Why I Interview: Indigenous Research Ethics in Cinema and Media Studies

When I started my dissertation, there was no question that I would incorporate interviews. I am pursuing my PhD in Cinema and Media Studies, and my dissertation examines the development of Indigenous media in Canada since 1990, a growing field of study with many areas deserving further attention. Interviews with Indigenous filmmakers, producers, and industry personnel would help fill some gaps in the historical record. But I’ve actually missed a publication opportunity when I got the chance to do interviews and incorporate them into the article I was planning to publish. My friends and colleagues in Indigenous Studies understood this decision, but I did get some questions from some outside of the field. As graduate students, we’re immersed in an environment organized around the principle of “publish or perish,” and to miss a publication opportunity seems antithetical to our training and professional expectations.

The conversations that I had in response to these questions, though, were incredibly helpful in thinking through my research process and the Indigenous research ethics underpinning it. One question asked, how would interviews contribute to or change my article? This response was in part motivated by the fact that I was undertaking textual analysis of media objects, and was asking how interviews factored into my method. There are a couple of answers for this, one having to do with why interviews matter to the research process, and one to do with how they contribute to analysis. My research practice is in part driven to find ways to support the voices and perspectives of Indigenous peoples in the research process and any written and published results, which takes shape in response to the history of exploitative research of Indigenous groups. Historically, anthropology has been particularly problematic and damaging, operating in an extractive mode that appropriated Indigenous knowledge and re-presented it in Western theoretical frameworks that ignored the cultural contexts and epistemologies from which this knowledge emerged – in effect, silencing Indigenous perspectives. A lot of people have built careers on this kind of exploitation and misrepresentation – in anthropology and elsewhere – and Indigenous research methodologies consider how to redress this history and create methods that are, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, “more respectful, ethical, sympathetic and useful” (2000). These practices shift attitudes from seeing Indigenous people as “sources” or “informants,” and instead as crucial collaborators in the production of knowledge. This isn’t an empty political gesture but, as Renee Pualani Louis has stated, a necessary one “so that Indigenous people can take control of their cultural identities, emancipate their voices from the shadows, and recognise (sic) Indigenous realities” (2007). I approach interviews as a space to develop these understandings and support these perspectives. I’ve also found that the ethical principles underlying efforts to center Indigenous perspectives overlap with analytical and theoretical approaches from Cinema Studies. Media texts are understood as doing cultural work, not just passively reflecting socio-cultural phenomena – or in other words, the theory is in the work. Similarly, the experiences, critical insights, and values of Indigenous filmmakers, producers, and others are what shape Indigenous media as a field– they theorize Indigenous media in practice. Their insights are a critical lens that I bring to bear on my own analysis.

This then led to a second question: don’t interviews risk giving artists and others too much influence over your own interpretations? I think this query emerged in part in response to anxieties about the fallacy of authorial intent, a form of analysis long outmoded in Cinema Studies – and arts and literature more broadly – but which we tend to encounter in the classroom. Authorial intent states that a text’s meaning is determined by the author’s intentions, a position that has long been challenged by pointing to the myriad players and factors in a text’s development. In media production, this can include producers, editors, funders, the representational conventions of a media format (e.g. broadcast television, narrative film), and so on, which cannot be resolved in terms of the author’s intent. As an instructor in Cinema Studies, this is perhaps the most common fallacy that I address with students so that they don’t fall into this analytical trap. Nor do I intend to replicate it in my own work; rather, the thoughts, reflections, and practices of Indigenous media practitioners and personnel offer critical and theoretical insights that I bring together with other areas of analysis (in my case, media institutions, national cultural policy, Indigenous social movements, and media technologies) to more fully understand Indigenous production trends and its screen content.

In another respect, I think this question emerged from concerns about preserving academic autonomy – a legitimate need to maintain arm’s length between, for instance, sponsoring bodies and research activities so that sponsors’ interests cannot eclipse the researchers’ processes and findings. In a more general sense, though, academic autonomy is also about supporting the creative and critical independence of researchers so that it’s not compromised the agendas and priorities of others. To my mind, though, Indigenous research ethics changes perceptions and conduct of research– it’s a collaborative process of knowledge production, not the extractive model that Indigenous people and communities have been subject to historically. It makes visible a level of accountability and responsibility that has been obscured by traditional Western methods. As Louis points out, it requires thinking about writing not just for an academic audience but for an Indigenous one as well, since they are both collaborators and those most impacted by the work.

As I’ve been working on my dissertation, I’ve been thinking about some of the complexities coming out of collaborative research and would really appreciate hearing from others about their thoughts and experiences. For instance, some material and observations are important for building understandings and histories of the field, but not always flattering to everyone involved. Has anyone else encountered these kinds of situations in their own research? How did you address them?

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