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Elementary Ethnography in the Movies

A not-so-usual moviegoer can create streams of thought inside the movie house, and the experience of being inside that large, dark hollow can be a quite vivid experience more than the plot of the film in the taking. This is the fine point of tangency of the two essays (sic) “The Magic of Moviegoing” (essay 1) and “Sit Down and Shut Up or Don’t Sit by Me” (essay 2). Besides this point of tangency, we see more divergence than convergence for the two essays.

Basically, the two essays intentionally or unintentionally teach a lesson of simple social research. Employing the method of ethnography, Essay one draws up a conclusion of movie-going having several rituals in the process. This observation is characteristic of functionalist remark where daily human behavior is made up of different rituals, which serve its “function” or purpose.  Meanwhile, essay two utilizes the same observation method, but maintains the objective of watching a movie rather than remaining true to the objective research of the social science in action happening right before the author’s eyes.

Ethnography employs participant observation – a process where “the researcher enters the group or situation that he or she is studying…to try to understand the motives and meanings of the group of people they are studying.”  (Walsh, 2001: 67) The author of essay one amused himself for his discoveries inside the movie house as a participant observer.

He says about the movie going ritual: “But there’s another question, equally interesting, that seldom gets examined or even asked. It’s not the What but the How of the matter: How do we watch the movies? How do we behave during this pop rite of going to the picture show?” The same amusement goes with the author of the second essay. He says of putting on the shoes of a famous socio-anthropologist, “I’ve amused myself with a Margaret Mead-like study of the way people come in and take their seats and their antics during the movie.”

Analyzing from the point-of-view of the social research process, Essay one sticks with the object of the study – the group or the audience. Meanwhile, essay two keeps its observation only before the start of the film and shifts attention after the start of the film, thereby losing the consistency and intent of the study.  Thus, a small lesson for the student conducting a social research: be clear with your objective and remain objective with the study.

Observations made in Essay one reflects behavior of people as a group or more formally, social psychology. Meaning, people act differently as an individual and as a group. The author realizes this by saying thus, “(the) convergence of disparate people turns into an audience.” Clearly, this is the reason why he posits that film viewing in the sala set is bland and lacking of the necessary effects to rival the vividness of experience and intensity of film viewing as a social experience.

However, the first essay is quick to respond to the need of the second essay for attentiveness and ethics in watching movies. It said that, “when we are most truly alone, we are most truly an audience.” The author of the second essay would have been happy to know that the author of the former agrees with the point of etiquette inside the movie houses. Albeit implicitly, we are sure that second essay agrees that some sort of collective and social interaction during the movie proper is necessary to make the experience more fulfilling.

In the whole, the two essays request the attention of movie buffs and the uninitiated alike.  One can be a student of sociology just by doing a thing we like most. A movie house can be a place full of lessons for the social research process. The catch is that one must have a keen eye and good sense of observation to capture life moments and scenes outside of the silver screen.


Atkinson, R. L., Atkinson, R.C., Smith, E., Bem, D., & Nolen-Hoeksma, S. (1953). Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology, 628-638.

Walsh, M. (2001). Research Made Real: A Guide for Students, 66-68.