Collaborative Ethnography and TV: Why Watch Masterchef?

Last week I interviewed my mother Margaret regarding her personal experiences with television. She talked about her favourite programs from television’s past and also expressed her displeasure towards the increasing popularity of reality television programs. I know for a fact that she particularly dislikes programs centred around cooking competitions, a ‘subculture’ almost in which plenty of individuals seem to share the view of, yet keep watching. But why?

Well that’s where quantitative research falls short. Quantitative data such as that presented in Oztam’s Multi-Screen Report Quarter 1 2015 can deduce the pre-eminence of television and report on the viewing methods of the “22.158 million Australians who watched at least some broadcast television each month during Q1 2015.” Oztam’s report and other quantitative inquiries however do not account for the reasons behind these patterns. It is the reasons ‘why’ which are often most intriguing and valuable to a study.

Whilst quantitative research can account for the 2.2 million viewers who embellished in the airing of Masterchef Australia’s winner announcement and thus the show’s success, it does not address the reason why they are so attracted to everyday individuals trying to cook for money success. Is it the dramatic scoring that draws their attention to a show where you watch people shed blood and tears (that statement in itself is a little overdramatic) to see a few burly men chow down on these beautifully presented meals, only to critique their every ingredient?

By participating in collaborative ethnography, the reasoning behind an individual’s decision to vigorously watch Masterchef is revealed in a more clear and precise manner. Luke Eric Lassiter notes that this form of qualitative research “invites commentary from our consultants and seeks to make that commentary overtly part of the ethnographic text.” Thus this ensures that such commentary is informative and indicative of personal experience, answering the ‘why’ questions we as humans like to pose. Lassiter expresses the importance of having numerous collaborators in exploring avenues of research as it not only corroborates detail but adds an element of richness when reciting a variety of histories and meanings.

With regard to contemporary television practice “most commercial media audience research is content-focused and skews towards quantitative research. Even narrative research focuses on content” (Bowles, 2015). We are so interested in what people are watching we have neglected asking questions about why. Why do they find Masterchef appealing? Why do they enjoy watching reality TV? This lack of corroboration is “because the primary commercial interest in audiences is what they represent” (Bowles, 2015) rather than why they represent it.

So let’s take another look at my own interview. Margaret inferred “her loathing for reality television programs”, yet despite this, the motivation behind this statement was abandoned in favour of seeking content based information. Are we as researchers more inclined to take things for face value? Is this a rookie mistake? Should I have interrogated further in the aim of being a better, more inviting and reliable collaborative ethnographer?

Luke Eric Lassiter claims that by engaging in collaborative ethnography a stronger bond between collaborator and ethnographer resulted. This form of qualitative analysis essentially “narrowed the gap between anthropology and the communities in which I studied.” With the employment of such research techniques, questions and answers “made a lot more sense”. Perhaps most importantly, Lassiter argues that this form of ethnography allowed for a reconceptualisation of research practice.

So, until contemporary commercial industries begin to analyse media audiences through a collaborative ethnographic lens, I guess we will never know what drives 2.2 million individuals to watch Masterchef. We can only propose, recommend, or deduce that it is obviously because they love watching people cry whilst cravat wearing superiors probe their food with every single mouth-watering bite.




4 thoughts on “Collaborative Ethnography and TV: Why Watch Masterchef?

  1. a very interesting read, seeing as how masterchef is one of the most publicised and talked about shows on Australian Television it is an affective show to use a basis for quantitative research

  2. The really important point here, I think, is at the end where you say that without qualitative and/or ethnographic insights (remembering that ethnography doesn’t have to be collaborative, and often isn’t) we have no idea what 2.2million Australians are up to — and for that reason we end up with deductive guesswork. This is because with all that data, we don’t want to admit that we don’t really know what the data means. So we say “2.2 million” and then we look at the content of Masterchef for an explanation, because we can’t ask the people.

    Lovely blog, much to think about. Also, good mix of in-text linking and list of resources at the end. That works for me.

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