Obstacles to ethnography

July 3, 2014

I enjoyed Laurie Taylor’s piece on immersive research (“Get stuck in”, Features, 19 June), and – as a part-time criminologist – share some of his nostalgia for the heyday and published classics of ethnography. But I would question his speculations about the retrogressive impact of the research excellence framework on new ethnographic research.

“Three short articles in peer-reviewed journals” might get you “all the REF credit” you need at Poppleton University, but it would not cut the mustard in my department (nor in many others like it, I would assume). In fact, an extended period of ethnographic research, producing three long articles in peer-reviewed journals and a full-length monograph, would – I should have thought – be a sensible and effective five-year REF strategy, for budding and seasoned ethnographers alike.

In my experience, ethics committee requirements (which Taylor breezily sets aside) are a far more serious obstacle to institutional ethnographies, especially when coupled with more or less tendentious appeals to data protection laws that powerful gatekeepers can use to deny access to well-qualified researchers pursuing legitimate research topics.

At least when you have actually secured your research funding, nobody is going to stop you dossing on park benches or observing life in Cambodian “sex-bars” (if that’s your bag). Meanwhile, researchers’ ability to contribute to effective public scrutiny of government institutions and to inform policy debates has declined in recent decades, and the REF is not, or not primarily, to blame.

Paul Roberts
Professor of criminal jurisprudence
School of Law, University of Nottingham

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