Extreme Ethnography? Craft, Ethics and Edgework in ‘Extreme Work’ Research

Ed Granter/Leo McCann (University of Manchester)

It is widely argued that ‘good’ ethnography should focus at least as much on the everyday, mundane and boring elements of the social life of a community as it does the exotic, notable, or exciting (Back, 2015; Phillips, 2016). But the unusual, strange, emotionally intense, dangerous and deviant have always been major features of social research and especially ethnography, with its rich history of writings on, for example, policing (Moskos, 2008; van Maanen, 1973, 1978), search and rescue teams (Lois, 2003), boxing clubs (Wacquant, 2004), gangs and gang violence (Densley, 2013; Goffman, 2014; Mullins, 2006; Venkatesh, 2009), illicit drug use and trade (Adler 1993; Bourgois and Schonberg, 2009), war zones (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995), indeed pretty much every conceivable kind of ‘edgework’ (Lyng, 1990) that involves risk and/or possible threat to life. Research into more ‘normal’ work settings has also often focused on its intense or extreme elements and how they become everyday and normalized (Granter et al, 2015), such as ‘work-hard, play-hard’ cultures in investment banking, excessive workloads and burnout, or emotionally-intense and potentially upsetting health and social care work (Lawton, 2000; Ward and McMurray, 2016). Some have called for a carnal sociology or an ethnography of the flesh and blood (Wacquant, 2015) to capture the embodied nature of these sometimes transcendent or exhilarating but often draining and poignant, or even mundane and accepted social experiences.

The vividness of the data generated in such research settings is a potent draw for ethnographers looking to document extreme, emotionally-laden and generally unforgiving lifeworlds that lie outside a more ‘mainstream’ habitus. Notions of ‘carnal’ perhaps suggests a more rugged, uncompromising or heavy-handed approach than that of other forms of immersive ethnographic inquiry such as ‘sensory ethnography’ (Pink, 2009). Extreme ethnography can entail academic researchers being drawn into dangerous or upsetting environments in their work, possibly to the detriment of their well-being and the well-being of the communities under study.

Research ethics is thus clearly a potentially major issue for extreme ethnographies, as discussed in a wide literature about protecting researchers and participants from physical, emotional, psychiatric or reputational harm (Lee, 1995; Warden, 2015; Wolcott, 2002). But in practice, ethical approval applications and risk assessments – like all management processes and artefacts that attempt to capture, render auditable and control human action - are often problematic and unworkable (Power, 1996). Some experience of risk (perhaps even of harm) is arguably essential if ‘extreme’ is to be ethnographically understood. Extreme ethnography hints at a return to immersive field research and in-depth research encounters as opposed to the more philosophical, literary and poststructural forms of writings after Clifford and Marcus (Borneman and Hammoudi, 2009; Zenker and Kumoll, 2009). But, on the other hand, are researchers being voyeuristic or narcissistic by exposing themselves to the worlds of extreme work in which academics are normally sheltered from and have little compelling reason to enter (Contreras, 2015)? Does the notion of ‘extreme’ mean the distortion of mundane into extreme as ethnographers use the most colourful and shocking representational practices? Or is fieldwork and representation always ‘an edgy business’ irrespective of the location or community under study (Spencer, 2009)?

This stream invites paper submissions that explore any area relevant to this theme of ‘extreme ethnography’: substantive, methodological or theoretical. Possible subjects include:

  • New ethnographic research and writing on extreme work or communities living in extreme environments: research that documents the risky, harsh, exciting, rewarding, emotionally-laden, essential and/or damaging activities associated with extreme work/life. For some occupations ‘extreme’ can obviously be mundane, routinized and everyday and this awkward ‘extreme/normal’ paradox (Granter et al, 2015) needs further unpacking.
  • Research methods and methodological discussions that pertain to extreme environments: what forms of observation and participation are most appropriate to such fields? What kinds and degrees of immersion and embodiment into ‘extreme’ environments have researchers used and to what effects? How and why might an environment or culture be classified or constructed as ‘extreme’ and is such a label helpful? How might ‘carnal’ differ from ‘sensory’ modes of inquiry? (Pink, 2009; Wacquant, 2015).
  • Discussions of the ethics of extreme ethnography: are the products of a ‘carnal sociology’ really worth the risk to the bodies, minds and reputations of academic researchers? Is extreme research inherently deviant, intrusive or voyeuristic? Is it necessary? Must extreme ethnography rely on the immediacy of immersive fieldwork or can it be built out of textual, reflective, literary and historical elements?
  • Debates around ‘managing’ risks and dangers: is it possible for universities, professional associations, and publishers to protect researchers and their researched communities before, during and after extreme ethnographic fieldwork? How, in an increasingly ‘risk managed’ world, can extreme ethnographies be practically accomplished? What are the coping strategies of those conducting fieldwork in extreme environments and to what extent might these reflect the coping strategies of those who inhabit these environments permanently?
  • Explorations of the intersections of extreme work / extreme ethnography with other sociological concepts such as carnal sociology, body work and embodiment, dirty work, emotional labour and care work, stigmatized work, the sociology of death, dying or suffering, as well as criminological and policing research (Dick, 2005; Lawton, 2000; Twigg et al 2011; Ward and McMurray, 2016).
  • Writing extreme ethnography: if the research field is so dangerous, secretive, private and emotionally-laden, then what are the most appropriate ways to write and present extreme ethnography? Will some extreme stories be unfit for sharing among ‘normal’ audiences? Should anything be left out due to its sensitive, emotionally upsetting or offensive nature? What can we leave in? What should be left out? On what bases do we make such editorial decisions?

