Ethnographers’ well-being: is it worth protecting it?

One of today’s last panels at the symposium “Resisting the Eclipse” (Link) was aimed at highlighting and sharing the pains of prison ethnographers. The only problem when doing ethnography is not only linked to epistemology but concerns also the researchers’ mental, physical and emotional well-being. Alison Liebling, Deborah Drake & Jennifer Sloan, with the question/metaphor whether the process of research is rather sinking or swimming shared they own experiences of prison ethnography. What emerged (and what I perceive emerging) is the launch of a new conscience, a new way of academically sharing the research process more in depth. When it usually comes to fetching information on how to conduct ethnographic research in prison, the researcher-to-be is struck by questions related to the epistemology of the research, on the best way to avoid becoming native, on how to be reflexive, triangulate etc.

What emerges is that the process of research is not just a mental challenge or, at last, the outcome of the struggle between inner “tendencies” (theories, ideosincrasies etc) and the “scientific” rigor. In a more “understanding”  way, some remind us about the importance of how we react to the “thing” when it is alive and bites. Very few, if none, highlight the stories behind the research process, of how one actually survives this experience of facing a stressful situation without having and not being totally allowed to use their own coping skills.

The ethnographic research in prison is one of a kind. In ethnography the person’s sensitivity is required to discover the obvious, to narrate what goes on in the everyday; let the  smells, the awe-inspiring architecture of the prison struck you; the words and actions of those who we are researching. – every day.

Prison officers and those who live the everyday of the prison develop coping skills that are vital in stopping this awful environment slip into your fibers and affect your brain, your psyche, your own self. What a prison officers can do is to make the extreme environment become part of the everyday, get used to it, becoming native and learn how to use certain “skills” to survive.

It is quite unimpressive to see how some officers develop a tough skin and distance themselves from this environment, its intrinsic nastiness and – most lethal than all – its unpredictability.

The researcher cannot make use of these skills and has to expose themselves to the inputs coming from this environment and that, with the passing of the time, become sharp knives in the already tired and devastated psyche of the researcher.

What emerged yesterday is that there is a gap in the academic context  (perhaps result of the masculinity still intrinsic to the academic environment) of proper training and sharing of skills that make the difference between an awful and isolated experience and a series of researches carried out without all the pain that today is involved in the process.

Yesterday was a moment when I felt we should celebrate more these “heroes” of the field, hear their stories as “war” veterans and learn more from them. What is needed is a change in the mentality of the research process and further fairness towards those who will came after us. It is not fair to not depict the pains and struggles of the everyday life as researchers and it is a moral imperative to put every possible effort towards creating a shared knowledge of how to survive this extreme environment.

Once again, the researchers have neglected the most important tool of the job: ourselves. If we allow the next researchers to forget this important lesson, it will be affecting the quality of the research and the process of knowledge that we are trying to put in place with the ethnographic research.

But, from the other point, if we share the knowledge and expertise on how to survive the prison will we be living the research experience at its fullness? Is it there there risk of making the exotic familiar before actually starting our research?