Is reality TV a form of ethnography?

The likes of Educating Yorkshire and Made in Chelsea are my guilty pleasures but it's hard to switch off without looking beyond their face value. How real are they? Reality shows typically document the lives of cultural groups, similarly to ethnographic observation, a method used by sociologists to research the social world. So is reality tele doing sociology for us?

Lets take Made in Chelsea for example, which follows the everyday lives of a group of young adults living in an affluent area of London. Jet-setting, rarely working and often found socialising - we can safely say they hardly represent the reality that most of us know. The account we are shown may be ethnographic since we are immersed into the activities of a privileged few, positioning ourselves as outsiders looking in. We will never know to what extent the content is edited and pushed in a certain direction for juicy viewing and if it were a form of social research, we may consider it biased for having an angle in mind supposed to please the target audience. In this respect, perhaps sociologists in ethnographic observation have the upper hand as they seek to uncover what is important to the individuals themselves. What we do know is that the reason we find MiC and such like fascinating, is because it provides a window into a world we are unfamiliar with.

The Educating... series brings our attention to a high school in a particular region which is faced with multiple challenges and often a bad reputation (like most schools!). We watch the pupils and staff negotiate and overcome issues in their school and home lives. In the process, stereotypes connected to certain socio-economic backgrounds may be defied. The cameras are poised for a lengthy period of time so accuracy may be achieved once those involved are less mindful they are being filmed and act as they normally would. Sociologists typically encounter a long list of ethical and access issues when proposing research within institutions such as schools and with children as participants. It makes you wonder whether TV coverage is a preferable outcome of surveillance compared to what social researchers can offer.

Even though observing 'natives' has moved into the mass media, I don't think sociologists should pack their bags just yet. To me, you can't beat the primacy of the researcher's experience in the setting for a closer understanding of interactions and practices at work.


Do you enjoy reality TV? Or are you critical of the extent that it presents 'reality'?

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