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What a highly controversial ethnography says about tensions, problematizations and inequality in contemporary ethnographic practice and regulation

Anson Au (Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)

Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN: 1443-9883

Article publication date: 20 January 2020

Issue publication date: 20 January 2020

183

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to illuminate how inequality – in the way ethnography as a research tool itself is used – underwrites many of the methodological tensions in the recently published and widely-debated On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman.

Design/methodology/approach

The author conducts an in-depth, critical analysis of On the Run as an epistemological case to visualize methodological and moral challenges that burden ethnographic practice at large.

Findings

The author opens dialogue on undercover ethnography, the overreach of institutional review boards, privilege in the use of ethnography as a research tool, “Othering” and the exoticization of the underclass, and the boundary shift from observer to participant roles with deep immersion. The author unpacks these areas of contention toward the construction of a potential alternative combining public sociology with what is called a sociology of compassion.

Originality/value

While the book provides an intimate, rich account of the experience of law among the underclass, the author demonstrates that it constitutes an epistemological case ideal for examining how the issues of pre-fieldwork preparation, positionality and deep immersion are conceived – and problematized – in mainstream ethnographic practice.

Keywords

Citation

Au, A. (2020), "What a highly controversial ethnography says about tensions, problematizations and inequality in contemporary ethnographic practice and regulation", Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 140-151. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-07-2019-0056

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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