CanCon via observational science

Can ethnographers help define national identity in film and television?

The forthcoming Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) policy, legislative and regulatory review means the current definition of Canadian content (CanCon) is up for discussion — so what do industry stakeholders think? 

It’s a huge question that a team of ethnographers, among other experts, have set out to answer. And, after 40-plus interviews, Méralie Murray-Hall and Amélie Ward are starting to see a complex portrait of CanCon come to life. 

The anthropologists are urban ethnographers with HUMAIN HUMAIN. Part of a larger research consortium engaged by the Canada Media Fund and led by La Société des demains, the consultancy is tasked with the first of a four-stage process to study the screen-based industry. 

The goal is to gain a holistic understanding of the varied perspectives on the definition of “CanCon.”

“Ethnography is, first and foremost, a comprehensive approach [that] involves the immersion of researchers into a social or cultural group [to] observe behaviours and close interactions,” Murray-Hall explained in an interview alongside Ward. 

For each mandate, a team of specialists in qualitative data collection — anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, research specialists, and even historians — provide an account of a particular culture, society or community after observing their behaviour and interactions up close. 

Immersing themselves into the screen based industry via digital surveys, in-depth interviews, Zoom and telephone calls, meetings, events and other “formal and informal” spaces, the pair of anthropologists aim “to draw conclusions about how the ecosystem and individuals function, their interrelations, the incongruities or strengths of the observed system.” 

Their mission is to understand participants’ varied and divergent perspectives of what Canadian content is, and highlight barriers and obstacles to participating in the industry that creates it.

CanCon typologies

Open to anything that can come up, HUMAIN HUMAIN is gathering digital and direct participant observations via interviews and an industry survey. Eventually, this data will highlight mechanisms, patterns and narratives that are observed, and the team will construct typologies (classifications based on readily observable traits).

Both a tool for and result of comprehensive research, typologies help characterize groups, dynamics and ecosystems. They also draw attention to blind spots, gaps and things that, for whatever reason, do not occur. 

“We question how and why people act, think, feel or react to [different] aspects of CanCon,” legally, culturally and economically, explained Murray-Hall. 

“We go through all these dimensions, explore identities, practices, representations, worldviews, [to] try and grasp all the hidden and formal narratives that come up in these different interest groups.”

Their immersive ethnographic approach involves both qualitative research and loads of time. Using methods that are “inductive, exploratory and, ideally, over a long period,” the empirical inquiry focuses on deeply understanding a social phenomena and answering “why?”

In this case, the objective is to offer the industry a variety of ways to think about the fundamental issue of “Canadian content” and reflect on the range of ideas and perspectives on the subject. 

A practice of “deep and unconventional listening” and “being able to receive uncomfortable truths” is what matters to ethnographers, explained Ward (who, on top of being a PhD student, is also a filmmaker). 

The main lesson of ethnography, said Ward, is that there’s no objective take on any given topic, and “this is definitely something we’re learning about CanCon: who you are determines how you think about [it].”

“How are [participants] situated towards the topic? What is their personal and professional mission? We try to go as deep as we can in the process of getting to know them and [understanding] their take on what Canadian content is [and] why Canadians telling their own stories is so important for them.”

Initial insights 

While their ethnographic approach to CanCon is only half-way through, some portraits are beginning to emerge.

One of the interest groups feel a need to transmit traditional knowledge to help sustain cultural security and sovereignty. Others want to sustain an established cultural economy. 

“These two big tensions don’t really seem to understand each other,” Murray-Hall observed, noting how industry workers are grappling with how to be flexible for innovation and diversity, while also ensuring Canadian content creation contributes to the economy.

Another interesting (though perhaps not surprising) finding: The criteria to access funding is heavily and hotly debated. One recurring question the ethnographers both noted is existential: Does a production need to be shot in Canada in order to be considered ‘Canadian?’ 

“There are more complexities than we thought [but] it’s always like that in ethnography,” said Ward. Nonetheless, the pair are already seeing potential for creating alliances between typologies.

“If we can [create understanding] between groups, [we might connect on] how to conceive CanCon as a cultural, industrial and economic force."

Next steps for #CanConDef

Using the survey and in-depth ethnographic interviews, the research team’s next step will be to put pieces together to see what a portrait of CanCon looks like. “Even if we’re only halfway through, it is already emerging,” said Ward. 

Observations from their findings will, in turn, inform the larger #CanConDef initiative, including upcoming industry workshops this spring, which will use foresight methods to project current opinions and preferences into visions of the future.

Before that step, the anthropologists will “outline barriers and obstacles, but also the innovative practices and solutions that come from and are deeply connected to the needs of the industry,” Ward explained. 

Ethnographic work involves reframing and recasting problems to find recommendations via the experience and testimonials of people. 

Cultivating empathy between groups is also an element in HUMAIN HUMAIN’s process. 

“Part of what we do [is] accompany clients [to] navigate perspectives that need to be understood in a new way,” said Murray-Hall.  ”We're not just researchers, we also help people metabolize new information.”

As groundbreaking anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said, the purpose of anthropology is to “make the world safe for human differences.”


Laura Beeston
Laura Beeston is a writer, editor and content strategist from Winnipeg. In 10+ years of media making, she's worked on a variety of projects but was notably a breaking news reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star, and an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail. Since 2017, she's worked as multimedia content producer and is a media advisor and mentor at The Link.
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