Ethnographic Research and Reality Television

When the term ‘ethnographic research’ was first properly described to me, the first thing that came to my mind was the brilliant 1998 film “The Truman Show” which, for those who haven’t seen it, revolves around a man who’s life is broadcast around the world 24/7 as a reality show. The film acts as a satire of the way reality television exploits contestants and encourages voyeurism from its audience.  Which begs three questions:  a) Is reality television a form of ethnographic research? b) Is reality television damaging and exploiting the contestants and finally c) is the consumption of reality television voyeurism on our part?


Let’s start with ethnographic research: What exactly does it mean? Ethnographic research principally entails observing certain individuals within their surroundings. Now, to answer the first question: Is reality television a form of ethnographic research? The answer is yes but it is more of a collaborative ethnography, which is mainly effective in analysing a group of individuals in a particular culture or environment.  The popular and often controversial ‘Big Brother’ is a prime example of reality television which demonstrates characteristics of collaborative ethnography, in that the show revolves on a set of contestants who are forced to live in a house together and complete a variety of challenges. Essentially, the show is an extension of the idea conveyed in the 1998 satire “The Truman Show”, which sees the protagonist discover that his whole life is just a reality television  show. And now that we live in a social media era, we (as an audience) are able to comment on what is happening on the show as they are watching it. This, in fact, is another example of how reality television, is a form of both collaborative ethnography and ethnographic research.

Now that we have established that reality television is technically  form of ethnographic research, let’s explore the two major issues that face reality television: a) the psychological damage and exploitation of contestants and b) the perverse nature behind reality television. The psychological damage of being analysed and exploited is an issue which is not often discussed, in regards to reality television. Whenever we watch reality television shows, such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Biggest Loser’, we are often the audience for an individual’s emotional or physical humiliation and as an audience we take this for granted, without considering the damaging effects that that they have on the contestants. Furthermore, contestants can’t talk about their true experiences after being on shows because producers have them locked in to  a tight contract that forces secrecy. In their book “Shooting People”, Brenton and Cohen (2003, pg.109) compare shows such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Survivor’ to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, due to “the cultivation of group dynamics over time”. So by consuming these forms of ‘entertainment’, what does that say about society? That we take enjoyment out of seeing the mental breakdowns and humiliation of people on television. Which leads my next point regarding the perverse nature of reality television. The consumption of reality television is, without a doubt, a form of voyeurism which is borderline perverse, particularly the show ‘Big Brother’. ‘Big Brother’ shows us almost everything that the contestant does (even sleeping!). Very little privacy is given to contestants on these sorts of programs and although the contestants have consented to being filmed constantly for ‘entertainment’, is it really necessary to film people sleeping? Furthermore, what does it say about the audience who, instead of living their own lives, take time out during the day to watch others live out theirs, in what often is nothing more than a prestigious prison. Buchanan (2001, pg.4) that the only reason why audiences don’t feel guilty of their voyeuristic behaviour is because of the series of games and challenges implemented into the show by the producers, in order to mask the clearly unethical nature of the entertainment they are producing.

So to recap, reality television is without a doubt a form of both ethnographic research and collaborative ethnography. But whether it contributes positively to society  remains to be seen…


Brenton, S., & Cohen, R. (2003). Shooting people: adventures in reality TV. London:

Buchanan, I. 2001, ‘Enjoying ‘reality TV”, Australian Humanities Review, no. 22, pp. 1-8.


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