5.14 Making an object relevant

In this last section let’s shift to a final broad category of phenomena that recordings offer us for consideration: objects. To consider our alternative settings again for a moment, for a family meal this might be the plates, dishes and foods themselves, for rugby it would be the ball, the goal posts and the players' boots. What is important to understand in analysing video using this approach is that while there are objects in the environment they are not always relevant to what is happening. While we might spot them when looking at the video recording and become interested in them, our concern is with whether the participants in the setting are attending to them.

Here it is an object that has lain in front of them but been ignored by the participants for the last fifteen minutes of their journey but is now brought in by J:

Stacks Image 1956

J: Well:: ((reaches
for envelope))

Stacks Image 1962

J: ((J waves envelope))
I just need to
get to the bottom -
Stacks Image 1968

S: ((looks across))

J: - of this

What we see here is a transition where an object, although constantly in sight, is ignored and then does feature in the action. It is not quite right for us to treat it as ‘ignored’ because that means that the participants were purposefully not paying attention to it. It is simply irrelevant to the action until J brings it back in.

Q: How is the object brought back into the interaction? Consider what is said about it and how it is handled. Consider also what aspects of it are made relevant and how they are made relevant and also who they are made relevant to.


If we return to what is being said by the participants, rather than saying ‘envelope’, J says ‘this’ and once again the fruitfulness of the video recording becomes apparent because it supplies what ‘this’ is. With only the talk we would be puzzled as to what ‘this’ could be. It helps us as researchers access what is happening. However even seeing the object in question does not seem to settle what ‘this’ could mean.

J begins to bring back the envelope by reaching for it. Such a move might still not make it relevant for J given that it might be something J wants to do by herself. What it does though is, not only wave the envelope but, wave it in the space ahead and between the front seats. Her waving is thus produced as for S to pay attention to. In the third frame he does indeed then attend to the envelope that is being waved.

The envelope here is being waved rather than held up steadily for scrutinisation or torn open to see what is inside or crumpled up into a ball to be thrown away. By waving it J is thus showing it to S as not to be taken hold of by him, nor to have its address read or its contents examined. What is she doing with it then? The answer might delight a more traditional student of the visual because the envelope is being used to stand for something else rather than to be examined in its own right. What that something else might requires is a more ethnographic grasp of the journey.

The envelope is the thing they have to deliver at the end of their journey. It is the very reason for their journey. An obligation that J undertook to find out for her hospitalised mother to check a list of personal possession held inside the envelope with the actual items that her mother has at the hospital. What we have in the waving of the envelope then is also a transfer away from their car-travel relevant categorisations as driver and navigator, to a different set of obligations that cohere around J as daughter and guardian of her mother’s affairs. To be able to shift from time to time to what we might know of a family and the setting outside of what the video presents us with can be useful in understanding what is happening and what an object is doing. It becomes a problem though when that knowledge garnered from elsewhere supplants what the participants are making relevant at the time and indeed leaves us asking what we are learning from the video.