Videography and truth

What type of ‘research subjectivity’ are you establishing when you enter a company as a researcher and specifically video ethnographer? This insightful and implicitly critical question was asked during a seminar presentation of Prezi’s alternative entrepreneurship at Lund University the other week. It is always valuable to expose your own research practices to the scrutiny of colleagues, especially in a political science department. This is however not an unusual question for business scholars whose research often is viewed as slightly suspicious within those fields that we sometimes turn to for theoretical bearing. From within, some critical management scholars even suggest provocatively that ‘[t]he business school is a flag of convenience for marketing degrees, and not really a shared intellectual project for most of the people who work there’ (Parker, 2010:298). So the suspicion, when we meet it, is hardly surprising, but perhaps ungrounded. 

As if this general suspicion was not enough, when we start to speak about videography of Prezi’s alternative entrepreneurship there are generally three positions present in the audience. One that is curious about videography as a method, and who might wish to get a better grip on something quite alien but potentially fruitful. Another that is interested in hearing a good story and believing half of what they see. And a third position, convinced that the researcher is a journalist who has been invited by mistake, someone who should not be allowed to influence the PhD students. The common denominator for these three positions, however, is the question of truth. Not only is ethnography seen as empiricist and descriptive of how things are ‘out there’, but a film is believed to convey ‘how it really is’ out there. Or at least, the audience presupposes the videographer holds dear to the view that the screened film shows the reality that in turn corresponds to the truth obtained by hard work.

The debate about researchers’ self-understanding of their own research practices has recently required renewal with a general problematization of alternative truths and a longing after ‘facts’, and most importantly, seeking someone who can deliver these facts through authoritative expertise (Solnit, 2017). The main purpose of research practices is no longer to expose and replace pre-scientific forms of knowledge, but to turn back to ‘the truth’ mainly due to a feared foggy landscape devoid of truth. The subjectivity of researchers, both in relation to a belief in scientific methods and rationality, and in relation ’to science as a polity’ shaped by history and a contingent relation to states and businesses (Willmott, 2014: :23), is therefore changing. As if we had not left ‘truth’ behind long ago, what do we then reply to those who curiously ask us about our subjectivity as researchers, when we work ethnographically with visual tools post-truth? 

One way to go about is to put videography in perspective by placing it in a development of theory, politics and society. Several people in the audience found this exercise valuable, which is why we provide the illustration below. As an illustration it is of course pedagogically crude, but perhaps illuminating for a processual view of one possible self-understanding of the videographic practice. Hence, starting from ‘politics’ and Greek sceptic philosophy, that sought to find criteria for truth, as well as Greek cynic philosophy that practiced truth-telling, we have ended up hastening into a condition where a film about alternative entrepreneurship, which is pursuing social and political change, cannot be considered anything else than an instantaneous, repetitively edited and rebuilt story of the intangible. Hence, the ‘research subjectivity’, made suspicious by the audience at the seminar, is indeed nothing else than a product of the claimed post-political condition, and it is still, after years of theoretical turns away from truth, a story among many other possible audio-visual stories. It is neither a question of truth-telling, nor a question of whose truth it is, it is just no truth.

Parker Martin (2010) The sclerosis of criticism: a handbook of critical management studies? Critical Policy Studies 4: 297-302.
Solnit, Rebecca (2017) From Lying to Leering, London Review of Books, 39(2):3-7.
Willmott Hugh (2014) Science, governance and self-understanding: from anthropocentricism to ecocentrism? Critical Policy Studies 8: 22-40.

Annika Skoglund