The so called 'crisis of representation' in Anthropology broadly relates to a wave of postmodern criticisms of realist ethnography. Amongst these criticisms were; the apparent exoticising of the 'other' in much ethnographic work,  the lack of reflexivity over the very nature of fieldwork encounters, and the quasi-scientific mode through which findings were represented in ethnographic monographs [J. Clifford & G. Marcus, 1986, N. Lutkehaus & J. Cool, 1999; pp.116-139, Ruby, 1990; pp.153-179]. Essentially, the abstracted textual analysis dominant in ethnography served to remove meanings from lived environments to such an extent that  ethnographic monographs were often no longer an attempt to describe the world according to... but rather an academic exercise in mental gymnastics continuously searching for meaning to extract into a discourse, as the true lived experience of people becomes lost in its ethnographic depiction thus misrepresenting the realities of the subject it claims to describe. Furthermore, the lack of meaningful dialogue concerning the intersubjective encounter between researcher and informants in the field led to representations coloured by (mostly) western theoretical premises being presented non-reflexively as truisms, failing to accurately represent the local point of view. The problem of 'crisis of representation' is thus an epistemological and ontological one, and one which has had a profound impact on our field.

I will attempt to explain how ethnographic film can go some way to addressing these 'crises of representation', through two different perspectives. Firstly, I will argue that the additional sensory output and creative possibilities of film can facilitate a greater understanding of certain ethnographic insights through the 'resonance' it can provide, thus enabling different forms of representation that textual ethnography cannot show. This can potentially allow for a bypassing of the pitfalls of analytical abstraction common in textual ethnography by communicating findings in a more humanistic manner, leading to a heightened ability to engage emotionally and relationally with the people being studied and then produce a representation true to this. Secondly, the process of filmmaking as an ethnographic methodology can address post-positivist epistemological concerns through its ability to reflexively engage the objects of study in the process of their own description, thus allowing the observed to contribute to the way they are represented in ethnographic studies through an increased focus on intersubjectivity in both production and analysis.

Firstly, I seek to apply Wikan's theory of what she terms 'resonance' to the medium of ethnographic film. Wikan argues that through the pursuit of empathetic understanding, anthropologists can come to appreciate the meaning behind people's actions and words in a much more profound way, that speaks truer to the lived experience of such actions and words [U. Wikan, 1992; p.465]. Wikan's focus is on overcoming the obsession with analysing the content of language through a focus on the intent and meanings behind words [U. Wikan, 1992; p.466]. What I wish to focus on here is not this critique but rather the way in which Wikan discusses the pragmatics of overcoming this obsession in the field. Personal emotional involvement in an attempt to understand 'others', what Wikan terms feel-thinking, along with going beyond the words people speak to try and empathetically understand what they mean, can enable a more grounded representation of social phenomena [U. Wikan, 1997; p.463]. If this is true in terms of how anthropologists in the field can try and understand the people they are living with, then should we not attempt to apply the same insights into how anthropologists represent their findings in their ethnography? After all what is the use of fieldwork if findings are only ever fully understood by the researcher themselves. I argue that through presenting ethnography in a film medium that directly engages the viewer in a multi-sensory experience and can present itself in a more metaphorical way, it may be possible to encourage a greater resonance with the subject(s) of an ethnography than through reading a textual description, thus communicating the resonance the anthropologist has gained as something that then resonates with the viewer in a similar fashion.

An interesting point of comparison between Wikan's reflection on her use of resonance in the formulation of her ethnographic monograph and some examples of metaphor in ethnographic film illustrates how this notion of resonance can work in a practical sense. Wikan forgoes a systematic mapping and exploration of the concept of black magic in her monograph on the Balinese, much to her peers' discontent, but instead weaves the concept throughout the narrative in a way that gives "the reader a feeling of what it is like to live with this all-pervasive threat" [U. Wikan, 1997; p. 475. Emphasis added]. This is a perfect example of how the utilisation of motifs and the forgoing of an abstracted analysis can elicit a resonance within a reader which ultimately communicates, in this specific example, a truer representation of how black magic is actually experienced by the Balinese. The advantage that the utilisation of a multi-sensory medium such as film offers is that an ethnographer has more creative opportunities to construct motifs that engage the viewer emotionally and subliminally. For example Paul Henley has explored  how, through the editing process, Catarina Alves Costa, used both visual and aural motifs to convey the contrasting atmosphere in a Portuguese village caused by the seasonal return of young emigrants in her film Going Back Home [P. Henley, 2007; p.59]. Costa structures the soundscape of the film by contrasting the natural, peaceful sounds illustrating the scenes before the return of the emigrants, with a more active soundtrack with a heavy focus on non-natural sounds such as the sounds of a ghetto-blaster [P. Henley, 2007; p.59] This illustrates how the utilisation of sound can add to the ethnographic possibilities through the utilisation of another sensory medium. As Henley states, the aural landscape in Going Back Home evokes a "vicarious experience" in the viewer which is another way of saying that it creates 'resonance', in Wikan's terms.  Another example of the efficacy of ethnographic film in utilising metaphor to impactfully convey meanings that resonate with a viewer is Jean Rouch's Les Maîtres Fous. Grimshaw analyses  how Rouch, in the first section of the film, suddenly introduces, amongst shots of a bustling city and commentary describing a plethora of activities, a brief yet intense possession sequence from a Hauka ceremony, accompanied by a sudden shift from day to night that is over almost as soon as it has begun. As Grimshaw notes this sudden insert subtly introduces "the radical disjunction and fundamental similarity of aspects of contemporary life" that are integral to Rouch's analysis of the Hauka sect's possession ceremonies in such a way that it is subconsciously absorbed upon watching [A. Grimshaw, 2001; p.93]. Here it is through visual means rather than aural that resonance is elicited in the viewer. This acts as an emotional introduction for the viewer for what Rouch wants to convey in his film (for a more in depth analysis see A. Grimshaw, 2001; pp.92-102). I wish to highlight one specific quote from Grimshaw regarding Les Maîtres Fous as it has extreme relevance for the discussion of resonance in terms of the presentation of ethnography and sums up my first redress of 'crises of representation' nicely:

