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.
This book is concerned with a central, yet overlooked, aspect of ethnographic fieldwork: leaving the field. Despite some useful treatments being available, this collection provides a current and critical sustained engagement with the practices, problems and possibilities of leaving the field. The collection generates methodological insights through the examination of a range of exits from a variety of contexts. The tales from leaving the field cover planned ‘good’ exits; abrupt and unwelcome exits where the researcher is forced to leave the field or, indeed, the field leaves them; ‘bad’ exits with a lingering legacy; partial exits and returns; and cases where the research, the researcher and the field are entangled to the extent where leaving becomes impossible. The chapters – written by an international and interdisciplinary group of fieldworkers, at different stages of their careers – are not intended to reduce leaving the field to a series of recommendations or programmatic steps but, instead, report from ethnographic exits in order to critically investigate, trouble and even subvert established notions of field relations, exit strategies and even ‘the field’ itself.
In the early 2000s, the author conducted four years of fieldwork – an ‘apprentice ethnography’ – at New York Glass, a glassblowing studio in New York City, where she became a glassblower, albeit a modest one. ‘Caught up’ in fieldwork, her writing addressed ‘where the action is,’ namely the actual, embodied practice of glassblowing, including becoming both a glassblower and part of the glassblowing social world. Extrapolating upon a facet of that experience – falling in love with Sarkis, a glassblower – the author investigates shifting meanings of love in the field. Drawing from writers including June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Luce Irigaray, and Sara Ahmed, she moves from an a heteronormative ‘erotics of recognition’ to a queerer erotics of material promiscuity. The author shows how craft production in the glassblowing studio mirrors heteronormative love when proceeding from ‘lack’ – a Platonic heritage that commences from a clearing, a ‘field’. Only by embracing the material multiplicities of, by and with which we are always becoming – by saying ‘no’ to the clearing from which one produces – the author argues, can we begin to understand these queerer loves and, as a glassblower, make as non-production. This requires ‘exiting’ the field altogether with the onto-epistemological break of material becomings. Love, shorn of its heteronormative trajectory, shows the way.
This chapter discusses different modes of reflexivity accompanying (re)entering and (re)leaving the field. The focus is a specific ‘intermission’ in fieldwork; how it shapes the field and becomes a moment of transition in reflexive thinking. The details are from an ethnographic study of homeless outreach workers in Manhattan. The discussion is of realising the potentialities of the boundaries of this fieldsite – which are anthropologically clear (geographically and temporally) but sociologically blurry (exploring ‘homelessness’ as a subject) – and are affected by different modes of reflexivity. This emphasises the significance of an ‘intermission’ as a time to develop sociological reasoning and review how ‘the field’ might be getting done. The chapter discusses how ‘intermissions’ provide the opportunity to engage in at least three modes of reflexivity: Anthropological/Ethnographic, Philosophical and Ethnomethodological. This addresses how leaving the field – geographically, temporarily and permanently, and reflexively – can assist the researcher in seeing the field and the social phenomena. The idea of an ‘intermission’ is not intended as a methodological prescription but as a conceptual tool for thinking reflexively with ‘initial observations’ and, further, as an ongoing process of reflexivity and analysis throughout the research process both in and out of the field. The purpose of this chapter is to explore how leaving the field in combination with such reflexive concepts might enable the researcher to identify social resources and social phenomena, and distinguish this from preconceived notions; making way for a deep engagement with the ethnographic method, the fieldsite and fieldnotes as data.
Selling the magazine The Big Issue, and begging for change, are distinct activities. Nevertheless, in the context of public spaces, both are recognisable as phenomena of visible poverty. Although these are not equivalents, they entail and are characterised by resemblances: beggars and vendors align themselves with pedestrian traffic flows in order to elicit money from, or sell magazines to, passers-by. These alignments are recoverable through detailed observation of the practices they involve, such as orienting to the temporal organisation of specific locations for maximum pedestrian traffic, close attention to and exploitation of the sequential environments that constitute public spaces, positioning within or standing just outside the pedestrian flows, using glance-available categories to increase opportunities for donations or sales. This chapter reports on two fieldwork experiences. One was observational team ethnography. The other involved a fieldworker with a single informant, in interview and tutorial activity. A tutorial, through which a seller of The Big Issue instructed the fieldworker to use pedestrian flows as a resource, is not subject to the reductions of positional reflexivity. Instead, this tutorial illustrates the contingencies of methods, as seen from the vantage point of the seller, with implications for the use of video data. Description and analysis was informed by an agenda-setting study of public spaces as categorial and sequential environments, which had a decisive influence upon subsequent studies of turn-taking systems. Once the self-replication and categorial organisation of pavement cultures are recognised, public spaces become fieldwork settings without exit.
While some ethnographers plan their exit strategies extensively, ‘leaving’ is nuanced by several contextual factors, not least the type of relationships fieldworkers build with their research participants, and the nature of their participatory involvement during fieldwork. To illustrate the situated qualities of ethnographic disengagement, the chapter presents two ‘confessional’ vignettes – one from education, the other from (elite) sport – on how two male researchers managed the process of departing their respective fieldwork sites. The first case study charts Alex’s leaving narrative as a working-class academic researching working class schooling. It discusses how the researcher’s social baggage came to influence the mediation and maintenance of field relations, and how, over time, friendly relations (especially with pupils) were formed and enhanced. The narrative reports that even though the researcher planned to stay in contact with participants post-fieldwork, this did not happen for several practical and methodological reasons. The second case study traces the evolution of Harry’s interpersonal connection with his principal gatekeeper, ‘Coach, and examines how the changing circumstances of their relationship shaped the manner of Harry’s disengagement. More specifically, the narrative explores the exchange of power, vulnerability and responsibility that Harry shared with Coach over time that confirmed Harry’s sense of duty to remain in contact long after the cessation of his fieldwork. Through a comparative analysis of these leaving experiences, the chapter concludes by reflecting on the ethical commitment ethnographers make to involve themselves, long term, in people’s lives, and the ethical judgements that arise therefore from ethnographers’ choice of exit strategy.
While tidying up e-mail archives in 2019, the authors stumbled across correspondence from their research participants that captured their attention. They had interviewed thirty-two high school students as part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) project over a three-year period while these young people were transitioning from school to the world of work. Even though the project had finished in 2013, the authors deliberately maintained contact with them electronically to understand what was happening in their lives. Not all young people responded in 2014; however, the fact that some did was quite remarkable, and their responses unearthed ‘thick descriptions’ and powerful narratives that the authors reflect on throughout the chapter. Participants’ stories advance theoretical and methodological insights capable of informing social action, bringing to the fore ‘modalities of time and space’ as they continue to ‘echo’; demanding our reflexive attention as we enter the ‘field’ once again to engage, connect and listen to their narratives; ‘with them’. Weaving together student narratives, researcher fieldnotes and supporting theoretical frameworks, this chapter culminates in sharing experiences and memories that ‘haunt’ even when consciously attempting to ‘let participants go’ (from a field of choice). We learn from and acknowledge the haunting echoes of our participants because they never really ‘exit’ but ‘tag along’ as we continue to create democratic spaces, places and directions in future educational research.