After reading about Positionality, I wonder how much of research is imposed upon the “subjects” and if this can ever be eliminated so long as there is distinction between researcher and researched, observer and observed? Certainly it can exist to varying degrees, but there seems to be a certain incongruity in churning out data from people as a necessary component of our own agendas, which themselves are not entirely our own and are almost unavoidably tied up with and driven by rules set through broader status competitions.

How often do we impose our agendas on others, whether as researchers or as people? Aren’t we often trying to expand our territory and defend the borders of our status and identity, or even just pushing our own assumptions and understanding which may have negative effects, even if well intentioned?

What would it look like if we did not have to defend such things and take them as seriously?

This doesn’t necessarily have to do with or mean letting everyone into your life and all information out. There is a reality to the fact that many would take advantage of such opportunities for their own gain regardless of the costs to others. So why should anyone trust researchers? Will their voices be heard because of them? Will their wills triumph or fade as transient echoes? Will they merely be converted into “data,” absorbed into papers and digitized… then perhaps transported behind a secluded cyberspace armored in pay walls? Are we just extracting more information to be used the disposal of those further up in the hierarchies?

Sometimes people have never even been asked what they think, and they may actually be quite grateful that someone, anyone, is genuinely interested. Or they might not mind at all. And there times when there might be no other ways for people to share their stories amidst the dominant narratives, images and paradigms.

But what else can we do to combat such restrictive conditions and transform our relations into those more characterized by mutuality? And what can we do to dismantle the “need” to ‘produce data’ from others that our social relations manufacture? Why don’t our needs for social relations lead to our knowledge rather than our need for knowledge or data lead to our relations?

Turning things Inside Out

Sad joy,
and joyful sadness

Sadness as an insider outsider or outsider insider; pulling and pushing and moving perspectives.

Sadness as an insider outsider or outsider insider; pulling, pushing and moving perspectives.

I really think this film does a good job of showing the complexities of insider outsider positions and how each can have unexpected perspectives that the other needs. Characters even try to impose their own understandings to secure particular positions, which leads to all kinds of breakdowns in communication.

Although outsider dimensions of positionality can lead to information being excluded, being an insider is not universally useful, as this may lead to assumptions regarding what information is important and what the others ought to be doing and care about. We’re not just occupying spaces that shift, there are constant attempts to reproduce and rearrange relations and positions, whether through personal narratives, interactions, communication, or more structural forces.

It takes joy and sadness to bridge the gap in understanding, insider and outsider, literally and metaphorically (they’re actually not so easily distinguished!).

Perhaps working together as insiders and outsiders is the way to go, knowing when to team up and when to separate so that each can do their thing.

Image Credit to Pixar Studios, Disney and all other respective holders.

David MacDougall — Gandhi’s Children

David MacDougall is a visual anthropologist famous for making ethnographic films and for his compassionate and nuanced understandings of different cultures, customs, and behaviors. He studied English literature, ethnographic film, and film studies at the university level. His first film was about herders in Uganda after which he depicted the lives of Kenyan camel herders and nomadic groups. His recent works have been in India and focused on children, growing up, and schools, but have also included one about a children’s shelter for orphans and juvenile detainees, portraying and detailing different educational and life experiences.

MacDougall has also written books related to his work, such as Transcultural Cinema and The Corporeal Image. His writings have an accessible personal essay style with little jargon and address the differences between film and written text. He also focuses on images and their relation to the bodies of both the subject and viewer. He has even claimed that visual anthropology has always been at odds methodologically with traditional [word based] anthropology. Furthermore, in the 1970’s MacDougall and his wife began incorporating subtitled speech rather than voice-overs for their films’ subjects, helping to give them more of a voice in order to speak for themselves to others, and have worked on forging more collaborative relationships with those they have portrayed.

In this video you can see the trailer for one of his documentaries dealing with children. After doing two films that focused on elite schools, David realized how his ethnographies had only shown middle class children and institutions in India. The following clips are from the 2008 ethnographic film Gandhi’s Children. You can catch a glimpse of the experiences these boys have living in a shelter, as well as how some of them ended up there. The facilities are generally shared and often worn down, inadequate or outright broken.


John Marshall

John Kennedy Marshall is and American anthropologist and acclaimed documentary filmmaker, most known for his work in Namibia. His work focused mainly on the lives of the Ju/’hoansi also known as the !King Bushmen. His first travel experience to the Kalahari Desert was meeting the Ju/’hoansi of the Nyae in 1950 on a trip organized by his father in search of the “Lost World of the Kalahari”. His films anticipated the cinema verite movement of the 1960s, which focuses on depicting reality as his films combine documentary media and ethnographic film. His shooting style evolved to reflect his position within the filmed society, which is that of the participant as opposed to the outside observer.

John MarshallHis filming career essentially took off when he took his 16mm Kodak camera on his second trip to the Kalahari to conduct an ethnographic study of the Ju/’hoansi and record one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer cultures. Thus from 1950-1958, Marshall focused on filming their life and his first edited film entitled The Hunters was released in 1957. The film portrayed the Ju/’hoansi in their everyday life along with their constant struggle with nature. Yet at the time the Ju/’hoansi were clashing with the modern world, struggling to find food. The film however made Marshall determined to produce more objective, and less mediated films about the Ju/’hoansi. Consequently, he created a series of short films designed to educate without “exoticizing” or “imposing western narrative structures on the subject”.

However, during the 1960s and most of the 1970s, Marshall and all other anthropologists were banned from visiting the Ju/’hoansi by the government. As a result Marshall made short films with his previously collected in 1950s and also pursued various film projects in the US. In 1968, he and Tim Asch founded Documentary Educational Resources, an NGO dedicated to facilitating the use of cross-cultural documentaries within classrooms. Marshal also took part in grassroots organizing and development in Nyae Nyae in the 1980s, leading to the creation of what would become the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia. Due to his devotion, in 2003, the Society for Visual Anthropology gave Marshall a lifetime achievement award for his 50-year of work among the hunter-gatherer society. Known as the John Marshall Ju/’hoansi Bushman Film and Video Collection (1950-2000), the entire collection was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register for documentary heritage of world importance in July 2009.

The Hunters (1957) – From the !Kung series

N!ai : The Story of a Kung Woman