Ethnography and Emotion

Hamid Foroughi, Neil Sutherland, Jenna Pandeli

Whilst recent years have seen an upturn in reflexive and emotionally engaged ethnographic writing, at best it still remains a marginal endeavor, and at worst is framed as ‘navel-gazing’ (Maddison, 2006), and self-absorbed narcissism (Anderson, 2006). Resultantly, various ethnographers note the tendency to leave out emotional experiences of their accounts to avoid giving the impression of weakness, impurity or a lack of detachment and objectivity (Widdowfield, 2000; Donnelly et al, 2013). This means that reflexive practice has become formulaic. They are recognized and welcome as long as they do not prompt any question about the research findings; are included only to establish the legitimacy of the authors (Tracy, 2013); and are increasingly used as a “means” to claim better research (Pillow, 2003). In other words, reflexivity is institutionalized; it has exceedingly been reduced to a ‘rational cognitive’ device- “as a part of the academic hegemonic structures in which we operate” (Koning & Ooi, 2013, p. 17).

Arguably however, acknowledging, writing and speaking about emotional experiences during ethnographic fieldwork can bring considerable value. Indeed, such an approach allows researchers to celebrate the complex, ambiguous and messy nature of the social world and reflect on our own positioning and relationships in the field (Palmer, 2010). It can open our eyes to aspects of fieldwork we may not have considered otherwise (Corbetta, 2002), and may even bring the struggles and experiences of the cultures under study into clearer focus. In so doing, emotional encounters provide ethnographers with “analytical clues” (Davies, 2010; Koning & Ooi, 2013) and offer an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the subject of research as well as our role in the production of knowledge. Writing our emotions ‘in’ to our work also helps to build a stronger community of ethnographers. By failing to pay attention to, or even acknowledge, the often unpleasant emotions experienced during fieldwork, first-time ethnographers may enter the field viewing it as a value-free endeavor, and be shocked to discover the upheaval that it brings. Indeed, ethnography can be lonely, isolating work: we regularly question ourselves and our abilities, and imposter syndrome is usually simmering near the surface. Therefore, it could be argued that putting emotions onto the ethnographic agenda can facilitate better preparation and an ethic of self-care throughout.

We invite contributions that attempt to shed light on the following broad areas, and particularly encourage those who embed their responses in a reflexive framing:

  • How and why are emotional experiences written ‘out’ of analyses; considered as impure; or looked down upon?
  • What are the various troubles of, and opportunities for, reflexively analyzing the self?
  • What specific mechanisms, tools or procedures can we lean upon for writing ‘in’ such stories?
  • How may ethnographers navigate emotional predicaments of fieldwork – before, during and after immersion?
  • How can researchers cope with and navigate emotionally challenging encounters?
  • How can such emotional encounters help researchers in understanding the self and the field? How they can help analysis happen?
  • How can we prepare ourselves, and/or others, for emotional experiences in the field?

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