Over the next few weeks three of the researchers at Border Criminologies are conducting fieldwork and interviews in three quite different sites: an immigration removal centre, a prison, and in the offices of East Croydon. In preparing for the research we have fulfilled the usual requirements – obtaining ethical clearance, meeting with gatekeepers, sorting out technology, reading widely, and thinking about potential questions and modes of engagement. By addressing these aspects before the research commences, we hope to arrive prepared and ready to go.

One aspect, however, that we are unable to manage or predict will be our own effect on those we seek to interview. How will they react to us as people? As women? As university researchers? As white? As foreign citizens?

Ethnography is intimate. Hanging around, chatting, participating in daily activities, and trying to understand require the development of relationships of trust. In the kinds of sites we are studying, particularly those which are custodial, such relationships can be hard to forge. Prisoners and detainees are often anxious about their cases and futures, wary of outsiders. Add in linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and gender differences, and the possibility for connections seem more difficult to make.

Criminologists rarely discuss the challenges they encounter in their fieldwork, their misgivings, or their mistakes. There are exceptions, particularly in the literature on the prison where scholars often admit they found their work emotionally taxing. Usually, however, qualitative scholarly evidence and argument in criminology are presented as though they emerged effortlessly from well thought out questions and diligent labour.

Fieldwork rarely feels that straightforward. It is often messy. Days can go by without much engagement, leaving the researcher at a loose end. For a long time environments can be confusing, sometimes they can feel quite stressful, occasionally dull. Participants are not always willing, nor are they always friendly, or helpful. They may be threatening, hostile, angry, and emotional. They may be simply indifferent.

Such matters are inherent to applied research of any kind. Whether we have a clipboard in hand with a survey, or if we are asking about people’s life stories, we must, as outsiders, persuade people we barely know to talk to us. We must do the best we can to work across and through various differences and communalities – gender, ethnic, cultural, national, linguistic, religious – to forge ethical relations of trust with participants.

In thinking through ethnography as embodied research, our identities and experiences are especially salient to how we negotiate the research environment and engage with participants, and are received by those we seek to study. The intimacy of ethnographic methods means that our bodies, voices, thoughts, movements, and actions are implicated in the research process. Conducting research may involve particular presentations of self, both unconscious and conscious, that reflect different gendered, racialised, and classed contexts, such as that of the immigration removal centre or prison. In doing ethnographic research, in working to develop relationships of trust with participants, researchers navigate the complexities of identity, of difference, of power and privilege.

We would like to hear about your experiences and thoughts regarding the embodiment inherent to ethnographic research, in particular in contexts of mobility and border control. Email us your story, your comments or simply the reference to a relevant publication that you would recommend. As a teaser, and in a bid to encourage you to contribute to this forum, we end this post with Ines’ experience when conducting fieldwork in London among foreign-national offenders facing deportation from the UK:

“In my doctoral research I set out to examine how policies of deportation translated into everyday life. Identifying and accessing research participants was a major challenge. Approaching possible research participants was no easier. I was asking people who had been thoroughly interrogated before to once again answer questions related to their criminal conviction, immigration status and family relations. My self and my presentation had great impact on how possible informants engaged with me and chose or not to participate. From my research participants, mostly male foreign-offenders, I learned later on that there were particular aspects of myself that proved significant in establishing rapport. Most importantly, I was a foreigner.  In narratives dominated by a British “they” wanting them removed from their residence of choice (if not home) and separated from their families, not being one of “them” myself seemed to make participants all the more comfortable in voicing their anger and frustration. It also provided common ground that was often tapped into with regards to being a foreigner in London – a shared understanding that brought us closer, no matter how different our experiences may have been.

Being a female, and a pregnant one at that, was also important. Male participants were particularly comfortable in talking about their deportation and, most importantly, their family relations. As the pregnancy became unmistakably visible, two important things happened. New research participants were easier to recruit – it was as if no one was capable to say no to a pregnant woman. In a setting where participants were hard to identify and access, this felt like bliss, but it raised the question: were people now agreeing to participate in my work because they felt awkward in refusing the request of pregnant woman, or was it just that the sight of my pregnancy made me look trustworthy? Either case had implications for free will and informed consent. For my current research participants, realising that I was pregnant, reinforced our connection. I was no longer a strange girl asking them silly questions – I became a mother-to-be whom they now escorted to the tube and bus stops, made sure was comfortable and safe and gave advice on child rearing and morning sickness. It also became impossible to interview people without being fed. I became someone they had to attend to and look after. Being visibly pregnant made our connection more intimate, both physically (as they touched my belly and greeted the baby, for instance) and with regards to what participants were now willing to share with me. To be clear this is not saying that only a foreign pregnant woman would have been able to carry out this research. Rather what I am trying to show is that my own self, body and history played an important role into whether research participants engaged with me or not, how they engaged with me and in the kinds of experiences they chose to share. It affected the kinds of data that I was able to gather, and how my research field was accessed and delineated.”

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Border Criminologies (2013) Ethnography as Embodied Research. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/ethnography-as-embodied-research (accessed [date]).