Inside Ethnography: Researchers Reflect on the Challenges of Reaching Hidden Populations

Inside Ethnography: Researchers Reflect on the Challenges of Reaching Hidden Populations

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While some books present “ideal” ethnographic field methods, Inside Ethnography shares the realities of fieldwork in action. With a focus on strategies employed with populations at society’s margins, twenty-one contemporary ethnographers examine their cutting-edge work with honesty and introspection, drawing readers into the field to reveal the challenges they have faced.
Representing disciplinary approaches from criminology, sociology, anthropology, public health, business, and social work, and designed explicitly for courses on ethnographic and qualitative methods, crime, deviance, drugs, and urban sociology, the authors portray an evolving methodology that adapts to the conditions of the field while tackling emerging controversies with perceptive sensitivity. Their judicious advice on how to avoid pitfalls and remedy missteps provides unusual insights for practitioners, academics, and undergraduate and graduate students.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298248
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/10/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,017,240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Miriam Boeri is Associate Professor of Sociology at Bentley University. She is the author of Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation and Women on Ice: Methamphetamine Use among Suburban Women.

Rashi K. Shukla is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Oklahoma. She is the author of Methamphetamine: A Love Story. 

Read an Excerpt


Going Native with Evil

Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard

WHEN YOU ARE AN ETHNOGRAPHER, ideally you go native by using yourself as a research tool to understand phenomena from an insider perspective. This implies putting yourself in the shoes of others by immersing yourself emotionally and physically in their lives. This is challenging when the aim of the study is to understand violent acts from the perspectives of those who committed the acts. When the people studied engage in what could be considered "evil" activities of intentionally inflicting pain and suffering on other human beings (Vetlesen, 2005, 2), some research ideals are challenged.

This chapter reflects on the ways the ideal of doing ethnography influenced me to compromise when "going native with evil." I conducted fieldwork with young South African men who intentionally engaged in violent acts. My aim was to understand the circumstances that made them commit violence and their experiences from an insider perspective. I started by considering participants as capable agents with the capacity to make bounded choices (Cornish and Clarke, 1987). While I acknowledged that they were victims of different forms of structural violence, such as historical inequality, racism, and poverty (Abrahams and Jewkes, 2005; Kaminer et al., 2008), I tried not to reduce them to victims. I was determined to figure out under what circumstances they appeared to have a choice, particularly in the vulnerable moments where they used violence. Although they might have been categorized by a variety of psychological categories of disorders, as an anthropologist schooled in the tradition of relativism, I avoided categorization and engaged with them without preconceptions. My aim was to create a shared space of intersubjective reflexivity that allowed us to create a shared sense of understanding (Tankink and Vysma, 2006).

Doing ethnographic research with violent individuals was a confrontative and sometimes painful experience. I struggled with my inability to live up to some of the most basic dictums of doing good. As an undergraduate student in ethnography, I was taught the following: "become one of them," "do not judge your participants," "do what they do," "accept that participants become friends," "include different perspectives on your topic," and "listen to local advice" (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995). In this chapter, I reflect on how these ideals influenced me, and on how others may learn from my experiences and mistakes, to understand that making mistakes is a part of ethnography. I discuss these ideals by showing how they were integrated in my study, my response to the difficulties encountered when assuming these ideals could become reality, and the lessons I learned when reflecting on and questioning my ethnographic assumptions. The power of ethnography lies in the disorienting effects of the unknown and the willingness to get lost. To understand from an insider's perspective, you need to let go of preconceived assumptions, which can be a scary thing to do.


The aim was to understand why young men in Cape Town use violence, and in what ways they avoid using it in conflicts in their daily lives. I was interested in understanding their experiences with using and avoiding violence, and in explaining their reactions as related to the broader contexts of their lives. By combining interviews and observations, I focused my attention on both what young men said about violence and what they did when in conflict situations. Following them into different contexts also provided insights into how narratives about violence were contextually related and may change, depending on the audience.

