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Lisa Gjedde & Bruno Ingemann (eds.): Researching Experiences. Exploring Processual and Experimental Methods in Cultural Analysis

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This book takes a smart approach to media studies. The authors have created media set-ups in a laboratory, and investigate what happens when informants use them. Gjedde and Ingemann approach the media using methods from information science, and this is refreshing. Much of media studies stand at a safe distance from the flesh and blood of communication, doing text analysis, traditional qualitative interviews or statistical research.

Gjedde is Associate Professor at the Danish School of Education, at Aarhus University. Ingemann is Associate Professor of Communication at Roskilde University Center. For years they have got their hands dirty in the media laboratories in Roskilde and Aarhus. They have organized six experimental projects dealing with the experience of media texts and technologies, and this book sums up the insights gained.

In a pointed phrase, Marshall McLuhan once said that media researchers should move from the ivory tower to the control tower, meaning that they should stop studying events after the fact and start making designs for people’s everyday media use. Researching Experiences takes a step in this direction. The potential of their research to make an impact on (Danish) society is great, due to the direct involvement with the technological materiality of the media.

Their experimental method consists of systematic variations on one and the same media experience, by exposing informants to them and recording what happens. They filmed informants in a variety of locations, like the picture galley museum where you walk from room to room and in the laboratory trying out touch-screen artworks in the dark. Their method of preparing, executing and documenting their experi-ments seems fundamentally sound, and I would love to be allowed to study the raw data (prepared texts, voice recordings, video footage, etc.). Also, the authors are acutely aware of the implication of their own presence in the experimental setting, and also reflect on the impact of the artificial laboratory setting on informants (p. 148).

What I really like about the project is the increasing focus on the active, conscious participation by informants as the chapters progress. The Mirage Project had 16 informants who read four different versions of a newspaper article (the use of photographs varied). Gjedde and Ingemann made four sets of such articles, so that each informant read 16 texts (p. 13ff). The design of the variations is interesting, and it is the most controlled of the experiments undertaken in the book. The result of this project was the four gazes, which will be discussed below.

The Museum Inside Project used a camera and microphone attached to the informant’s body to capture more of the ongoing experience (they call it walk-video), and this helps the researchers get closer to the real-time experience of informants as they move about. Pairs of two informants walked around in the large rooms of a gallery, and discussed what they saw (p. 68ff). This approach is more original than the first one, and it also involves the informants more since they know they are the ‘stars’ of the video/mike. In my opinion the walk-video is a good observational method that should be tested by other researchers as well.

The most interesting project in Gjedde and Ingemann’s portfolio is The Vala Project. It is an equipment-intensive experiment, where pairs of two informants watch and interact with a video artwork on a big touch-screen in a darkened room. Informants were filmed from several angles throughout the experiment. The authors describe a female informant’s active appropriation of the experience. In order to get the best possible outcome, she repositioned herself at several distances and angles, and was highly individualist and sensitive in relation to the touch screen (p.156). The methodology, which Gjedde and Ingemann call ‘ReflexivityLab’, is open to a range of media and computer interactions, and should be pursued further by Nordic media researchers.

The authors of course interpret a range of statements and actions produced by their informants, but they are arguably a bit too enthusiastic in their involvement with the informants. In the Museum Inside Project there is a passage that illustrates the problem: “What makes them wonder is the shear [sic] size of the pictures, which are so big that you feel overwhelmed by them and nearly too close to them as a spectator” (p. 80). We are not told that the point of being overwhelmed by large pictures is based on input from the informants; and it comes across as a rather commonsensical observation on the part of the authors (are you overwhelmed by large pictures?). But otherwise the interpretative use of the data material is excellent.

I particularly like the artwork for the book. There are drawings, black/white photos and a section of colour plates from the six projects that really help the reader understand what the various projects looked like, and what movements and behavioural details were studied.

The book is less impressive when it comes to the theoretical dimension. The theoretical interests are too scattered, and Gjedde and Ingemann’s empirical interest in active participation doesn’t really come across in their theoretical discussions. Notions of initiative, identity formation and empowerment are absent.

The authors identify their approach as a version of cultural analysis, with inspirations from John Dewey’s theory of experience, British cultural studies (Stuart Hall), cognitive science and various forms of media theory ranging from Barthes to Manovich.

They present a neutral schema of experience. They distinguish between the mode of representation and the mode of reminiscence (p. 180), which corresponds to perception and later thought about an act of perception. In the mode of representation, the human being can apply four strategies of gazing or reading, where the picture is used either to reflect on oneself and one’s life, for its pragmatic use value, where the gaze is locked into current stereotypes, or where it is open-minded (p. 72-73). During any of these forms of gazing or reading, the person will engage four fields of experience: knowledge, emo- tions, values and actions (p. 105). During and after the given act of experience, the human can engage in process dialogue with a narrative perspective, work dialogue with a pragmatic perspective, or reflection dialogue with an intertextual perspective (p. 175). In sum, this is a neat system that could be illustrated in a table for easy access.

But I am not too sure about the use value of their scheme. The authors make their ontological categories of experience without reference to previous humanistic research on experience. Not surprisingly, the categories often fit with fundamental hypotheses from the humanities, but in the context of the book, they often seem to be generated by the experiments in a grounded theory, or they are picked up from contemporary literature without reference to their deeper roots.

In my opinion, the high level of theoretical abstraction that the authors aim at requires precise positioning in relation to the classical texts of sociology, hermeneutics and phenomenology. If Gjedde and Ingemann had compared the use value of their system with some of the other theoretical systems relating to human experience, they would have helped us understand exactly we can learn from their approach.

There is a formidable list of ideas in the field of cultural studies and reception theory that are not considered in Researching Experiences. It is strange that the authors don’t relate ‘experience’ to the phenomenological tradition at all. Writers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Don Ihde and Vivian Sobchack have written about perceptual experience, in general terms and in relation to technology and the media. There are no traces of social constructivism in the book, and the absence of Bruno Latour’s works on laboratory settings and technological action is regrettable. Berger and Luckmann’s sociology of experience, Wolfgang Iser’s theory of the act of reading and Hans Robert Jauss’s empirical reception research would have helped us better understand what the topic is. On the sociological wing there are writings by Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffmann and George Herbert Mead that could help explain the informants’ self- reflexive participation, but these are not consulted.

The core of my critique is not the lack of name-dropping, but the fact that the authors don’t seem to have created their terms and categories with a clear purpose. There are no normative reflections by the authors, and ipso facto their research presents itself as value neutral. It seems that Gjedde and Ingemann have no particular interests to defend, no journalistic ideals to flag, no sociological or psychological mechanisms to defend against opposing views, and no doctrines about behaviour that could be applied in a particular sector of society (teaching, media produc- tion, etc.). I would say that Researching Experiences contains an implicit humanism that is quite typical of cultural studies, and which presumes the greatest possible tolerance towards informants and people in general.

Returning to the slogan by McLuhan, the authors have stepped down from the ivory tower and are in contact with real people, but they don’t have a strategy that would put them in the control tower and guide people’s actions in relation to media behaviour. Despite these critical comments, my overall opinion is that Researching Experiences is a smart and thought-provoking book. I recommend it highly for anyone in the field of media studies and information science who is considering doing experimental studies.