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The perfect fit? Being both volunteer and ethnographer in a UK foodbank

Kayleigh Garthwaite (Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 14 March 2016




The purpose of this paper is to explore both volunteer and ethnographer in a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees, North East England during a period of welfare reform and austerity. It shows how ethnographic researchers can develop a more effective qualitative understanding of foodbank use through volunteering.


The methodological design was ethnographic both in terms of data collection and analysis. Volunteering and participant observation began in November 2013 and is ongoing. The data presented are derived from field notes of participant observations.


Tensions are present when considering how best to write up ethnographic research when the researcher adopts a “volunteer ethnographer” role. The negotiation of relationships, practices, and emotions requires the researcher to appreciate the complex and “politicized” discourse surrounding foodbank use in order to report how the foodbank operates in an objective yet truly reflective way.


There is an expanding research interest in the growth of foodbanks. This paper offers unique insights into the value and tensions of adopting the dual role of “volunteer ethnographer” when researching foodbank use in the UK.



The author would like to thank the Stockton-on-Tees Trussell Trust foodbank for hosting our research. Thank you to all of the participants in the study who gave up their time to take part in the research. This project was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership Award held by Professor Clare Bambra (Award Reference No. RL-2012-006). The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the funder. More details of the Stockton-on-Tees study are available here:


Garthwaite, K. (2016), "The perfect fit? Being both volunteer and ethnographer in a UK foodbank", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 60-71.



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