Muted Photovoice: Reconsidering the Limits and Opportunities of Visual Participatory Methods

Authors: Jesse Rodenbiker*, University of California, Berkeley
Topics: China, Cultural and Political Ecology, Development
Keywords: Participatory Methods, Peri-urban Land, Village Transitions, China
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Gallier B, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the context of 14-months of research in peri-urban Southwest China, this methods paper focuses on the fruitfulness, limitations, and unexpected turns of participatory research methods. As part of extensive dissertation research on the spatial politics of the modernist project of “ecological civilization building,” I aimed to learn about the transformations in housing, land, and labor for peri-urban villagers whose land was being re-zoned as urban ecological areas. I employed many methods to address this. But in this paper, I focus on participatory methods, primarily photovoice, but also participatory mapping. I will discuss the challenges in recruitment, technological considerations, issues of technology and surveillance, retrieval of images and scheduling interviewers, as well as the differences in state-sponsored participatory research and individually administered participatory research. These range from bordering on coerced participation resulting in anemic responses on the one hand and widespread refusal to participate for fear of immanent threat from governing institutions and one’s own neighbors on the other. In the latter case, many refusals resulted in compelling individual interviews. Both forms of data point to unexpected yet valuable information on rural transformation. They also point to the ways in which participatory method can yield data, even when it operates outside of the rote and mechanistic ways that the practice of participatory method is advocated in extant literature. This suggests that participatory methods have value for producing qualitative material in multiple ways and can produce valuable unexpected forms of ethnographic data, through processes that lie outside the norms of practice.

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