Industrial Reflexivity and Participatory Paratextuality: Methodological Opportunities for Visual Studies in Media Production Research

Brian Ekdale (University of Iowa, USA)

Summary of the Project


In Production Culture (2008), John Thornton Caldwell argues, “film and television today reflect obsessively back upon themselves and invest considerable energy in over-producing and distributing this industrial self-analysis to the public” (p. 1). This “industrial reflexivity,” as Caldwell calls it, mirrors Jonathan Gray’s (2010) work on “paratextuality” – film and television tie-ins, behind-the-scenes features, marketing posters, DVD and Blu-ray extras, production podcasts, and a variety of other promotional and self-referential materials that comprise the larger world of a film or TV program. This cultural moment, during which the entertainment industry and the viewing public expect any number of paratexts to accompany a film or TV series, offers a novel opportunity for media production researchers, particularly those who study participatory video. Through audio commentaries, promotional artwork, behind-the-scenes features and other paratexts, interlocutors can provide self-reflections on the creative process with limited intrusion from the researcher. In my ethnographic study of community video production in Nairobi’s slums, I explored participatory paratextuality’s utility in offering further insight into the relationship between media producers and the creative process.

Research Questions

What kind of insights can participatory paratextuality provide into interlocutors’ intentions, understandings, and challenges faced during the process of producing media?

How can media production scholars, particular those engaged in the ethnographic study of participatory video, incorporate participatory paratextuality into their research designs?

Theoretical Framework

The various activities comprising participatory paratextuality are not entirely new to visual studies. For example, audio commentaries have a direct antecedent in photo and film/video elicitation, in which images and image sequences are used to prompt conversations during interviews (Clark-Ibanez, 2004). As Harper notes, photo elicitation is particularly effective because “images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words; exchanges based on words alone utilize less of the brain’s capacity than do exchanges in which the brain is processing images as well as words” (2002, p. 13). Film/video elicitation is less common than photo elicitation, in part because viewing films and videos creates unique temporal and spatial restrictions (Banks, 2001; Harper, 2002). Still, there have been several inventive efforts to incorporate motion pictures into the interview process. In 1960, filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin produced the documentary Chronique d’un été, which captured actors both performing in scenes and then watching and reflecting on those filmed performances. Tim Asch, Patsy Asch, and Linda Conner have also incorporated film elicitation into their research in visual anthropology, for example, producing an ethnographic documentary about a Balinese spirit medium and then creating a second film in which the medium was interviewed by Connor while watching the first documentary (Banks, 2001). More recently, Starr and Fernandez (2007) have introduced the Mindcam methodology in marketing research, in which unobtrusive cameras are attached to research participants to capture their point of view. Participants are then interviewed while reviewing footage of their consumption behaviors.

At the same time, participatory paratextuality is notably distinct from its antecedents in visual methods. For example, whereas film/video elicitation is a constructed experience imposed by the researcher, audio commentaries are now an accepted and desirable industry practice. This difference helps production scholars overcome two challenges in film/video elicitation: first, that the viewing experience is denaturalized – interlocutors are asked to watch something they may not otherwise watch at a time and place that is accommodating to the researcher – and second, that the interlocutor’s viewing experience is shaped by the research design – the presence and probing of an interviewer can influence an interlocutor’s reading of a text. Meanwhile, audio commentaries by directors, actors, and/or crew members are commonplace in packaged releases of films and television programs. Similarly, others forms of paratextual production are consistent with contemporary industry culture and, thus, translate to less formalized production contexts, such as participatory video projects.

Paratextuality offers a benefit both to interlocutors eager to participate in a variety of entertainment industry practices and to researchers interested in how interlocutors make sense of their creative work. This is true for audio commentaries as well as behind-the-scenes features, deleted scenes, cover artwork, promotional posters, and a variety of other paratextual practices. Researchers can triangulate paratextual data with fieldwork, interviews, and textual analysis to attain a broader understanding of interlocutors’ experiences producing media and their relationships with their creations.


