Category: Media & Citizenship

Dr Kira Erwin and the curious case of ethnography


Kira Erwin

If you have written a methodology chapter or are in the process of writing one for your thesis, you may agree that the writing up of research methods can be downright boring. This is not the case for Dr Kira Erwin, a senior lecturer at Durban University of Technology’s Urban Futures Centre, who believes the methodology section should be a racing, good read!

She recently joined the Media and Citizenship group for a workshop to broaden our understanding of research methods, in particular, of ethnography and participant observation. Erwin’s research interests are on race, racism and the possibilities of non-racialism, ideas which are not straightforward to research as people may not be completely honest about their views.

Realizing that what people tell you tends to differ from what actually happens; she decided to immerse herself in the community she was researching in order to understand better. And by immerse I don’t mean that she just visited often. For her PhD, which focused on the Albert Park area in Durban’s CBD, she actually moved into a flat in the community. In Albert Park, art-deco style high rise flats and palm trees not unlike those in Miami can be found just a street away from dilapidated buildings with missing windows and flaking paint. Erwin shared with us both the challenges and the benefits of ethnography, or as she likes to call it, “hanging out”. This was based on her personal experience of hanging out with a street vendor, next to who she placed a chair and spent days with. While this provided the space and opportunity to talk to the people she encountered on the streets, it also meant that she could not record or take written notes of what was said.

Erwin admits that this kind of research has often been treated with suspicion by academics. There are sometimes no figures or statistics, no transcripts, nor formal interviews. So where are the facts? Where is the data? As Erwin explains, some questions can only be answered by being there and witnessing it. Like the woman who insisted that the strange noises at night in their Albert Park building were Nigerians being dragged out of the flats when in fact there were no Nigerians and as Erwin herself saw, it was just a bunch of slightly rowdy drunks on their way home. Participants are active, Erwin warns, and have the ability to change the way things are recorded by researchers depending on how they describe them.

Participant observation offers a more nuanced understanding of how things are and goes beyond the ‘what’. It is descriptive, explanatory, and insightful and answers the ‘why’ of your research question. Just by sitting on someone’s stoep or hanging out at a roadside food stall, one can get a better sense of what happens, how it happens and why. In their natural environment, people are perhaps at their most honest and raw.

Erwin offers some practical pointers to consider before embarking on ethnographic research. These include:

  • Considering how your props shape the conversation. Many people are intimidated by the presence of a notebook or recorder and it may be distracting, thus hindering the extent and the quality of the information offered. Erwin advises taking field notes as soon as one has a chance rather than jeopardizing a conversation with a recorder.
  • Realizing that while informed consent is highly emphasized in academic research, it may not always be possible to ask for if one’s conversation takes place casually in an elevator. It’s therefore important to acknowledge this in your methodology section.
  • Being careful of interpersonal relationships which may develop during the course of the research and may get messy. It’s important to then remember when talking to participants that you are merely a researcher, not a trained counselor or psychologist.
  • Remembering that building trust is important. Speak to someone three times, Erwin advises, and witness how the way they interact with you changes positively as they become more comfortable. She explains that giving gifts or helping out can assist your research, but it is important to also not create expectations that one cannot fulfill. Erwin also suggests finding key informants in the community whose trust you can earn and who will act as the gatekeepers to the community and the information you need.
  • Considering how your gender can influence your interactions and the way research participants respond to you.
  • Reminding yourself that while the research may draw from your own experience, it is not about the researcher, nor are your notes a personal diary.

Following Erwin’s pointers on ethnography, some of the student and staff researchers shared their experiences of research. Many seemed willing to adopt ethnographic research methods into their research plan, despite the scrutiny that it comes under. Hancu Louw, one of the current MA students found this particularly useful as journalistic and qualitative social science research methods could be combined, allowing him to take on the role of both researcher and journalist. According to Erwin, there is no such thing as a perfect or more valid method (those in the science faculty may disagree) and it is important to choose a methodology that answers your question. Be confident about your research, she advises.

What Dr Erwin gave us was not just a talk on ethnography, but a more nuanced understanding of how participant observation can answer questions which interviews or focus groups can’t.



“I hope the guys in red win”



I began watching the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday evening, 12th February, with my 7 year old son and my husband. It was a family affair, an opportunity to show a young person some of the privileges of living in a constitutional democracy and hopefully spark some interest in him as a young, budding citizen.

It was a lesson, I feel like I taught him many things in a very short space of time, but perhaps not in the way I had imagined. I did teach him about democracy, but instead of using the constitution as an example of a formal structure of democracy being upheld by members of Parliament, I used it as an example of a formal structure being blithely dismissed by powerful elites. Instead of using the media coverage as an example of freedom of expression, I used the blocking of the cellphone signals as an example of the infringement of freedom of expression rights and the dismissal of the rights of citizens to information being supplied by the media. Granted, we did start our coverage on SABC (perhaps not the smartest move considering the way the state, excuse me, public broadcaster has aligned so clearly with the state), but quickly moved to ENCA who didn’t rely just on the parliamentary feed to show us what was happening inside and out of the parliamentary chambers. There was another lesson – Parliament should be open to the public and broadcast to the public. When this broadcasting was done by the parliamentary feed, it was biased and obviously in the interests of the ruling party. The lessons on freedom of expression continued as I pointed out that audio to the parliamentary feed was cut when it was clear that MPs and people in the gallery were chanting ‘bring back the signal’ in protest against the jamming of the cellphone signal.

