Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Healing Potential of Fence-Sitting

Written by: on November 1, 2018

I’m likely not alone in this, but I can easily get sucked into a vortex where time seems to be accelerated and hours pass like minutes. This vortex is facebook. Of course my social media drug of choice is highly influenced by my age and I know that there is an ever growing collection of such image saturated mediums. It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time when I would see all the people I had any desire to ‘connect’ with in one day. As a child I would wake up to my family and see every friend I had at school. But as I have grown, moved and travelled I find myself longing to connect with people who are a great distance from me, located all over the world. My own personal shift to globalism I suppose, and social media provides a platform for that desired connection. This image driven space has also offered more public access to what Pink describes as “interiority.”[1] Back when photographs were produced using film and only visible in relatively isolated print form, family documentation and the subjective stories were the stuff of photo albums and were only available to those we would feel comfortable having sit in our living room. Personal photos were displayed during intimate visits with close friends and family and had little impact on our culture and were more reflective and less dialogical. Digital images combined with social media have released these narratives into a much more public sphere and shifted them into a cultural dialogue rather than mere personal reflection.

Pink describes an experiment whereby a researcher “invites participants to photograph and narrate their feelings as they follow familiar paths through urban environments. In his publications Irving uses both photographs and transcribed recordings to represent these affective and interior experiences.”[2] This study seems to anticipate what social media has become. People go through their familiar environments and photograph what they deem important and may offer a brief narration of why they deem it important. There is a secondary filter used to determine what is ‘post worthy’ and that is the image’s consumability. Whether there is a target audience (for example relatives) or a desire for a large audience (looking for the most ‘likes’), the value of our interior experiences is measured, in part, by its capacity to ellicit engagement. It is this secondary point which diverges from how Pink describes visual ethographies, where “visual ethnography, as [she] interpret[s] it, does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced”[3] . There is minimal loyalty to context on social media, and yet it is increasingly accepted as a legitimate cultural ethnography.

The increasing division and polorization within social media heavy societies is amplified by the production of subjective realities that are presented to conform to expected patterns. For example, two key threads came through my social media yesterday (Halloween). The first was the onslaught of photos of kids or families in costume. Happy people enjoying community and candy in colourful attire. This is a key day to post photos of your kids and this has become a cultural pattern. The second popular thread was posts deploring the practice of Halloween and included testimonies of people’s experiences with the demonic. Another key theme I’ve come to expect. Admittedly it is difficult to reconcile that these two narratives are reflections of the same cultural practice. There seems to be two different stories being told that are expanded as more people engage with them and offer their own version. That “ethnographies cannot reveal or report on complete or whole accounts of reality; that they only ever tell part of the story”[4] is part of their nature, however in social media, the desire for consumable posts leads to adding to an existing story rather than contributing to what could otherwise become a spectrum of opinion. I have yet to see a post with someone going about their day yesterday with the caption “Halloween: I could take it or leave it,” which may more accurately capture a reasonable section of society, but is entirely unrepresented on our ‘authoritative’ social media ethnography platform. The result is ongoing contributions to polarization on everything from political candidates to bottle feeding vs. breastfeeding. Obviously my own interests impact the debates that are hilighted within my newsfeed thanks to disturbingly accurate algorithms.

It is perhaps here, in my own newsfeed, that good research on myself might be done. “It is not solely the subjectivity of the researcher that may shade his or her understanding of reality, but the relationship between the subjectivities of researcher and research participants that produces a negotiated version of reality”[5] . I might research my own story by looking at both what I post and who responds, how they respond and who doesn’t respond in order to understand how my reality is being shaped. This then might direct me back to some significant self-examination. Pink “explored questions around the relationship between visual ethnography and interior feelings. Drawing on Hogan’s scholarship in art therapy we have identified correspondences between visual ethnography and … ways of doing a visual ethnography of interiority” [6]. If I can better name my biases and tendencies, I might be able to repent of my participation in polarization by re-engaging the actual contexts of my stories and recreating space for the middle of the opinion spectrum. Perhaps intentionally including some of the less ‘consumable’, more moderate options in our personal storytelling could lead to both more accurate ethnographies as well as more cohesive societies. Who could have dreamed that fence-sitting may become a key strategy to healing polarization?

1. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London: Sage Publications, 2013) (Google Play). 58.
2. Ibid. 58.
3. Ibid. 53.
4. Ibid. 32.
5. Ibid. 55.
6. Ibid. 58.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

9 responses to “The Healing Potential of Fence-Sitting”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thoughtful and insightful. Ethnography stumps me as it seems to have and incite more complications than resolutions. I wonder why that seems to be my conundrum? As always thanks for your unique thought processes and thoughts, H

  2. Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, your take on social media is certainly interesting and profound. It is true that it is a very subjective medium. Many edit the reality of their lives to present what they feel is acceptable or as you say, will elicit the most responses. But I have also seen people post the truth about how they feel only to have many criticize them for how they feel. You really cannot win. However, I recently had a young cousin pass away. I’m told she chronicled everything with her young children on Facebook. I was thinking that perhaps these visual ethnographic videos could be preserved for her young children to remember her by. I think like anything, social media can be used wrongly; however, perhaps we this medium can be redeemed through proper use.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I’m so sorry for you loss Mary! What a tragic loss and I do hope these children will find some comfort in the story that is left for them. I do agree there is so much value to social media and while their are pitfalls, so much that is still redeemable. Like money, I don’t feel that it is inheritably good or bad, but how we use it is absolutely critical.

  3. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    As anyone who peruses my facebook feed can see, I am not a big user. In fact, my facebook usage has skyrocketed since joining this program, due to the fact we have our own private group and so much of our messaging is through the platform.

    I think there is a unique demographic in the facebook/social media world out there that doesn’t post either “yay Halloween” or “boo Halloween” and that demographic is the group that is tired of the nonstop bickering between the folks that make every event a two sided only issue.

    Kudos to you Jenn for finding a better way.

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Jenn. I appreciate your take on ethnography and social media. Fence sitting is such an important place today. I read not long ago how our biases are being strengthened due to the algorithms in social media. I often tell people if they looked at my Twitter groups they would think I’m schizophrenic because of the wide variety of people I follow. I do that for the very reasons you have written about. We need people who stretch and challenge our thinking. Several months ago I was thinking about how to lead in such an extremely diverse culture and I had a thought to lay a string on the table, put my finger in the middle and push forward. As I did, the two outside edges came closer together. Lead from the middle! Fence sitting. An important, and difficult task in this age of extremes.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I like to continue to have a variety of input from many directions as well Tammy! I think it keeps us measured and in healthy dialogue. I also love that image of leading from the centre. Years ago, I heard Len Sweet talk about the value of tension and that it can become a bow to shoot arrows from or a harp that creates music. I have clung to that image and strive to live with tensions for the creation of greater beauty. There are times when I’ll take a firm stand, but even then I try to discipline myself to acknowledge the validity of other viewpoints. For many things though, I’ve shifted to useing the language “I lean toward…” if I have a complicated conviction about something. And then, obviously, I’ve tried to give myself lots of room to hang out in the middle!

  5. Karen Rouggly says:

    Jenn, I think this is one of your best posts yet! I was so encouraged and challenged by your words. I appreciated your take on how to be a little bit more middle-minded in this society, when everything is contextually tell us us that we have to fight everyone around us to be heard.

    I saw much of the same narrative on my facebook feed this week, and I am found I am more drawn to the people who are middle of the road. I loved the idea of someone posting about the “meh” of Halloween, and resonate with how comforting that would be for me.

    Well done!

  6. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Jenn. Thanks for sharing your post. Great insight with regards to Facebook. It definitely has its pros and cons. I agree with you, though, that Facebook opens up a worldwide connection that is positive in so many ways. But I also agree that it creates polarization, especially today with all of the political controversary. Since I actually despise controversary, I often find myself as a fence-sitter. The advantage, though, is truly hearing both sides of the ongoing arguments, which actually helps me become more educated about various subjects. So maybe you are right: maybe fence-sitting really is the key to healing polarization!

  7. Harm Rombeek says:

    Interesting post (as usual). I started out quite enthusiastic about Facebook when it was introduced to me as a means of keeping in touch with the family. However, after a couple of years I found it started to overwhelm the time I was willing to give it. I have always had a problem with news snapshots since they don’t provide a balanced view or information. As social media, Facebook has too strong a tendency to polarize. I wouldn’t want to do away with it, but trust that participants will do more research than just the Facebook input.

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