Multi-modal meanings, multi-media methods

This week I took part in a two day interdisciplinary, multi-modal research workshop, organised by the ESRC Wales DTC in Cardiff. The aim of the day was to explore the different modes we make meaning and observe with, the affordances of four key media with which we can record ethnographic observations, and the relationship between these modes and media. The event was a great mixture of discussion ad practical fieldwork. We started out discussing and fleshing out the distinctions and crossovers between the ideas of modes and media, building on the paper we had read[1] . Then we discussed the four different media we would be concentrating on in the workshop with the four leaders: field notes (Bella Dicks), still images (Rachel Hurdley), audio (Brett Lashua) and video (Bambo Soyinka).  After introducing the research question: How is Gorsedd Gardens made into a meaningful place through the social interactions of people, objects, materials, ‘nature’, sounds time within it? We were then let loose to explore the Gardens…

NOT Gorsedd Gardens but Alexander Gardens nearby where I thought we were doing fieldwork!


…but without making records of any kind during lunch hour. Afterwards, in media groups we thought about how to approach the space and research question in terms of making records. I was in the group focusing on field notes. We considered how we might write field notes from different writing perspectives (e.g journalist, tourist, historian) and different users such as mothers, office workers, teenagers, council workers. All this was building up to the main task, working in multimedia groups to observe and record multi-modal records of the place, and to then create a multi-modal representation of what is meaningful about the place.
So we spent another hour in the park making records this time (as quite an obvious student group, notepads, sketch books, cameras and microphones all over!).

Back in the computer lab, we had a first pass at interpreting the data – looking for themes, labeling, categorising and playing with some of the technology in terms of sound editing and video editing for those working with that medium. I was able to flesh out some of my disjointed head-notes into more sensible sentences and type them up.

One thing I am trying to come to grips with, and the reason I went to this workshop was how to bring together the different media of data records I have from my work in Svalbard, which is very multi-modal and spans the media of still images, audio (both soundscapes and interviews) as well as field notes. And how to do so in a meaningful way, which effectively tells the stories I think are important and responds to the research questions. This was the real challenge that presented itself to us on the second day.

We were up against a 2pm deadline to decide on a theme and response to the research questions, interpret, edit and combine the different mediums of records we had to do this. For us the hard part was a theme, we all had different interests and aspects that were particularly strong in our records. In the end we decided to focus on something quite specific. Which we felt is key to what makes that space in the city different from its surroundings. Whether our communication of this is clear, interesting, thought provoking or something else, maybe you can let me know in the comments!?

Sarah Choirinnisa, Richard Gorman, Sam Saville (with earlier input from Bethany Coad and Max Lacey-Barnacle and thanks to the group we used some images from and Brett, Bambo and Bella for their help in production!).

There were lots of little stories and other perspectives that I would have liked to include. But as with the challenge that is starting to emerge as I move towards ‘writing up’ the PhD, not everything can get into a specific publication/ communication and some stories are better told in different ways at different times for different purposes.

One of the groups did a video which included some audio snippets of them discussing what and how to record things, the equipment, what themes they were thinking about. Though it turned out this was unintentional, something they were trying to edit out, I really liked this as it was honest and served to situate the researcher in the research environment and to me this spoke to my own experience of the place as meaningful. Here’s a few thoughts from my field notes on this:

    Performativity potential of being a researcher – as a group, are we more or less noticeable than individuals? Do we have more or less license/ authority to research?  What is the effect of having a video camera/notepad/recorder and people noticing what we are doing.  We could decide to be outrageous in some way, disruptive of the space and look for reactions, but no one has taken that route as yet. The familiar awkwardness of approaching people and encroaching on their corner, seems amplified in the group setting and more weird in the open grass area than the more sheltered bench area – which seems more set up for social interaction.


I couldn’t resist taking a few photos on my way back home!
Overall the workshop was really useful in thinking about creative ways to use different media and modes to represent the places we research and to get a feel for using them all together in new ways. Though I am familiar with taking field notes, it was a good exercise for me to approach it anew, listen to different perspectives on this form of record making and witness the varied results from our efforts to record meaning of the place in written form only. It was so tempting to get my phone out and try and capture things in other ways (through audio or photography) alongside my notes!

This made me realise that perhaps my observations are a little lazy in terms of focusing on what I am feeling, and other aspects I think are less well recorded or less easily recorded by other media, like smell, touch, temperature. Hence when I got my notes back, they were acting as a memory jogger but some of the things I wanted to jog were not actually there like they normally would be – I needed to go back and describe them simply and perhaps a little more objectively to situate the emotions and other things I had noted down. In other words it was good to experiment with being more thorough with just one medium.

[1] Dicks, B., Soyinka, B., Coffey, A. (2006) ‘Multimodal ethnography’, Qualitative Research, 6(1), 77–96.


Looking over from Ferryside to Llansteffan on the way to Carmarthen, good way to end the day

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