I also used this as an opportunity to teach him about some of the rights we have as citizens of this country. We have the right to know what happens in Parliament – because it is separate from government; we have the right to speak out when we feel our rights are not being upheld by those in power, and sometimes that truth spoken to power works. It worked last night in the way that the signal was quickly returned. It does not always work. The EFF had the right to speak out about their issues – we should all be angry about the lack of accountability from the President and acknowledgement of wrong doing – but in this case their disruption of Parliament did not work. Another lesson – Parliament should be a sacred space where policemen/women (who work for the government) should not be allowed to enter. They did and so another lesson – if you are angry you can walk away from the debate to prove a point. The DA walked out of Parliament in protest against the use of force by police in the chamber – it didn’t have the same flair as the disruption by the EFF and perhaps they were trying too hard to be like their EFF counterparts, but regardless, they had the right to walk away in protest.

At one stage during the initial moments of coverage and the disruption by the EFF, my son said that he hoped the guys in red ‘won’ (I suppose at some points it did look a bit like a boxing match). And so to my last and perhaps most important lesson for this young citizen in the making – MPs are not in Parliament to win or lose, they are there to represent their people. The only losers from the shambles that was SONA last night, were the citizens who voted in the hope that they would be adequately, fairly and thoughtfully represented in Parliament. We lost big time! Parliament should be an opportunity for MPs to make gains for their constituents – it was not. SONA should be an opportunity for the President to show the citizens of the country how we’ve been winning in the previous year, what gains and what losses we’ve made, and how there are going to be more gains in the year to come – it was not. Lesson over.

Hello 2015!

2015 braai at Bathurst

All fired up and raring to go! the Media and Citizenship research project has acquired new members, has an association with another degree and has more funders. The project is also planning a colloquium and book in association with Herman Wasserman at UCT. This year the group has been joined by Carissa Govender and Hannah McDonald, both doing practice-led masters degrees which will combine journalism with research. The doctoral students still with us are Marietjie Oelofsen (not in the picture and based at Kettering in the US), Rod Amner, Azwi Mufamadi and Mvuzo Ponono. Brand new is PhD student Chengetai Chikadaya (the co-ordinator of the East Cape Communications Forum). MA students continuing are Meli Ncube and Welcome Lishivha who embark on their research this year and Hancu Louw and Cathy Gush, both enrolled in practice-led MAs. Mia van der Merwe has joined us as the project leader’s assistant (see the Researcher page on this blog for details of each person’s reseach).

The book project, called Media and Citizenship in South Africa: Between Marginalisation and Participation and edited by Herman Wasserman and Anthea Garman, will involve a colloquium in Cape Town in March at which chapters will be presented and discussed. Invited authors are: Tanja Dreher (from the Listening Project in Australia, based at Wollongong) who will be our main speaker, Harry Boyte, Steve Robins, Laurence Piper, James Arvanitakis, Steven Friedman, Judith February, Richard Pithouse, Niren Tolsi, Yves Vanderhaeghen, and Benjamin Fogel. In addition Peter Dahlgren, Susan Bickford and John Hartley have agreed to write chapters for us. More details as plans firm up…

The project is now also funded by an NRF Competitive Support for Unrated Researchers grant and two of the PhD students (Azwi and Mvuzo) are funded by Atlantic Philanthropies. Hancu, Carissa, Hannah and Cathy are doing their masters study through a practice-led research process which injects the element of journalism practice into the group life of the project.



‘Don’t abdicate your citizenship’


Songezo Zibi, Business Day’s new editor, is an unusual business journalist, he has a powerful political awareness and a keen interest in how our democracy is working. He also has some critical things to say about capitalism (which needs an overhaul in his opinion). He visited the School of Journalism and Media Studies in September at the invitation of Reg Rumney, director of our economics journalism programme, to speak about his new book (Raising the Barand his ideas about journalism and citizenship.

Zibi, who didn’t study journalism because it was too dangerous to do so in 1992, opted for a BCom, which he hated. But as he was also studying public relations (which he loved) he then worked in this capacity for Volkswagen and Xstrata (now Glencore) and then came into journalism via a relationship with the Financial Mail for which he wrote columns.

His attitude as an editor is that journalists cannot be “passive observers” of the way our democracy is unfolding, because “those in power do not like [explaining] why” they have made certain decisions and taken certain actions. “Our role is to illuminate, to show what it means. Our role is to say why, and to provide knowledge and context.”

Zibi is scathing of the kind of journalism that Allister Sparks called “stenography” — bland reporting of the immediate events and statements. Zibi, as an editor, demands a journalism that “joins the dots”, makes the connections, tells us what from the past we ought to know to interpret the present.

He’s particularly concerned that right now those in power are putting extreme pressure on the media and the legal system and that most actions taken against the government for access to information or for keeping the public space open are being taken by journalists without sufficient back-up by other organisations. “There is an abdication by citizens of responsibility to the media,” he said. This allows the government to characterise the media as their particular enemy and “it isolates journalism”, he said.

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The citizen-first bloggers

Rod 1


Rod 1

As standard journalism business models corrode in the potent chemical soup of online technologies, fragmenting audiences and vanishing advertisers, the industry urgently needs models that re-engineer the relationships between journalists and their publics. Legacy news outlets have long adhered to sacrosanct conventions of independence, balance and fairness, but more nimble news start-ups could offer different mindsets and values. One critical shift is the welcome commitment by some news entrepreneurs to much higher levels of engagement with media audiences.

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