Recursive exits and returns to the fuzzy field of a community library across a decade of austerity
This chapter is drawn from the author’s doctoral multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in urban public libraries impacted by UK austerity localism between 2010 and 2020. Reflecting on a single empirical site from this study, a community branch library in Southeast London run by activist-volunteers, the chapter charts the author’s complex and enmeshed relationality with the library from multiple subject positions, entries and exits. Her intersecting roles of researcher, volunteer, employee and activist in the library’s lifeworld created a complex positionality which shifted over time, along with the mutable shape and capacity of the library itself, generating a durational push-and-pull relationship with this site. Exploring the ‘fuzziness’ of the field through a recursive and reflexive methodological lens, this chapter examines productive analytical tensions arising from iterative processes of (re)entering and exiting and considers the importance of volitional, affective and ethical dimensions in the author’s oblique relationality to the field. The chapter works through a series of time periods in this circuitous research journey, concluding with three lessons on the difficulties and opportunities produced by entanglement and extraction dilemmas. The author argues that methodologically messy and longitudinal back-and-forth movements between leaving and returning, theory and practice, provide a challenging yet powerful analytic opportunity for enriching what ‘the field’ and one’s position in, around and through it can mean in both ethnographic discourse and activist praxis.
This chapter draws on the authors’ experiences of leaving and returning to the field in research with people living with dementia as part of an ESRC-NIHR-funded five-year longitudinal study of the neighbourhood experiences of people living with dementia and their families, friends and care partners. The authors deployed a range of approaches and methods that placed fieldwork and the sustained, repeated engagement with participants in particular places over a period time. The ‘field’ they were concerned with was not simply a geographically bounded location such as the neighbourhoods where participants lived, but also temporal – incorporating change over time, and social – incorporating relational ties with other people regardless of their location. Dementia can be associated with a range of symptoms including cognitive change such memory loss, declining physical abilities and communication difficulties. Over time, these can make it difficult for those participating in the research to cognitively and physically access, recognise or locate themselves in the social and spatial fields the authors were exploring. Participants may also be unable to remember previous interactions with the research team or the experiences they previously have shared. The authors’ repeated interactions with participants and their associated social networks, in the places they visited or where they lived, prompted a messy process of entering, ‘leaving’ and re-engaging with what the authors came to recognise as the field. This chapter seeks to question what it means to leave, return and remember the field as a cognitive as well as a physical and temporal location.
The dissonant meeting of ‘field self’ and ‘author self’
In this chapter the author reflects on his experiences of respondent validation following a publisher’s acceptance of a book proposal, which was based on ethnographic fieldwork he had conducted with a social work team for his doctoral thesis. The author was surprised to find that the participants in his study were initially resistant to the idea of the publication of the book, and he experienced guilt as he realised that he had presented two distinct versions of himself to participants: his affable ‘field self’ and the more critical ‘author self’. The author’s experience of leaving, and then returning to, the field has provided insight into the way that social life can create conflicting selves that exist authentically, depending on the social context. The self is a dynamic, performative process, not a state of being, and its forms coalesce according to people, place and time. Most of the time, we shift between selves smoothly and without giving our fragmentation thought. Doing ethnography can force us to confront the dissonance of different selves that are equally real and authentic, because, by its very nature, it requires that we encounter the field self from the perspective of the authorial self. Engaging in respondent validation lays the otherwise hidden ‘author self’ bare to participants, and this provides an unsettling challenge for the management of field relations.
Research relationships and the impact of criticism
This chapter focuses on the aftermath of an ethnographic account of the lawyer–client relationship under criminal legal aid in England. The fieldwork involved the researcher spending a year at one court centre, accompanying three local legal firms as a participant-observer. Over the course of the fieldwork, the researcher developed strong relationships with the lawyers being observed, extending to social events and leisure time. The chapter centres on how the researcher navigated the relationships with the lawyers who were being researched, exploring some advantages and disadvantages of developing bonds with participants of research. In particular, it focuses on the impact these relationships have when it comes to analysing, writing up and publishing the research. A central issue considered in this chapter is how the researcher dealt with the situation in which he felt compelled to comment critically on the work of the lawyers with whom he had grown friendly. The chapter looks at the difficulties of balancing being honest to the research with the pressures that come from interpersonal relationships, which were especially prominent in this study that became known for taking a negative line about the practices of the lawyers being studied. The chapter also looks at the fallout in terms of critical commentary about the author’s research among the communities being studied and difficulties in recruiting from these communities for future studies. The chapter will be of value in helping those planning future research projects to consider the relationship dynamics they seek to foster in their research.
The messy longitudinal dynamics of never leaving the field
This chapter is about the messy complexities and dynamics of leaving the field of martial arts. From Karate as a teenager, to various martial arts, with Muay Thai and Jeet Kune Do as a main focus, throughout university studies and up to present times. The author’s martial arts journey was highly intermittent and fragmented over a lengthy period. Doing martial arts was an essential part of his bodily capital that enabled him to perform longitudinal studies of bouncing (Calvey, 2017). However, the martial arts community was never aware of his covert bouncing studies and martial arts academic interests. The management of the author’s ‘divided self’ was a source of continued guilt as he built bonds and friendships. Gaining an embedded covert insider view of his martial arts journey also had a ‘spoiling effect’ on his field. This chapter reflects on situated scenarios, moral ambiguities, guruism, ethical dilemmas and the lessons learnt from the author’s field experience. The logic is the central appreciation of creatively recasting absence, loss and liminality in our field journeys. Existentially, the field became a very blurred part of the author’s identity politics and was written on his body. Exiting the field is a profoundly messy and artful business, and the author never fully left. His field was an emotional and moral labyrinth and lifestyle that he could not cleanly exit. He still trains in martial arts and remains on a type of sociological duty.