In summary, this stream will be of interest to those exploring ‘ethnography at the edge’ (Ferrell and Hamm, 1998), or the ‘edgy business’ of fieldwork in general. Please send paper abstracts of not more than 1,000 words to both stream convenors as email attachments by Tuesday 28th February 2017. Submissions from PhD students as well as academics at any stage of their careers are equally welcome:


Adler, P.A., (1993) Wheeling & Dealing: An Ethnography of an Upper-Level Drug Dealing and Smuggling Community. New York: Columbia University Press

Back, L., (2015) ‘Why Everyday Life Matters: Class, Community, and Making Life Liveable’, Sociology, 49, 5: 820-836

Borneman, J., and Hammoudi, A., (2009) Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. Berkeley: University of California Press

Bourgois, P., and Schonberg, J., (2009) Righteous Dopefiend, University of California Press

Contreras, R., (2015) ‘The Need for More “Carnal”’, Qualitative Sociology, 38,1: 27-31

Densley, J.A., (2013) How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Dick, P., (2005) ‘Dirty work designations: How police officers account for their use of coercive force’, Human Relations, 58, 11: 1363-1390

Ferrell, J., and Hamm, M.S., eds., (1998) Ethnography at the Edge: Crime, Deviance, and Field Research, Boston: Northeastern University Press

Granter, E., McCann, L., and Boyle, M., (2015) ‘Extreme work/normal work: Intensification, storytelling and hypermediation in the (re)construction of ‘the New Normal’, Organization, 22, 4: 443-456

Lawton, J., (2000) The Dying Process: Patients’ Experiences of Palliative Care. London: Routledge

Lee, R.M., (1995) Dangerous Fieldwork. London: Sage

Lois, J., (2003) Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers. New York: New York University Press

Lyng, S., (1990) ‘Edgework: A Social Pyschological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking’, American Journal of Sociology, 95, 4: 851-886

Mullins, C.W., (2013) Holding Your Square: Masculinities, Streetlife, and Violence. Portland, OR: Willan Publishing

Nordstrom, C., and Robben, A.C.G.M., (1995) Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press

Phillips, S.W., (2016) ‘Police Discretion And Boredom: What Officers Do When There Is Nothing to do’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 45,5: 580-601

Pink, S., (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography, London: Sage.

Power, M., (1996) ‘Making things auditable’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 21, (2-3): 289-315

Spencer, J., (2009) Back cover endorsement of Borneman and Hammoudi

Twigg, J., Wolkowitz, C., Cohen, R.L., and Nettleton, S., (2011) ‘Conceptualizing body work in health and social care’, Sociology of Health & Illness, 33, 2: 171-188

Van Maanen, J., (1973) ‘Observations on the socialization of policemen’, Human Organizations, 32: 407-18

Van Maanen, J., (1978) ‘The Asshole’, in Manning, P., and van Maanen, J. eds., Policing: A View from the Streets. New York: Random House

Venkatesh, S., (2009) Gang Leader for a Day. London: Penguin.

Wacquant, L., (2004) Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wacquant, L., (2015) ‘For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood’, Qualitative Sociology, 38, 1: 1-11

Wolcott, H.F., (2004) Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork.Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira

Ward, J., and McMurray, R., (2016) The Dark Side of Emotional Labour, Abingdon: Routledge

Warden, T., (2013) ‘Feet of clay: confronting emotional challenges in ethnographic experience’, Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 2, 2: 150-172

Zenker, O. and Kumoll, K., (2009) Beyond Writing Culture: Current Intersections of Epistemologies and Representational Practices. New York: Berghahn

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