I engaged in fieldwork from 2005 to 2006, with follow-up studies in 2008 and 2017 (see Lindegaard, 2018). During this time, I conducted more than 130 interviews with 43 men, aged sixteen to twenty-five, in 2005 and carried out extensive participant observations with 30 of them. Ten were in prison for the entirety of the study, while three moved in and out of prison, and the remainder were outside. Participants had experiences with violent acts of varying degrees of severity (e.g., murder, attempted murder, rape, assaults, and armed robberies). Participants were recruited at high schools, via snowball sampling to include those not attending school, and in a prison during afive-month period. Initially, participants showed me around their neighborhood taking photos of people and places that made them comfortable or uncomfortable. They showed me the photos and eventually took me the places where they had taken them in their neighborhood. After establishing rapport I spent more time with them, visiting friends and family, and going out to local bars, night clubs, beaches, and shopping malls (see fig. 1.1). I transcribed the recordings and wrote observation notes. Participants' were given pseudonyms. In 2017, I started using closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage to analyze interactions in violent conflicts. My research was approved by the ethical commission of the University of the Western Cape and the University of Amsterdam, and by the South African Department of Education and Department of Correctional Services.


As an ethnographer I was a clear outsider. I had had no experiences with violent acts. I am a woman, not South African; I have acquired higher-education and am white (most participants were nonwhite). As expressed by one of the warders in the prison where I conducted fieldwork: "You have three things against you Marie: you are white, from far away, and you have a cute face so watch out!" Despite obvious differences, participants' reflections were not so much about differences but about similarities. As one participant, Drégan, recognized: "If you had been a man, Marie, and you had grown up on the Cape Flats, you would be just like me! You also like danger. Otherwise, you would not have done this kind of work. Some people might think you are a nerd but you cannot be a nerd and do this kind of work. You are just like me! You just happened to live in another part of the world." Drégan touched upon questions I grappled with myself. What made me different from my participants? What caused our dissimilarities? To understand, my aim was to immerse myself emotionally and physically as much as possible into their lives. This led to confronting a range of inconsistent dogma regarding fieldwork and compromising on ideals to protect others and myself from danger (Ferrell and Hamm, 1998). Many compromises involved dilemmas of being an outsider, not knowing when to express emotions, struggling with understanding my subjects, balancing judgments and generating trust, not knowing when to be honest and when to be less than honest. In retrospect, I wish someone had told me that making compromises was not only wise but necessary when researching violence. The aim to understand and not judge people was the precondition for preventing violence.


My predefined assumptions became apparent as my own emotional responses to engaging with participants emerged. In the beginning, I felt anxious and afraid. I tried to hide these emotions because I was worried that expressing them would endanger my ability to establish rapport and understand acts from their perspective. Fear and anxiety had to be suspended to access their points of view.

One example to illustrate this point is from an interview conducted with Drégan. While I wanted to know about the "evil acts" that he committed, at the same time, I struggled emotionally with handling the details about these acts because it challenged the relationship I was establishing with him. To relate to him and understand him, I needed to feel connected with him. However, my own fear and disgust of the details of his acts made me unable to listen to what he was saying without judgment. Instead, I tried to take control by posing too many, irrelevant questions.

I met Drégan while working for a nongovernmental organization in prison and interviewed him at his house upon release. I was in unfamiliar territory with a person experienced with killing and violence, and this caused me distress. Fortunately, his mother and sister were home in another room, and we whispered at times to prevent them from hearing our conversation. I tried to focus on his experiences but struggled to listen. His story made me upset.

D: So, one evening, I was sitting in the shebeen [illegal bar], this guy asks me for a kiss. I tell him, are you crazy; are you fucking crazy. The guy hits me with a beer bottle. I carried an axe at that time; a small axe. If it was not an axe it was a tagger or a knife; just something; always armed; it was part of the dress code. I take out the axe. Hit this guy but the guy is not alone. Now I am crazy and there is this whole gang. But I have a friend with me as well. He also has an axe but he is crumpling. I come back to that guy that I already knocked out. He is already away. When they see the state he is in, they get crazy. And they see I am all alone, Miss man.

