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Discuss the relationship between fieldwork and writing in ethnography

Much has been written about the 'doing' of fieldwork and ethnography in recent times, discussions have ranged across issues of ethics, representation, factual accounts versus more narrative recordings of social situations and a questioning of the impartiality of the ethnographer. Fieldwork is an essential part of the ethnographer's research during which they generally immerse themselves as a participant observer in the study of a culture or social group, the resultant writing up process acts as an extension of the research, aiming to provide a representation of the cultural group in question. The term participant observer provides some suggestion of the problematic relationship this can entail. Ordinarily, we engage with our social interactions, to some greater or lesser extent, as a fully participating member, however, the dual role of being both participant and observer can bring tensions, complexity, and even conflict. Unsurprisingly then, there are many different approaches suggested for the effective ethnographer, ranging from the dispassionate and distanced observer to the emotionally and physically committed one. Debate surrounding the correct approach to adopt continues, to a degree these debates are a result of the changing nature of the social and material world in an era of rapid growth in information technology, political upheavals and changes in working patterns. Former methodologies have had to adapt, "it is a recurring aspect of change in the modern world… that old answers prove inadequate" (Spencer 1989, p146). The ethnographer may no longer work in a contained 'field', his or her approach may need to link people and places together, making sense of a network of informants due to migration and travel. So, the site under scrutiny may be less a specific locale and more a complex web of sites stretched over space and time.

"The increasing mobility of the people whom anthropologists study has coincided with… a re-evaluation of a number of long-standing conventions and assumptions… anthropologists have… redefined their ethnographic 'fields' to explore the multisited, transnational circulation of people". (Amit 1999, p13)

"Perceived in these terms, a metaphor of performance can be deployed to describe the construction of the field… a field is constructed through a play of social relationships established between ethnographers and informants… comprehending embodied as well as visual and verbal interactions." (Coleman & Collins 2006, p12)

The above quote suggests that a less one-sided attitude to fieldwork must be applied, one where it is expected that informants may act or speak in unexpected ways and where this is not considered detrimental to the fieldwork. Informants, it is posited should be present in the formation of research findings, not as sources of information alone but as "actively involved in their own self-representation (Spencer 1989, p159). Fieldwork, which may have been meticulously planned ahead of time, and sanctioned by a funding body might not turn out the way it was planned. Such outcomes may influence the way data is collected and interpreted, however, such dynamic occurrences should be considered as a vital part of the academic enquiry of social and cultural phenomena. Reality can be nebulous, and individuals will always to some extent see their own reality differently to anyone else, confusing the matter further due to the fact that "people forget. People rationalize what they do… people are not aware of all, or even most of the influences on what they do" (Handwerker 2006, p111). Bearing all these factors in mind, the relationship between fieldwork and writing in ethnography is contingent upon the interplay of data, circumstance, outlook and viewpoint, to name but a few. In writing up, the ethnographer must be aware of their own hand in the piece and of the impossibility of writing impartially, "human understanding of the phenomenal world can never escape personal subjectivity" (Handwerker 2006, p114). Not that this is a detrimental feature, but instead is a valuable tool in providing a rounded research project from a human and humane perspective.

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