“Messy” ethnographies for messy social realities

Alexandra Plows

This session invites papers which explore/ ‘speak to’ Law’s observation that “ethnography needs to work differently if it is to understand a networked or fluid world” (Law 2004 p3) and Law’s concept of “method assemblage” as a means of “work[ing] in and know[ing] multiplicity, indefiniteness, and flux” (ibid p117). It invites papers which deal with the practical, epistemological and ethical opportunities and challenges of engaging in “messy” ethnographic practice as a means of researching “messy” social realities in a wide variety of contexts, such as the changing face of the workplace; or the internal dynamics of social movements; or researching ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ or ‘transgressive’ social groups and individuals. The ways in which such “messiness” can manifest are multiple and often cross –cutting; for example it can come from being at the boundaries of “standard” research practice; ethnography at, or indeed beyond, the interface of researcher/researched, ie the practice of “embedded” ethnography (Lewis & Russell 2011), or “engaged action research” (Plows 2008). “Messiness” can also manifest through the negotiation of the ethical challenges such practices produce, and the far from insignificant difficulties of squaring innovative research practice with the constraints of research ethics committees and the issue of what constitutes truly informed consent for research participants. In their 2011 paper on embedded ethnographic practice, Lewis & Russell discuss these constraints, noting that

“we cannot know today what we might need to ask tomorrow, and to pretend we did would deny one of the most basic values of ethnography ..: that it can deal with complex, fluid contexts and their emergent and unanticipated issues” (ibid p409).

“Messy” ethnographic practice is not simply a useful (albeit challenging ) method for exploring and engaging with “messy” social realities; drawing on feminist (Stanley 1991, Roseneil 1996) and critical realist (Becker 1967) positions, it is understood as a politically situated practice which reflexively critiques the notion of academic “value- neutrality”. With echoes of Becker’s classic (1967) argument that the issue is not whether we should take sides, but rather “whose wide are we on”, Law makes similar claims; “social…science investigations interfere with the world…things change as a result. The issue, then, is not to seek disengagement but rather with how to engage” (ibid p14). One might add, and with why to engage. This can be understood as a call to action for the academic community; to reflexively engage politically. As such, “messy” ethnographic practice has a role to play in the production of politics in, or for, an age of uncertainty.

Please submit a 500 word abstract or proposal by Tuesday 28th February 2017.

Contact us

University of Bangor

Contact us