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Using Film to Make Social Science Research More Accessible

- April 16, 2013

In response to Josh’s post and several earlier posts, Roy Germano emails with this interesting story:

In the spirit of making political science research more accessible and demonstrating the broader impacts of our work, I thought I’d share my experiences:

Between 2005-2008, I was on a National Science Foundation fellowship while doing my Ph.D. in political science at the University of Texas at Austin. I studied quantitative methods and am an alum of the Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models (EITM) summer program. To test my dissertation’s hypotheses about the effects of migrants’ remittances on political behavior, I went to Mexico to collect quantitative data from 700+ households. I wrote a largely quantitative dissertation and have a forthcoming article in Electoral Studies that reports some of my results (an academic book is in the works, too).

As anyone who has ever applied for an NSF grant knows, proposals are judged not only on the basis of their “intellectual merit,” but also for their “broader impacts.” Specifically, the NSF requires that grantees demonstrate the benefits of their research to society and discuss how they will disseminate findings broadly. The NSF offers a number of suggestions about how to satisfy the broader impacts criterion. Examples include “publish in diverse media” and “integrate research with education activities.”

With all of this in mind, I decided to take a video camera to Mexico so that I could film the in-depth interviews that I planned to conduct with policymakers, farmers, remittance-recipients, and return migrants. I hoped to create a teaching tool or audio/visual data source that could complement my statistical work and help make my research accessible beyond scholars in my subfield. The interviews and filming went much better than expected, so when I returned from Mexico, I decided to invest some time in learning how to edit the footage. About a year later, I released an hour-long video about the interaction of emigration and politics in Mexico called The Other Side of Immigration.

The Other Side of Immigration went on to win a 2011 American Library Association Notable Video Award and has been presented at 100+ universities and public institutions around the world. It’s also on iTunes and Netflix. I have been amazed by how effectively digital video has allowed me to transmit my findings to researchers, students, and professionals in fields that political scientists do not normally interact with: I have been invited to give talks at public health conferences, law schools, medical schools, education policy conferences, and cultural institutions. Viewers tell me all the time that they appreciate the research-based, nonpartisan perspective provided in The Other Side of Immigration. I think one thing that distinguishes The Other Side of Immigration from other documentaries on the topic is that it is organized around my dissertation’s hypotheses as well as established theories of international migration.

While digital video has permitted my research to cross disciplinary lines in ways that I never imagined, it’s unclear where this work fits into political science. There’s no system (or will, it seems) for evaluating the academic contributions of data or research outputs that leverage digital video technology. However, I believe that when certain procedures are followed, digital video has the potential to be a valuable source of qualitative data, a methodological tool that can help us do more rigorous qualitative fieldwork, and a serious form of theory-driven, explanatory publication that can complement and lend credibility to quantitative research. I think we political scientists should be putting our heads together about how to create an online digital video data repository (I envision a hybrid of YouTube and the ICPSR data archives) and developing procedures to evaluate the academic merit of work that is disseminated (i.e., published) with digital video technology. I think the digital video revolution of the past few years has provided political scientists new research opportunities in ways that we’ve yet to seriously explore or debate.