Skip to content

Books & Reports

illustration painted on a wall with red, green, yellow shapes

Chapter 19. Public Ethnography and Multimodality: Research from the Book to the Web

Phillip Vannini

Phillip Vannini is Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography as well as Professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He is author and editor of nine books, including Understanding Society through Popular Music (Routledge 2008, with Joseph A. Kotarba), Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life: Ethnographic Approaches (Peter Lang, 2009), and Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society (Ashgate 2009, with J. Patrick Williams). His expertise in popularizing research stems from the process of making his public ethnography accessible through newspapers, magazines, and radio. His website can be found at

Good ethnographic research is known to show first and then tell. By way of showing, ethnography paints a vivid portrait of places, people, and their actions and interactions. By way of showing, ethnography engages in thick description—in the kind of reporting that animates, evokes, ruptures, and renders the lifeworld in colorful and vibrant ways (Stoller, 1997). This is what most obviously sets ethnography apart from other research strategies. Whereas for the most part, other research strategies focus on “telling”—for example, displaying statistics, contextualizing interview excerpts, summarizing laboratory findings, or deconstructing the meanings of texts—ethnography, or at least good ethnography, focuses on enlivening multiple realities and on bringing the reader “there.” And to do this effectively there is only one way: good writing. Or, well, at least that is what most ethnographers have been taught.

When ethnography became an accepted research strategy in anthropology and sociology early in the 20th century, no mode of representation other than writing was available to ethnographers. While sonic recordings (see Neumann, this volume) and photographs became more common as the years went by, it wasn’t until the latter part of the century that ethnographers began to employ media other than the written word. Visual ethnography, however, still remained uncommon for a while—limited by high costs of image collection and reproduction, lack of training opportunities, and relatively low acceptance. So, while film and photography seemed an obviously efficient way to show the details of a lifeworld, ethnographers for the most part continued to rely on the monograph—in book and article form—as the dominant way of sharing knowledge and advancing their careers. Methodological debates and advances, therefore, mostly concentrated on writing and very little on other modes and media.

However, as various cultural turns and the qualitative inquiry movement in the social sciences continued to blur genres and to lead to experimentation with alternative strategies of representation in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005), new options to collect, organize, and disseminate ethnographic knowledge became more available and accepted. Thus, ethnographers began to exploit more meaningfully the full range of visual options, as well as newer approaches including performance, narrative, and arts-based forms of ethnographic inquiry (Denzin, 1997). By now, audiences of ethnographic research have not only become fully accustomed to a way of showing that de-centers the role of the written word; but in some cases, audiences that include young students seem to even prefer descriptive representation that is fully multimodal.

Recent developments in the process of communicating research multimodally—that is, through a diverse range of modes of communication such as combinations of sonic and visual elements—are bound to change drastically the way in which ethnographic knowledge is generated and shared. These effects are compounded by the potential of digital technologies to make these productions easier, cheaper, and more aesthetically compelling. This chapter focuses on these developments, concentrating in particular on the multimodal ethnographic book series Innovative Ethnographies, published by Routledge. I begin by introducing the series and highlighting my own contribution to it as an example, and then reflect on its potential to change the way audiences learn from ethnographic research. I conclude by examining a few lessons learned in the process of producing this series.

Visit Innovative Ethnographies

Further Resources:

Public Ethnography and Innovative Learning
Barbara Tedlock’s Chapter on Public Ethnography
Visual Ethnography Video
Michael Wesch

Chapter 20 »