5e- Popular Culture Source Material

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?