You should find the bulk of your secondary source information in scholarly publications, but many ethnographic research sites also have natural connections to popular media. Films, television shows, documentaries, artists, art, artistic movements, advertising campaigns, novels, memoirs, albums, songs, heroes, websites, and icons are all possible genres of popular cultural source material.
A popular cultural source could provide a fantastic place to begin your essay, could help frame your issues in a tangible, accessible way. In general, with respect to popular cultural artifacts, you’ll want to focus on the larger beliefs and values that this popular media expresses, beliefs and values that you see present in your own research site. Identification of these beliefs and values may not be immediate, but the connections are there to be made. You may want to seek informational sources at first—articles and documentaries—but unless you examine and analyze them for larger cultural meanings and patterns, they lose their relevance to an ethnographic project. They simply become a part of the “backstory” for your research process, one that might find its way into your final essay, but might not, as well. Either way, popular cultural sources do help researchers to think about their projects, to better interpret their site.
It can be relevant and powerful to use popular cultural source material, but you need to be conscious of how and how you would use it. Some of these texts, such as documentaries and websites, can often provide a great deal of information about a subject or project. Statistics and facts can be powerful, but they are also often beside the point since the most important data is the data that you will collect. Recall that the point of secondary research isn’t to “prove” something that you’ve discovered, but rather to further a conversation, to induce discussion and to broaden our understanding of a complex aspect of culture and human belief systems. If you’re using a popular source for its information, make note of the following:
- Currency of the piece
- The connection of the publication with other sources, with a larger slant—i.e. Fox news is known to be conservative
- Whether or not this information is available in a different form in a different location
- What the article/documentary/guide suggests about this site/idea/conversation through its own use of language
Other texts, such as films or television shows may not provide direct information, but they will reflect current popular beliefs and narratives regarding a certain subject matter. These sorts of sources are usually understood as primary, rather than secondary sources. They are cultural texts that you might want to use to illustrate the popularity, relevance and incidence of a particular belief or way of thinking in our culture. If you’re working with a more popular source, make sure to note:
- Year of publication/airing/premiering
- Network, film company, production house
- Relatively popularity and appeal of the text
- The basic plot/storyline/music style
- A few particulars possibly worth using in your final essay: a scene, song, or episode that seems potentially relevant to your research.
Taking notes is important, but the point of examining popular cultural sources for an ethnographic project has to do with the relationship between your specific, local research site and a more general, global popular belief. Think about how and where and why you might want to discuss this popular text in relationship with your project.
- Does it provide an example of the belief or behavior you’ve noticed in your research?
- Does it reinforce/revise what you’re observing at your site?
- Does it reflect how and why you were interested in this site in the first place?
- Do the participants at your site identify a particular popular cultural text as relevant to their site/interest/culture?