Participatory paratextuality involves having interlocutors create supplementary materials that accompany a primary media text. Examples of participatory paratextuality include audio commentaries by cast and/or crew, posters and other promotional artwork, behind-the-scene features, deleted scenes (with or without audio commentary), movie trailers, production blogs and podcasts, press releases, themed music videos, and related documentaries. In the entertainment industry, such paratexts build hype for, are packaged with, and/or extend the narrative of a primary text as part of promotional strategy or synergistic enterprise (Gray, 2010). Participatory paratextuality involves introducing interlocutors to a broader range of production and marketing practices than those typically captured in participatory video.

Preliminary Results

I began exploring the methodological opportunities for participatory paratextuality during my 10 months of fieldwork on community media organizations in Nairobi’s slums (Ekdale, 2013). Not only were interlocutors interested in producing videos about their lives and communities, they were eager to emulate a variety of practices common in the film and television industry. Beyond filmmaking they wanted to create promotional artwork using Photoshop and author feature-laden DVDs using DVD Studio Pro. In helping to teach interlocutors these software programs, I began to realize the research potential of the paratexts that they were creating. For example, promotional artwork highlighted characters I had assumed were relatively insignificant, director’s commentaries discussed topics I had not thought to explore during interviews, and behind-the-scene photos captured moments I did not personally witness during my fieldwork. Thus, paratexts provided additional insight into the stories interlocutors were telling and the constraints they faced while trying to tell these stories. Most intriguing though was that interlocutors created these paratexts of their own accord, not at my insistence. Combined with treatments, scripts, and edited films, these paratexts helped me better understand the production process and informed my interviews and interactions with participants.


Banks, M. (2001). Visual methods in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Caldwell, J.T. (2008). Production culture: Industrial reflexivity and critical practice in film and television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Clark-Ibanez, M. (2004). Framing the social world with photo-elicitation interviews. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(12), 1507–1527.

Ekdale, B. (2013). Telling whose stories? Reexamining author agency in participatory media in the slums of Nairobi. In J. Gray & D. Johnson (Eds.), A companion to media authorship (pp. 158–180). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gray, J. (2010). Show sold separately: Promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts. New York: New York University Press.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26.

Hills, M. (2012). Torchwood’s trans-transmedia : Media tie-ins and brand ‘fanagement’. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 9(2), 409–428.

Johnson, D. (2012). Cinematic destiny: Marvel Studios and the trade stories of industrial convergence. Cinema Journal, 52(1), 1–24.

Mann, D. (2010). Next gen web workers: LG15’s industrial self-reflexivity on steroids. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 38(2), 89–94.

Starr, R. G., & Fernandez, K. V. (2007). The Mindcam methodology: Perceiving through the native’s eye. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 10(2), 168–182.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

As discussed above, participatory paratextuality has the potential to supplement fieldwork, interviews, and textual analysis in providing greater insight into the process of producing media and the primary film/video texts created by interlocutors. Utilized appropriately, participatory paratextuality can embody the same type of reciprocity that is valued in participatory video: interlocutors learn and exercise valued skills, while researchers find out more about the creative process. Based on my preliminary exploration, participatory paratextuality has great potential for scholars of media production, particularly those who study participatory video.

Methodological Challenges

In the entertainment industry, industrial reflexivity embodied in paratexts is inherently self-serving. Media professionals produce and share paratexts to promote their commercial investments, develop franchise empires, and manage fan behavior and expectations (Gray, 2010; Johnson, 2012; Mann, 2010; Mills, 2012). As a result, industrial reflexivity needs to be viewed critically in the context of how paratexts serve financial, ideological, and reputational interests. While participatory video differs from commercial media in significant ways, normalized paratextual practices originated in and are shaped by commercial industries. The impact on participatory paratextuality is unclear, but scholars must be careful to account for the multiple interests served by paratextual practices.

Methodological Limitations

Participatory paratextuality may have limited utility outside the context of participatory video. Paratextual practices also demand a larger skillset than planning, scripting, shooting, and editing video, thus, requiring additional teaching, learning, and resource capacities.

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