Farmers as Producers…of Data: Participation and Visual Ethnography

During the BSUFN Symposium: The Diversity of Food Research held on the 4th of February 2015, doctoral student Rachael Taylor (SPRU, University of Sussex) presented one of the research methods she used when working with illiterate farmers in Northern Ghana. This is a  summary of her presentation.

Farmers as Producers … of Data: Participation and Visual Ethnography

Using Participatory Research Methods

Participatory research methods are increasing in popularity within development research as they give participants ownership of part of the research process. This has highlighted ethical issues raised by participation including equality, working with marginalised groups, and the extraction of data.

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

During Doctoral fieldwork in Northern Ghana, farmer groups were given cameras as part of the participatory research methods. Through the cameras, farmers became producers of data by photographing things they considered to capture concepts of change or importance. This method was useful when working with mostly illiterate farmers during cross-cultural fieldwork as translation was not required for the production of data. It enabled farmers to document their communities and farming activities without the researcher present, thus enabling a wider variety of perspectives to be incorporated into research data.

Visual Ethnography

The resulting photographs are being used to construct a visual ethnography for data analysis. Visual ethnography will analyse the content and context of the photos, allowing the pictures to speak a thousand words. The qualitative data from a visual ethnography process is supplementary to data produced by other research methods.

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

Visual ethnography originated as a process of analysing the researcher’s own photographs. This has been extended to creating qualitative data from analysis of image more broadly. As globalisation has spread and online and digital media have become commonplace, images are used for a multitude of purposes and can be found in many settings. Visual ethnography provides a method for incorporating analysis of the content, context, and purpose of image during fieldwork.

Challenges and Benefits

While distributing the cameras it became apparent that field staff and translators had never used a film camera and were only familiar with digital cameras. This meant there were challenges in demonstrating to farmers how to use the very basic film cameras. Furthermore, it appeared that there had been what is commonly termed a ‘technology-hop’ or technology ‘leap-frogging’ in that the use of cameras in Northern Ghana only became widespread with the availability of digital cameras. This not only meant that individuals didn’t know how to use a basic film camera but also meant that there was nowhere in Northern Ghana with a dark room to develop the negatives.

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper East Region, Ghana

A photo taken by a farmer in Upper East Region, Ghana

The lack of film processing in Northern Ghana meant that the photos had to be developed once in the UK. Due to this, it has not been possible to discuss the content and/or context of the photographs with the farmers who took them. Although the farmers will receive copies of the photos they took any discussion about them will occur too late to be incorporated as data in the research.

This experience demonstrated the eagerness of the farmers to get involved in the research process and their joy and excitement at the task they had. Farmers expressed pride in the photos they had taken and were keen to know what the outcome of the research will be.

Research participants dancing and singing following invitation to engage in the research. Photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

Research participants dancing and singing following invitation to engage in the research. Photo taken by a farmer in Upper West Region, Ghana

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