Louis Theroux documentaries are a great example of ‘postmodern’ research methods.
I say this for the following reasons:
- Firstly, these documentaries select unusual, deviant case studies to focus on, which is especially true of the latest series – ‘Dark States’ which consists of three episodes about heroin users, sex trafficking and murder.
- Secondly, they tend to have a narrative style, focusing on people’s stories.
- Thirdly, there’s a lack of structure about the documentaries… Theroux makes a connection with people and sees where that leads.
- Fourthly – there’s no real attempt to be critical, or provide any analyses of the role of economic and political structures which lie behind these stories. In short, they are not properly sociological!
- Finally, these documentaries seem to be produced for entertainment purposes only – they simply invite us to marvel or gawp at the ‘fantastically fucked up’ individuals before us, without offering any real solutions as to how they might sort their lives out, or how society should deal with them.
A brief analysis of two episodes of ‘Dark States’ demonstrates the postmodern nature of these documentaries:
In the first episode in the series, Heroin Town, Theroux looks at how the over-prescription of painkillers has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux says that he largely steered clear of the pharmaceutical companies, regulators and politicians who permitted the disaster…. Instead, he hung out on streets where heroin and opioid addiction is “off the scale, unlike anything I’d ever seen before” and made addicts the stars, giving them space to express themselves and showing how many are beguiled by the romance of being outlaws.
The third episode, on Sex Trafficking in Houston, focuses on the relationships between sex workers and pimps, also shows the ‘postmodern documentary method – in which Theroux deliberately avoided making any value judgments:
Theroux says that he avoided the term “sex slave”: “If you overdo the abusive dimension, you strip the women of agency – it’s oddly disempowering and kind of neo-Victorian. The women are getting a kind of emotional fulfilment in their relationship with the pimps, even though it is poisonous and often damaging.” The pimps tended to be stylish, eloquent and intelligent. “These guys are, in their own way, deeply damaged, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had dads or family friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are just not an option.”
Of course there are both strengths and limitations of these postmodern methods… I guess the biggest strength is that they allow the respondents to speak for themselves, and it’s down to the viewer to interpret the information as they will, and analyse deeper if they feel the need!