"Rouch engages us, then not through an appeal to the mind,... but rather to the mind and body, through the disordering of the senses and the subversion of habitual ways of thinking as a precondition for plumbing new depths of knowledge and understanding" [A. Grimshaw, 2001; p.100] This points to the efficiency through which ethnographic film can create an emotional resonance conveying the meanings behind lived experience through its unique means of acting on the senses of the viewer, in a way that, surely, a textual analysis would struggle to replicate.

To move on to my second point, I posit that the process of filmmaking can offer unique benefits that can advance ethnographic theory and, in part, address the problems behind the 'crisis of representation' in written ethnography. The notion of shared anthropology can address important epistemological concerns arising from the nature of participant observation and moreover can further the application of post-positivist critiques within anthropology. The increasing diversity of viewpoints represented within anthropology improves the scope of the discipline, and filmmaking as an ethnographic process is perhaps the best means available to continue to add to this diversity by including local subjectivities in the process of ethnographic field work. This grounding in lived reality of ethnography could not be more important as a deepening of our understanding of ethnographic reality ultimately serves to preserve the heuristic value of anthropological theory. Ricki Goldman's writings on what he terms the perspectivity framework show how the utilisation of filmmaking gives "the opportunity to share our roles as researchers and learners, breaking the hegemonic practice of capturing video records and shooting others" [R. Goldman, 2007, p.13]. Through giving his informants an input into the content of the film, David MacDougall, found that the resultant discussion led to new understandings which served as “the clearest expression of Boran economic value” he was to experience [D. MacDougall, 1998; p.135]. As MacDougall himself neatly summarise “by giving them [subjects] access to the film, they make possible the corrections, additions, and illuminations that only the subjects’ response to that material can elicit” [D. MacDougall, 1998; p.134]. Thus, participatory cinema can provide a potent antidote to the hegemony of representations articulated from an outsider’s perspective through the facilitation of shared input in the process and outcome of ethnographic research, thus launching the concept of 'participant observation' into new territory where the observer and the observed can both participate in the production of knowledge. This can be achieved either through the involvement of informants in the planning of the film, but also through the screening of a film to those ‘starring’ in it, and utilising their feedback. Furthermore, the presentation of dialogue between the anthropologist and his informants in the film can contribute to a transparency of process through which ethnographies are produced, revealing the researcher as an active participant in the events detailed. The need for reflexivity about the fundamentally disruptive presence of the ethnographer in the field encounter has been a major critique of post-modern anthropology [J. Ruby, 1980; pp.153-179] and the presence of an anthropologist in front of their film camera can powerfully force reflection on this fact. For example in Ngat is Dead (2007), Ton Otto becomes a major protagonist in the course of his film as he returns home for the pukankokon ceremony of his ‘adopted’ Baluan father. The final product is a film that, as much as the pukankokon ceremony itself, studies the disruptive nature of Otto’s own presence in the ceremony, as well as reflecting upon his own ethical dilemmas around his participation.

To conclude, the ‘crises of representation’ in ethnography has naturally occurred from the increased reflexivity around the fundamentals of the fieldwork anthropologists undertake. It has addressed important epistemological issues within what is ultimately the bedrock of our discipline and in order to respond to this, we must revisit some of the basic assumptions that have had such an impact on ethnographic research. I have argued that ethnographic film can uniquely contribute to addressing two major factors of these ‘crises of representation’; the manner in which we understand and then convey the lived experience of our subject, and the need for increased acknowledgement of the researcher as an  agent in the field encounter, through its ability to show the participation of the ethnographer, encourage the participation of the subjects, and film’s ability to meaningfully present the resultant findings in a way that resonates with those who view it.

By James Cusens


Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (1986), Writing Culture: The Poetic and Politics of Ethnography, University of California Press

Goldman, R. (2007), Video Research in the Learning Sciences, Routledge

Grimshaw, A. (2001), The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology, Cambridge University Press

Henley, P. (2007), Seeing, hearing, feeling: Sound and the despotism of the eye in “Visual” anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, 23 (1), pp. 54-63

Lutkehaus, N. & Cool, J. ed., (1999) Ch.6 Paradigms Lost and Found: The “Crisis of Representation” and Visual Anthropology. In: Collecting Visible Evidence, University of Minnesota Press

MacDougall, D. (1998), Transcultural Cinema, Princeton University Press

Ngat is Dead: Studying Mortuary Traditions. (2009), Directed by Ton Otto, Mosegaard Films

Poltorak, M. (2010), Film Review: Ngat is Dead, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, pp. 915-916

Ruby, J. (1980), Exposing Yourself: Reflexivity, Anthropology, and Film, Semiotica, 30, pp. 153-179

Wikan, U. (1992), Beyond the words: the power of resonance, American Ethnologist, 19 (3), pp. 460-482

How Might Ethnographic Film Redress the 'Crises of Representation' in Written Ethnography?