Learning through uncertainty

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Interview in Folkhögskola, photo: Ji Youn Lee

As a practitioner, at least so far, I am understanding and accepting various research methodologies with a slightly slower step. Studying theory was a bit scary at first. I am familiar with art and design work and sharing it with students by speaking and performing. The process by which action and language becomes written words is heavy for me. Included within this is the process of reading and interpreting. Through experiencing this unfamiliarity I realized that there was great joy and discovery in theory and practice, and the journey between them.

Perhaps now, the key word that is filling my mind is ethnography. This research methodology was like balancing between the words and the action. It begins with the subject of my interest, be it a person, an animal, a place or an event. Knowledge and meaning arise through looking carefully, investigating, and interpreting. This semester I participated in the course, Visual and Performative Ethnography. I believe the key to this class is to share knowledge in various forms – visuals, images, texts and stories – and to create new stories. What I chose to focus on was the ‘engagement’ and ‘interviewing’ approaches that were new to me. The physical practice begins by looking at the subject matter.

Learning ethnographic methodology was a very timely for me in planning how to research my focus, which was various schools and art education classes in Nordic countries. In particular, it was an opportunity to develop thoughts specifically around ethnographic interviews, rather than traditional interviews. Through these interviews knowledge is created at a specific place and time. To be an ethnographer, we have to contextualize that interview.

I wanted to explore different types of schools in Sweden where societal issues are unfolded in alternative ways. One of the authors we were introduced to in this course was Norman K. Denzin. His texts are a guide in my work toward creating art curriculum, “These performances interrogate and evaluate specific social, educational, economic, and political processes. This form of praxis can shape a cultural politics of change. It can help create a progressive and involved citizenship. The performance becomes the vehicle for moving persons, subjects, performers, and audience members into new, critical, political spaces” (Denzin, 2003, p.19). I felt particularly drawn to the ethnographic interview process and see a potential in using it as a foundation for my future master thesis.

“Filmmaking and documentary interviewing thus become methods of “framing” reality (Denzin, 2003, p.73)”.

Framing practice: Flowing body, image: Ji Youn Lee


My place of focus was Folkhögskola, a Nordic alternative school for adults. To be honest at the very beginning it was hard to grasp the idea ethnography. Embracing a sense of uncertainty, I planned to begin by simply meeting people in the school. Even though I had no experience of interviewing others, in an effort to try and follow the method of performance ethnography I utilized interviews as my main tool. I tried not to use a visual approach which is the most familiar material for me, rather I intended to learn and practice in an unfamiliar way. I found it interesting that “we have no direct access to this world; we only experience and study its representations (Denzin, 2003, p.57)”.

In this instance, I only had an opportunity to observe their class and not to participate. Because of my position as an observer I found presenting a reflexive interview was the most telling way of interpreting this experience. For my reflexive interview I had the chance to talk with two teachers and several students, and also made brief interactions with passers-by. I worked to contextualize these interviews throughout the process of the ethnography. When using reflexive interviews as a central form of invitation to tell stories, it is difficult to distinguish between collaborative and reflexive(DENZIN) for the epistemological format. I felt I needed to embrace and understand theory perfectly before practice, but I struggled to do so. During the final interview a teacher and I created a narrative about telling personal memories in a “safety space”. This enforced a collaborative format rather than a reflexive format.

This project has prompted me to consider how I position myself, both within this study and for my over all education. Bakhtin’s argument in Denzin’s text assists me in this journey, “There is no inner or deep self that is accessed by the interview or narrative method. There are only different interpretive (and performative) versions of who the person is” (2003, p.68).


Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture
Denzin, N. K. (2003). Trade Paper. Sage Publications USA.

Written by Ji Youn Lee
NoVA Master student from Aalto University

Learning through uncertainty

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