Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


The Ethnographic Self, Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity

Amanda Coffey
Sage Publications: London
1999
0761952675 (pb); 0761952667 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)
192 pp.

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Given the relentless progress of sociology's 'inward turn', the current celebration of 'reflexivity' across the discipline and the 'crisis in ethnography', it was perhaps inevitable that a book would appear focusing on the subjectivity of that most particular and individualistic of research methods. Coffey discusses the ways in which 'the self' is a pervasive constituent of ethnographic inquiry. She argues that this fact has been consistently neglected, if not denied, in much ethnographic literature, which has sought to present ethnography as some kind of objective, impersonal approach. The aim of the book, then, is to turn the spotlight of sociological analysis onto the ethnographer her/himself and on field research as an interpersonal social setting.

Coffey begins by examining the more obvious elements of this subjective dimension: the sense of strangeness and anxiety that all ethnographers experience on entering the field and the role of subjectivity in the construction and maintenance of field relations. Coffey recognises that these topics are not new, but claims that previous discussions had been cast in instrumentalist terms: emphasising the control and management of subjectivity in getting the research task done. Consequently there has been little attempt to consider in detail the nature of the interaction between researcher and researched, still less "how fieldwork shapes and constructs identities, intimate relations, an emotional self and a physical self".

Therefore discussion of the more commonplace and well rehearsed aspects of field relations serves as an introduction to more original ones. These include the role of the body and the place of sexuality and the emotions in fieldwork. In discussing these matters, she draws upon an impressive range of studies to illustrate her points, thus indirectly confirming her central thesis that "the complex relationships between field settings, significant social actors, the practical accomplishment of fieldwork and the self are present and salient for all...who engage in qualitative research."

Since the stated rationale for the book is the need for a thoroughly reflexive analysis of ethnographic subjectivity, it is a little disappointing that Coffey does not make more user of her own field work experiences. These are referred to at various points, but nowhere are they given rigorous, extended examination. This criticism can be applied more generally. The chapters devoted to embodiment, sexuality and the emotions consist in not much more than commentary upon selected ethnographic texts in which these topics are implicated. While discussion of these materials evidences her claim that field research is a deeply subjective phenomenon, it does little to establish what might be involved in a rigorous analytic perspective on subjectivity.

At the heart of the argument is the now fashionable claim that only by focusing attention upon the sociologist/researcher can the 'dualities' which shape sociological thought be overcome. Reflexivity will lead us out of abyss into which we have been plunged by scientism, enabling us to see that the sociologist is a person like others, possessing a physical, emotional and sexual self which influences everything he/she does. Leaving aside the determinist slant in this view, the point would be more impressive if the implication was acknowledged that ethnographic inquiry massively consists in mundane, ordinary forms of social relations, made possible by the sociologist's mastery of ordinary interactional competencies. It is in and through such interaction that 'selves' and 'bodies' become salient features of the research experience. Yet nowhere does Coffey refer to any of the available methodologies of interactional analysis - for example, in a book devoted to 'the self', there is not a single mention of Goffman! This is a pity, since the use of such methodologies would have enabled her discussion to move beyond the level of the obvious and the illustrative.

David Francis
Manchester Metropolitian Universtiy

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999