M (INTERRUPTING TOO QUICKLY): Can you explain? I would very much like to hear every detail of when you hit this guy.

D: I was like crazy, Miss man ...

M (DEMANDING ELABORATION): So what do you remember? Like almost every minute?

D: Like I say, I cannot even remember none of their faces man. The moment when that guy hit me with a beer bottle and I stood up and I hit the first person that I see. I just stood up with my axe. I do not even know if the guy that I hit was the guy that hit me with the beer bottle. They were like a group and I just hit the first guy.

M (INSISTING): And what do you remember from the moment where you hit him?

D: It just feels like everything goes slow.

M (INSISTING): What clothes did he have on?

D: I cannot remember none of that. Because two weeks after that incidence I went back there to look for the guys and we wanted to shoot them. But I did not know who these people were so I had to ask around. I probably spoke with them but I am like gone. I was drunk. I do not notice anybody. I am just in love with myself at the time.

M (INSISTING): So where did you hit him?

D: In here. In his face.

M (INSISTING): How hard?

D: Joh, very hard (laughs nervously). With all the anger and power, you have in your body.

I tried to understand his experience as if I had been a part of it myself, but instead of allowing for elaborations I tried to stay in control by asking questions that at the time seemed relevant. I made the following remark about the interview in my notes afterward: "One of the things, which becomes clear from listening through the interview, is that I do not get all the points. Not because the story is actually that complicated — more because the whole topic makes me confused and emotionally unstable. I think I spend energy on putting myself together instead of focusing on what he says" (field notes).

The interview was highly distressing emotionally. The content would have been more valuable if I was quiet and listening. My own anxiety about the murder made me try to take control, which is not a fruitful approach when the aim is to understand.

In my reflections afterward, I described how it made me feel to put myself in his place:

I felt like throwing up, particularly in the situation with the axe. My stomach turned around and I had to focus on my breathing. After the interview, I felt very heavy. I felt like crying but I cannot cry. It feels like the tears are sitting right under my eyes but they cannot get out. When I got home, I walked up and down the floor unable to sit down. I feel restless and powerless. I am wondering if I violated him by asking him to move to what he called "the dark side." Am I supposed to cheer him up and handle his trauma? Does it make sense to see him as traumatized? (field notes)

My Response: Reflections on Emotions

The interview with Drégan made me doubt the feasibility of my study's aim of putting myself in the place of someone who had killed. After the interview, I realized that in order to continue in an emotionally engaged manner I needed to reflect on how emotions influenced interactions with participants. I forced myself to recognize those emotions through relaxation exercises and weekly reflections with a psychologist. These interventions did not remove my anxiety but helped me to recognize and acknowledge it. Instead of denying my anxiety and outsider role, I started embracing it by emphasizing how little I understood.

Lesson 1: Express Emotions and Doubt

Hiding emotions may be necessary to understand the topic of research from a native point of view, because revealing them may expose negative judgments. However, one lesson learned is that saying aloud "this description makes me feel nauseous" or admitting "not to understand the logic of killing because of an argument" is more productive and does not necessarily involve judgment. After Drégan's interview, I started using our differences actively by saying things like: "I do not mean to be disrespectful but I really do not get this. To me it is not logical at all." Saying this aloud invited participants to be more honest about their experiences and emotions. Emphasizing differences rather than shying away is a way to understand the other better.


Acknowledging differences created more honesty in our exchange of thoughts, but sometimes honesty led to oversharing. One example occurred when I provided Devron, another prison inmate, with the wrong transcription. When I was transcribing, I always made two versions. One included the verbal exchange, observations of body language, emotional experiences during the interview, interpretations of participant emotions, and conclusions about the content in relation to the overall questions. Another included only the verbal exchange. When I provided transcriptions to participants, I always used the verbal exchange version, except on one occasion.

