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5.0 out of 5 stars A considered insight into how ethnography affects YOU, 27 Aug. 2013
This review is from: COFFEY: THE ETHNOGRAPHIC (P) SELF; FIELDWORK AND THE REPRE-SENTATION OF IDENTITY: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity (Paperback)
In an incisive and pithy 160 pages, Coffey elaborates her basic premise that ethnographic fieldwork is an essentially human activity which cannot be divorced from the selfhood of the ethnographer. We inhabit the field we study, building relationships, developing rapports and intimately binding our personal narratives to that of our social participants. Ethnography simultaneously informs and is informed by our sense of self. Employing the metaphor of a romantic love affair (Chapter 6), Coffey explores the deep emotional attachments which often develop between an ethnographer and their field, driving home the multiply experienced reality that ethnographic fieldwork does not occur in a vacuum, nor does the ethnographer occupy a realm of autonomous reality insulated from the effects of the field. Rather, in seeking to understand the social world of our participants we are implicitly involved in recasting our understandings of ourselves: "In researching, constructing and writing the lives of others we are engaged in negotiating and writing ourselves" (pg. 47).

Drawing upon a comprehensive array of extant field studies, The Ethnographic Self consists of nine relatively self-contained chapters structured loosely around two themes: the ethnographic experience in the field (chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5) and the later recalling, interpretation and representation of that experience by the ethnographer (chapters 6, 7 and 8). Coffey thus seeks to capture the totality of the ethnographic endeavour demonstrating how aspects of self permeate each stage of the ethnographic process.

Whilst acknowledging the utility of well-known methods textbooks outlining how to 'do' qualitative research, Coffey makes clear that her focus is on unpacking "how fieldwork research and textual practice construct, reproduce and implicate selves, relationships and personal identities" (pg. 1). She goes on (Chapter 2) to challenge simplistic dichotomies of researcher-as-stranger versus over-immersion in the field, arguing instead for a nuanced middle way in which "The ethnographer cultivates strangeness and distance in order to gain insight and understanding of the cultural setting while experiencing personal growth, based upon a view of the self as a product of and subject to its own agency and will" (pg. 22).

Coffey's third chapter examines the implications of the fact that fieldwork is conducted with social actors in a peopled field. The cultivation of interpersonal relationships is key to successful ethnography yet these are subject to the same emotive, personal elements which pervade all human interaction: "The narratives of ethnographic friendship are indicative of social actors sharing lives and biographies in the field. They serve to remind us that we are part of what we study" (pg.47). Similarly, in using ourselves as the "ultimate in research instruments" (pg. 161), we physically thrust our bodies (Chapter 4) into the social and cultural settings from which we elicit our data. In particular, ethnographers often engage in `self-conscious impression management' (pg. 64) to facilitate access and maintain an acceptable persona during fieldwork.

Sometimes, the personal and physical intensity of fieldwork coalesce into sexually intimate encounters - especially if the fieldwork is undertaken in erotic settings (Chapter 5). Although "issues of ethics, safety and power" (pg. 77) are involved here, the lived reality of field-based intimacy debunks the "myth of the neutral, semi-detached, `scientific' and `objective' ethnographer in operation" (pg. 96). This substantiates Coffey's key assertion that ethnographic fieldwork is a highly-charged personal and emotional undertaking.

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the remembering, analysing and retelling of our experiences of fieldwork, whether through the time-honoured conventions of literary genre or more recent postmodernist experimentations with "scripts, poetry, performance texts and diaries" (pg.150). From our recording of fieldnotes, the site "where we, at least privately, acknowledge our presence and conscience" (pg. 120), to the "passionate analysis" (pg. 136) of our data and its eventual crafting into a comprehensible communicative form, Coffey's point is that the ethnographic self is never absent: we inhabit our text and the cognitive processes which lead to its production just as we inhabited the field which generated the data from which our text was born. Neither are devoid of emotion and neither can be divorced from the biography and identity of the ethnographer.

While some would argue that, taken to their extreme, Coffey's contentions can transmogrify the ethnographic enterprise into a narcissistic and egotistical exercise in self-indulgence, I feel a reflexive awareness of the role the self plays in shaping our ethnographic experience only enriches the quality of our work. Coffey succinctly summarises: "It is totally necessary and desirable to recognize that we are part of what we study, affected by the cultural context and shaped by our fieldwork experience. It is epistemologically productive to do so, and at best naÔve to deny the self an active, and situated place in the field. However, it is not necessary to make the self the key focus of fieldwork, and to do so would render much ethnographic work meaningless" (pg. 37).
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Location: Lancashire, England

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