Leah Molyneux, Criminology, Social Policy and Social Work, University of Liverpool (2020 Cohort)
For the past three months I have been conducting observational fieldwork with a rural UK police force. My research is concerned with understanding the role of the sergeant within the police organisation. Particular attention is paid to how sergeants shape the way frontline police officers manage and understand discretion.
Observational fieldwork is a well-established approach in police research. Taken from the anthropological tradition of studying cultures, it is a ‘distinctive, inquisitive and intimate form of inquiry’ that has become more eclectic over time (Van Maanen, 2011: 24; Bacon et al, 2020). We can use Fassin’s definition as we attempt to condense this complex method into three dimensions:
- Method: ‘requiring long-term presence, an intimate knowledge of people and places…and the identification of local codes…it requires living with, talking to and learning from’ participants.
- Experience: building trust and mutual recognition with interlocutors in order to understand ‘a culture foreign to us.’
- Writing: ‘putting into words and ideas what has been seen and heard, [and] giving a meaningful order to a succession of facts and events that may seem completely disparate at first.’ (Fassin, 2017: 8-9).
Well-cited works such as Simon Holdaway’s Inside the British Police (1979) displayed how useful observation can be for understanding and describing police practices.
Based on my experiences, I have collated some of the best bits of advice I would give a budding ethnographer:
Check-in buddy: If you are conducting an ethnography away from home, it is so important to have a check-in buddy. Someone you can send your shifts to, and text once you are home to show you are safe. Being able to call someone after a hard observation is also necessary to unwind.
Diaries: Try to write up your observation notes as soon after the observation as possible. Apart from these initial notes, I also got into the habit of writing in a diary about more personal thoughts and feelings, this helped me process what I saw and what I was feeling. If you’re too exhausted to write after an observation, taking a voice note and getting everything out is also a good idea.
Have a couple of notebooks with you and make sure you are writing notes at appropriate times, its important to know when to be in the moment and when to find a quiet corner to scribble some notes down. Having a bright coloured pen helps because they are easy to lose!
Get inventive with a kettle: When conducting fieldwork away from home, staying in a B&B is better than a hotel. A lot of B&Bs will offer deals on rooms if the stay is for an extended period, so shop around. Make sure the B&B is close to your fieldwork and shops. Ask the B&B owners if you can use their microwaves. By far the hardest part of living in a B&B, for me, was food. Luckily, there is a lot you can do with just your kettle, porridge, noodles and couscous were my staples.
Pack some earplugs an eye mask (trust me).
Explore & unwind: In my downtime, I enjoyed exploring the area, and found going for walks helped me process my shifts. Having a good Netflix series lined up to binge is super helpful for when you want to switch off and relax. Masterchef Australia really helped to regulate my emotions.
Be inquisitive: Write down everything! Begin your observations with an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they are silly. Some books may tell you to create some kind of ‘persona’ to help gain the trust of your participants. However, this can be exhausting to keep up. Do not compromise your sense of self and be willing to share things. Your participants will respond better to authenticity.
Overall, an ethnography is like starting at a new job. You’re attempting to explore and understand an alien setting or culture, whilst constantly thinking about how you fit into these new surroundings. You will ask yourself, what should I wear? Where should I stand? Which ones are the communal mugs? Is that milk out of date?
Don’t over think it and don’t be afraid to make errors, try to just enjoy the process.
For further advice I recommend Van Maanen’s ‘tales of the field’ or Rabinow’s ‘reflections on fieldwork in Morocco’.
Bacon, M., Loftus, B. and Rowe, M. (2020). Ethnography and the Evocative World of Policing (Part I). Policing and Society. 30(1), pp. 1-10.
Fassin, D. 2017 (ed.). Writing the World of Policing: the difference ethnography makes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the Field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.