Being filmed as a research tool

I am writing this partly to clarify some of my thoughts. Yesterday, I went on a massive walk of about 10 miles, from my house, to the wonderful Mayfield Alpacas and back through all the parks from Endcliffe to Porter Clough. Anyway, on my way back through Endcliffe Park, I was accosted by some researchers from Sheffield University (I presume, although I don’t think it actually said on the consent form I filled in hastily), who were making a film and interviewing participants about their views on a recent report (perhaps this one?) which looks at Fairness and Equality across Sheffield, and encompasses things like indices of deprivation, educational attainment and so on in different regions of the city. Some of the statistics were astonishing. There’s a 10 year difference in a woman’s life expectancy between Hallam/Broomhill  areas (85) and Burngreave (75), and in the city, 57% of the population attain grades A-C at GCSE…

I am not sure which department the researchers were from – probably some sort of Social Sciences (and reflecting now, I think their ethical approval forms were well short of what I would have expected as I was given no website or email address to contact following the interview) – but the experience was one that really made me reflect on the nature of doing social research by interviewing, and also by filming this research, as a valid method. The process took about 10-15 minutes, during which time I was shown some statistics, maps, diagrams, and told a bit about the report. And then I was asked questions ranging from: whose responsibility is it to ensure fairness and equality? What do I think are the main causes of inequality? Had I experienced inequality in the city? Who did I think was most unfairly treated in the city? And because I had explained that I worked in the arts, I was asked some questions about whether I thought that the arts were a way of ensuring community cohesion and fairness.

These are all MASSIVE and problematic questions. Had I had half an hour, or even a day, to ponder, I think my answers would have been completely different. As it was, and perhaps because of some of the maps used and my scant knowledge of these areas, my answers tended to focus on people from some ethnic minorities as perhaps communities suffering the most inequalities within the city. I didn’t mention class at all, which I might have done given more time to think. And neither did I mention anything to do with income, money, taxation, access to jobs and benefits for disability and so on. All of which I might have done.

Now I have had time to think further, I think what I said, and what I assumed, was deeply problematic and I wish to some extent, I could retract it. I gave some sort of utopian answers to the questions: everyone should have equal access to opportunities. It is all of our responsibility. It could have been a party political broadcast. My own repeated view that education is at the root of all these issues now seems somewhat naive. But I do think that education is central. But by education I mean something very broad: something that includes our values, attitudes, beliefs. Not necessarily anything to do with school. And certainly nothing imposed through politicians.

Anyway, all of this was captured on camera, and will be made into a film that will go online. I am not sure when. Presumably it will be edited into soundbites. And taken out of context. And I might be represented as coming from a particular background when really I would not represent myself as such. I was not asked for any demographic information. But people will watch the film  and make their own judgements. And while I don’t think I said anything completely inappropriate, what I did say, does not represent what I really do think when given time to consider.

So does this then mean that the interview as a means of capturing ‘data’ is even more flawed than I thought. Yes, we know it can be fluffy, subjective (both in what is said and how it is interpreted): but this process seemed incredibly uncomfortable as one on the ‘other side’. I felt that the interviewers were making judgements on me and my background, whether they were or not. How did they select to interview me as I was wandering through the park? What are they going to do with my comments? It just feels somewhat exploitative and somewhat dangerous.

And I too have used interviews in my own research, so am I just as guilty? I think one issue of yesterday’s experience was the scripted nature of the experience. There was a list of questions, and no time to discuss, argue, deliberate further with the interviewer. Which makes it utterly unreal. Had I been discussing these things in a normal environment, my ideas could have shifted, I could have been persuaded of other things, another person could have brought in an additional idea and thought. But as it was, it was just me, and my spur of the moment thoughts after a very long walk on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t really want to see the final outcome.