Devron was in prison for murdering a girl he knew from school. His story deeply influenced me. I described my experiences in detail in the transcriptions. Devron had not only killed a woman who had shown trust in him by allowing him to walk her home after they met in a local bar, but he also raped her with a friend. The rape was the reason they felt they had to kill her. During the rape, she promised never to tell the police if they spared her. He explained to her that killing her was the only option. The transcriptions that I gave to him involved the following reflections that clearly involved judging Devron (marked in italics) in a way I tried to avoid in our interaction:

When I saw Devron in the class [where I presented my research], I thought he was a soft guy. He seemed shy but intelligent. I am not sure why. When he started talking during the interview, I realized that he was probably the most hard and "far out" I had spoken to so far. He was sentenced for murder, and he was eager to talk about it. He literally said it would be a relief for him to get it off his chest. He explained he had raped and killed a woman in the area where he stays. It made me sick to hear his story. I kept thinking to myself, it is ok you think he is sick. The only way I could understand him was by thinking about his crime as a matter of provoking and crossing boundaries. Devron came across as not particularly burdened by his activities. He did not show signs of being disturbed. Kyle [another participant] yesterday could hardly get it out of his mouth. Devron described killing as "these things just happen." For him violence seemed to be normalized as something he even felt obliged to do. He had been in prison only three weeks. Perhaps he has not yet realized what he has done. Perhaps he will never realize. ... The interview went easy. He was open and good in elaborating. He came across as strong in his body language. Confident but also aggressive. I was for the first time happy about the open door [to the corridor].

After I provided him with the wrong transcripts, I saw him in the corridor when visiting other participants. The way he looked and responded to me was different. He handed me a letter he had written. The letter made me realize I made a mistake, which Devron confirmed when I spoke to him the next day. In the letter, he responded to my comments about him with questions that required honest answers from me (marked in italics):

I cannot believe that I was opening my dark side in me for you. It was nice talking to you, really, but I want to know: Why did you feel uncomfortable when I was talking to you? ... I wonder what goes through your mind when you look at me because you speak to a man that killed someone and you know what took place with the murder. ... I will think of you because I told you a story that nobody else knows about me. It is just you and Kyle that know.


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Table of Contents


Miriam Boeri and Rashi K. Shukla

1 • Going Native with Evil
Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard
2 • Lost in the Park: Learning to Navigate the Unpredictability
of Fieldwork
Elizabeth Bonomo and Scott Jacques
3 • Unearthing Aggressive Advocacy: Challenges and Strategies
in Social Service Ethnography
Curtis Smith and Leon Anderson
4 • Going into the Gray: Conducting Fieldwork
on Corporate Misconduct
Eugene Soltes

5 • Hide-and-Seek: Challenges in the Ethnography of Street Drug Users
Merrill Singer and J. Bryan Page
6 • Into the Epistemic Void: Using Rapid Assessment to Investigate
the Opioid Crisis
Jason N. Fessel, Sarah G. Mars, Philippe Bourgois,
and Daniel Ciccarone
7 • Conducting International Reflexive Ethnography: Theoretical
and Methodological Struggles
Avelardo Valdez, Alice Cepeda, and Charles Kaplan

8 • Hidden: Accessing Narratives of Parental Drug
Dealing and Misuse
Ana Lilia Campos-Manzo
9 • Navigating Stigma: Researching Opioid and Injection
Drug Use among Young Immigrants from the Former
Soviet Union in New York City
Honoria Guarino and Anastasia Teper

10 • Dangerous Liaisons: Reflections on a Serial Ethnography
Robert Gay
11 • The Emotional Labor of Fieldwork with People
Who Use Methamphetamine
Heith Copes
12 • Ethnography of Injustice: Death at a County Jail
Joshua Price

Conclusion: Looking Back, Moving Forward
Rashi K. Shukla and Miriam Boeri

List of Contributors

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