Participant Observation: The Power of a Digital Story

Participant Observation: The Power of a Digital Story


When I participated in a digital storytelling workshop through the Berkeley, CA-based Center for Digital Storytelling held on a beautiful organic farm in Lyons, CO, several of the digital stories that emerged among the two dozen participants stood out. One centered on the loss of friends during the AIDS endemic, one friend in particular; one centered on a young woman’s story of love of her mother and avoidance of coming out as gay to her; another emphasized looking for her biological father; and one was created by a Native American woman’s focus on the planting of the Three Sisters. My own story was spiritual, an experience of an encounter with a medium, an address book that belonged to my mother, and my mother’s unexpected death that made clear the spiritualist’s message to me: that despite her fears of dying alone, she wasn’t.

The process used by the StoryCenter in facilitating digital storytelling begins with a story circle. It required each of us to share orally the story we had in mind. One participant said she didn’t really have a story to tell, though she knew she wanted it to be about anthropology, her academic training and discipline. Although I was mesmerized by the stories being shared around that circle, this participant really didn’t have much to articulate. And that was frustrating her as she was staring at two more days to write, record, assemble and reconstruct a story in digital form.

On the last day of our workshop, we shared our digital stories to the group. It is a culmination of three days of emotion for many people, as digital storytelling creation can be very immersive on topics that have deep meaning to people, personally.

When it came time for Wynne Maggie’s preview, I wondered if she had been able to come up with much given her apprehension. Of all the amazing digital stories captured and presented that day, hers left me moved and challenged, still to this day, some 7 years later.

Her story is one that every researcher engaged with understanding people’s lived experiences should view. It is a warning to us that despite our call to remain as neutral observers across most methods in the humanities and social sciences, it isn’t always possible, OR it comes at an emotional cost or trade-off.

Every student being trained should be introduced to this story to better understand cultural difference, objectivity, privileged eyes and ears, and the choices we make that may or may not make sense.

Posted in Digital Storytelling & Media.