What happens when the field expands in ways that mean there is no exit?
Researchers often have concerns about how to leave the field and end the relationships they have forged with communities. However, in some cases the field expands, and the researcher moves from being at the periphery to become a full participant within the networked relationality of a community of practice. This chapter explores this experience of becoming fixed within the field. Reflecting on research with care-experienced children and young people in Wales, an ongoing journey of increasing nearness, rather than increasing distance, is considered. The original study led to impact activities and further research, within a field of young people in care, care leavers and partner organisations, in which the researcher became immersed and gained an ongoing sense of permanency. In considering this position of ‘no exit’ the chapter draws on déjà vu and jamais vu. Déjà vu, already seen, occurs when one feels as though a situation is familiar, despite evidence that the situation could not have been experienced before, resulting from familiarity-based recognition, or recognition based on feelings of familiarity that occur without identification of their source. Jamais vu, never seen, occurs when things seem unfamiliar and there is little connection between long-term memory and perceptions from the present. In becoming more than native and embedded in the emotion, policy, practice and mediation of care experiences, the chapter presents encounters and relationships with partners and young people that generated feelings of déjà vu and jamais vu through the complexities of familiarity, shifting positionalities and self-contained worlds of common understanding.
The focus of this chapter is the weight of the stages of research that follow once the fieldwork is over. The author experienced feelings of dread, guilt, fear and anxiety. ‘Did I do the right thing? How will I write this? Should I write this?’ The chapter presents self-reflections and practical discussions on positionality, ethics and writing in the context of leaving the field. It includes the insights of an ‘outsider-researcher’ into the challenges and feelings experienced when navigating the liminal space between ‘the field’ and ‘home’, and handling the tensions and identity shifts that take place. The chapter points to the value of reflexive diaries, drawing, and other emotionally honest academic literature as being sources of comfort and motivation as well as providing further points of question and challenge. Furthermore, the chapter encourages discussions on the relationships between methods and the ethics of conducting research in another country. It promotes greater transparency and reflexivity on issues surrounding the construction of knowledge and the place of emotions within both the broader neoliberal university and the solitary PhD journey. Given that ethnography is such an immersive method, it is easy to become engulfed by the excitement of ‘going’ to the field, but what happens when you leave must be given greater consideration in the preparation stage and throughout the fieldwork itself, because the emotional intensity of arriving in the field is mirrored in the departure.
When it comes to leaving the field of ethnographic study, the procedures we have been taught in methodology coursework or even our own social template for what it means to make a good and graceful exit, fall short. The things that make for a ‘good exit’ – grace, smoothness, loose strings neatly snipped into place – do not work in the context of awkward human relationships, the fluid and unending field, and the fruitful, beautiful but complicated ethnographic mess. This chapter tells the story of the necessity of the ‘bad exit’ in childhood ethnography. Making a ‘bad exit’ is defined as intentional complication, partial leaving, possibly returning and valuing the complexity of human relationships in muddying the waters of departure such that the ‘exit’ defies the procedural and unidirectional, tying exit with entrance like two ends of a Mobius strip. The project described to illustrate the ‘bad exit’ was an ongoing ethnography of young transgender children and their families. And, as per the tenets of the ‘bad exit’, the departure was complicated by the entrance: the author is not just a researcher interested in the lives and stories of gender-diverse children but also the mother of a transgender daughter. So, leaving this work was never possible in the classic sense of departure. While the author does not suggest that one cannot really leave the field, she does suggest that our understanding of what it means to ‘leave’ should be carefully reconsidered in light of childhood work.
This chapter outlines the tales of two researchers who finished their fieldwork in less than perfect circumstances. The projects reported on here do not align with more typical accounts of exiting the field. Indeed, they might best be described as having culminated in explosive end points, where a number of ethical incidents erupted and relative chaos and confusion ensued. The first tale focuses on Alexandra’s experiences during her last day of fieldwork, when she was packing her bag to leave the field and a participant disclosed the bullying they were experiencing as a result of participating in the research. The second tale examines Sarah’s forced departure from the field (owing to difficult personal circumstances) at a time when her participants had started to develop a trusting relationship with her and had just started to open up about their own relationships with the subject of the research (relational violence). As well as outlining the difficulties faced by these researchers, and thus troubling notions of smooth or seamless exits, the chapter examines the strategies utilised by these researchers as they attempted to navigate this tricky terrain. As such, the chapter considers the methods lessons learnt in these projects, particularly when dealing with uncertainty and the unexpected as part of ethnographic fieldwork.
This Editors’ Introduction reviews existing literature on ‘leaving’, as well as highlighting how the actual business of exiting a research setting has, by and large, been neglected in accounts of fieldwork. We find this odd, given recent moves toward open and ‘confessional’ forms of methodological writing. We also make a strong case for examining exits as a meaningful stage of the research process, rather than a bookend to it. We provide our own tales of exiting (or not…) our own field sites in order to suggest that the last day can be just as generative of insight as the first. We introduce the chapters across the four sections of the book and, in sum, argue for the need for all ethnographers to experience exits, and the difficulties or impossibilities thereof, as active researchers.