video footage withparticipants and others proved a revealing way of eliciting reflections on whatactions meant locally.” (Razsa, 2014, 505) This perhaps demonstrates, althoughnot at length, that the footage was produced and watched simultaneously,suggesting that the research design was less linear or circular, and perhapsmore experimental or ‘messy’ where interactions, concepts, and data gathering feedinto one another, with a focus on process. Here the boundaries between researcher and researchedare not only blurred but integrated, so that neither is one nor the other butboth simultaneously. This is particularly seen in Razsa explanation of hisintellectual engagement with participants:

“My informants close echoing of Hardt andNegri’s ideas created a significant ethnographic predicament in the form of a‘double hermeneutic’ in which the theoretical ideas I use to make sense of thismovement were, in fact, already inspiring some of the actions of my informants…I was in the humbling position of consulting these informants not only tobetter understand their political practice… but also for their criticalfeedback on the appropriate application of these theoretical ideas in myanalysis, including this article.” (Razsa, 2014,  519)


Positionality, reflexivity, and the need for Feminist researchmethodology


Thislevel of participation, however, does call for the researcher to have anawareness of their own positionality. Kohl and McCuteheon call forpositionality to be explored in dialogue with others, not simply an exercise in‘navel gazing’, “formaland informal conversation with colleagues and mentors affords the opportunityto deeply engaged with positionalities.” (Kohl and McCuteheon, 2015, 747)Although Razsa does not explicitly use the term ‘positionality’, it is evidentthrough descriptions of interactions that he is aware of his relationship, ifnot position, with the activists and this plays a part in how his research isundertaken.

In alignment with arguments for positionality comes the need for aFeminist critique of Razsa’s research – specifically in relation torepresentation, and violence. Razsa reflects upon this,

Activist scholars establishan alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and accompany themon the contradictory and partly compromised path toward their political goals.This yields research outcomes that are both troubled and deeply enriched bydirect engagement with the complexities of political contention.

“The fact that activisits, especially women,sometimes referred to videos of militant protest as riot porn, also resonatedwith internal feminist crituqes of the use of physical force by participants inradical protest” (Razsa, 2014, 514)

Butis it evident that a feminist approach was considered when employing the use ofvideo? For example, it could be argued that the video methodology in and ofitself is participant in the production of violence in the context of theprotest actions – particularly violence that is associated with stereotypical ideasof masculinity. This can be seen played out in an extended conversation Razsaundertakes with an activist:

 “These gendered implications of militant video made painfullyevident to me in a late afternoon discussion on the terrace of Jadranka’s squat…After watching a music video I had recently finished for Rimi’s band shequipped, ‘Now Rimi’s got you making his riot porn. He’s been trying to get Anato do it for him for months but she said she shouldn’t.’ That Ana inparticular, an accomplished local videographer and activist, had rebuffed Rimiwas revealing because she was especially harsh critic of both the movement’sand the corporate media’s preoccupation with images of physical confrontation.”(Razsa, 2014, 514)

Thisconversation demonstrates Razsa’s reflection (although not extensively, as itappears very close to the end of the paper) on his involvement with theproduction of ‘riot porn’ and the potential impact this has not only on hisrelationships with participants, but the overall gendered implications of hisresearch activity. Although “the feminist critique of riot porn shows thatactivists are reflecting on – and struggling over – the kinds of subjects theywant to cultivate with their production distribution and consumption of video.”(Razsa, 2014, 515), I question how much Razsa has taken into consideration inhis research design the need for a thorough interrogation of the genderedimplications of his use of video within this particular activist network.


Towards a Conclusion


Video is highly prevalent in our everyday experiences, and therefore makeslogical sense for it to be a valued part of the research process:  “We live in an age of the screen, inwhich moving imagery and its infrastructures proliferate, helping configure theeveryday geographies, knowledges and sensibilities of diverse publics.” (Lorimer,2010, 251)  The use of video isalso highly appropriate because Geography is a visual discipline - it dealswith people in the world, and that is more than just words can describe – it isan inherently sensory experience. Ultimately, video was one of the only meansby which Razsa could undertake this research in order to gain the insights hedid while maintaining the principles of Activist Research. In order to talkabout video, he had to use video: “theconclusions I reach here are deeply indebted to this submersion in visualmethods, my own and my informants’ alike, and indicate that video can transformthe sensorial of ethnographers as well as activists.” (Razsa, 2014, 506) Methodsand subject intertwine in a radical manner, where the boundaries and powerhierarchies of researcher / researched become reworked and renegotiated inorder to develop in parallel research material and social causes. Althoughthere are pitfalls to this method, as I have evidenced above, it is because ofthese, and the debates that can come forth from them, that I believe video isone of the most exciting methods of research, and as the author states himself,has the “potential to contribute to an open-ended and expansive global strugglethat included radically different experiences.” (Razsa, 2014, 517)


Notes


[i] “A branch of anthropology dealing with the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropogeography)

It is worth noting that this paper was published in the Journal of Anthropology, rather than a dedicated Human Geographical journal. This assignment called for a Human Geographical example, however I believe it is easily argued that Anthropogeography shares many concerns as it’s cousin Human Geography, specifically the emphasis on people, site and place and its use of field-work.  For example, within ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’ there is a strong relationship between place, people, and protest and the power for connection and solidarity across place created through the use and dissemination of digital video, along with other themes that have occupied the attention of Human Geographers such as borders, migration, and internationalism.)

[ii] “The use of a geographer’s academic position and expertise in order to influence events beyond the university world. Some geographers not only study activism, but are activists themselves.” Significant to the categorization of ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’ and generally when looking at Razsa’s work is the emphasis on not only studying activism but being involved in activism. Ths is particularly relevant to Razas’ use of video beyond its function as a data collection method, but as an active part of a politically active community (http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199599868.001.0001/acref-9780199599868-e-12 )

[iii] “A subdiscipline concerned with the study of the spatial dimensions of politics…it has a particular interest in territory, the statepower, and boundaries (including borders), across a range of scales from the body to the planet. ‘Politics’ refers not simply to the formal organization of political life through government, elections, parties, etc., but all aspects of social life involving governance or where some degree of contentiousness or conflict may arise. Interpreted more broadly, therefore, political geography can encompass all those ideas about the relationships between geography and politics extending beyond academic contexts.” Significant to the categorization of ‘Beyond ‘Riot Porn’’ is the emphasis on contentiousness and conflict in relation to geography, specifically in relation to political activism. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199599868.001.0001/acref-9780199599868-e-1419?rskey=P0oSm8&result=2)


References


Dictionary.com available: www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/anthropogeography (last accessed 07.01.2016)

Kohl E & McCuteheon P (2015) Kitchen table reflexivity: negotiatingpositionality through everyday talk Gender,Place and Culture volume 22, no. 6, 747-763

Kindon S (2002) Participatory video in geographic research: a feministpractice of looking? Area volume35.2, 142-153

Lorimer, J (2010) Moving image methodologies for more-than-humangeographies Cultural Geography, volume17(2), 237-258

Merchant, S (2011) The Body and the Senses: Visual Methods, Videographyand the Submarine Sensorium Body andSociety volume 17(1), 53-72

Oxford Reference online, available: www.oxfordreference.com (last accessed 07.01.2016)

Razsa, J M (2014) Beyond ‘Riot Porn’: Protest Video and the Productionof Unruly Subjects Journal ofAnthropology, volume 78:4, 496-524.

Ross A (2013) Militant Research Hand-Book New York University

Trochim, W M K (2006) The Qualitatve Debate www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/qualdeb.php (accessed 03.01.2016)


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