Manos Savvakis and Manolis Tzanakis (2004) 'The Researcher, the Field and the Issue of Entry: Two Cases of Ethnographic Research Concerning Asylums in Greece'

Sociological Research Online, vol. 9, no. 2, <>

Received: 24 Sep 2003     Accepted: 24 May 2004    Published: 31 May 2004


The way the researcher enters the research field can constitute a privileged mode of observing the structure and qualities of the research field, particularly in qualitative sociological inquiries. In the process of the initial contact of the researcher with a social place, especially in those cases when his/her physical presence is required, the structural features of the place gradually manifest themselves. Quite often, a strictly 'technical' approach to research-work tends to overlook the potential usefulness of this phase. In this article, we will put forward the hypothesis that by investigating the way research participants observe the researcher, especially during the initial stage of interaction, we can gain useful knowledge regarding particular structural aspects of the research field.
Keywords: Bias; Biographical-Narrative Method; Biography; Ethnographic Research; Participant Observation; Research Field

The Question of Reflection and its Relation to Research Practice

1.1 The entry into the research field and the involvement of the researcher with the informants/narrators constitute two significant issues that emerge during qualitatively[1] oriented fieldwork. Many scholars reflect on these issues as vital elements of their inquires, suggesting that they might highly influence the final research outcome. They also propose that these elements of qualitatively oriented empirical research can be potentially methodologically and analytically used in order to gain a more spherical and elaborated picture of the case under examination (Bytheway, 1993; Evans 1993; Humphrey, 1993; Rosie, 1993; Temple, 1997; Collins, 1998; Scott, 1998).

1.2 Besides, some of them recommend that without the researcher's personal involvement and commitment to the informants/narrators, which is both a practical and pedagogic constituent of qualitative inquires, the final research outcome runs the danger of being a standardized account that will not offer 'actual' access to the intrinsic qualities of the social worlds under investigation (Kaufmann, 1996; Scott, 1998; Collins, 1998). In other words, these scholars essentially put forward the issue of the researcher's personal emotions and beliefs as fostering elements of a sophisticated sensibility that can enrich sociological understanding and promote practical action (Wilkins, 1998, pp. 93-100).

1.3 Thus, in every sociological inquiry, the way the researcher is initiated into the social world under examination constitutes an index to the intrinsic qualities and structure of this world. In other words, it comprises an indicator to the formal and informal hierarchies that exist there-namely, all those elements that impart to the research field its particular logic and idiosyncrasy (Angrosino, 1989; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Denzin, 1997).

1.4 In qualitative social inquiries, the respect for the informants/narrators, the game of communication, the theoretical sensitivity and the unavoidable involvement of the researcher represent pivotal elements, which seem to strongly influence the final research result (Denzin, 1989, 1996; Riessman, 1993; Hollway & Jefferson, 2000; Chamberlayne et al 2000, pp. 167-180). Researchers, most of the times, bring in their own social world and think grounded in their own social experiences, which are linked to corresponding practices and interpretive schemes.

1.5 These experiences reflect internalized social knowledge and skills that very often betoken distinct social and cultural modes of understanding and explanation. This happens because the researcher very often belongs to different 'lived worlds' (Habermas, 1987, pp. 23-176) from those of the informants/narrators. The different social place the researcher occupies within the social world, the distinct conceptual schemes s/he employs, and the 'symbolic violence' (Bourdieu, 1999) that s/he always seems to exercise during the research process may have partial negative effects and distort the analytic process.

1.6 Despite the difficulties indicated above, the different places the researcher and the informants/narrators occupy almost always mutually shape the 'research object' in a potentially open and communicative way (Kaufmann, 1996, pp. 19-24). The effects of the broader social world-that is of the 'interpretive horizon' (Gadamer, 1975) of the researcher-are impossible to entirely neutralize. Social researchers live, think and act within the frameworks of particular social times and spaces. In addition, they face certain limitations and command particular possibilities as a result of their inherent relation to the social world. Among others things, researchers always seem to be condemned to act as inter- mediators between different perspectives, between different ways of grasping the social and between different ways of 'reading and writing history' (Carr, 1999).

1.7 The research act itself forces the researcher to intermediate through a manifold of logics of the social worlds under investigation in order to mutually shape with the informants/narrators an 'obvious object of scientific study' (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Travers, 2001). Many times, these social worlds are forced through indirect symbolic violence to expose itself with all its potential breaks and antinomies. Consequently, we can claim that in qualitatively oriented social inquiries, the researcher's involvement is desirable for it reveals some features of the underlying structure of the field (Kaufmann, 1996; Scott, 1998, Collins, 1998). Besides, it is judged as a methodological sine-qua-non. The researcher's detachment in relating to the informants/narrators and his/her exaggerated research formality and conventionality seem to finally result in a corresponding detachment of the informants/narrators. According to Kaufmann, the 'petition of neutrality' quite often results into a disassociated and typified description (Kaufmann, 1996).

1.8 On the other hand, the biographical- narrative method, for example, is often accused of registering social phenomena without managing to grasp their concrete historical dimension (Bourdieu, 1993, 1999, pp. 131-139). Bourdieu, for instance, speaks of the 'biographical illusion' (Bourdieu, 1999, pp. 131-139). In his point of view, biographical narration is a process of construction that is mutually shaped by the narrator and the researcher. This requires of the subject a coherent story and a competence to narrate it. Thus, the narrator and the interviewer reinforce underlying social obligations that presuppose un-fragmented individuals. This, for Bourdieu, is a form of ideological illusion that ultimately overlooks the fundamental division of the social world into partial social fields and the impact of economic, social and cultural inequalities (Bourdieu, 1999, pp. 131-139).

1.9 Without solely focusing on the methodological implications of the previous remarks, we could, paraphrasing Bourdieu, speak of the 'illusion of society as the object of sociology'. Society never presents itself to the subject of research experience as something 'out there' or as an a-historically constituted 'object'. The 'objects' of sociology and sociology as science per se are essentially social artifacts (Combessie, 1996, p. 60; Ion, 1997, pp. 20- 21). In other words, the actors involved maintain a certain amount of social knowledge, employ their own ways of coping with the given situations, interpret the social world and therefore act in order to transform it (Stanley, 1993, pp. 41-52; Wilkins, 1993, pp. 93-100).

1.10Sociological knowledge is a priori involved into its 'object of study' and a priori pre-interpreted by the schemes of its contemporariness and the researchers' particular social, temporal and spatial frameworks. In the social sciences especially, it is rather futile to search for an Archimedean point of leverage for an ultimate sort of truth. This occurs for both the object of sociology as an 'object' and the research gaze that examines it are 'results' and at the same time 'producers' of historical processes (Gadamer, 1975; Ricoeur, 1990, p. 244).

1.11 An elaborated understanding of the historicity of the 'object of sociological study'-what Gadamer describes as 'interpretive reflection' (Gadamer, 1975, pp. 107-135) - does not strictly imply restrictive and negative consequences regarding the research act. Besides, it cannot simply and one-dimensionally be understood as a refusal of the possibility of ultimate grounding (Champagne, 1999). On the contrary, one could posit that fruitful interpretive perspectives can be put forward taking into account the issues raised above. These perspectives concern the exploration of social processes in ways that relativise methodological fetishism and the doctrinaire insistence on positivistic criteria of verification.

1.12 The dogmatic insistence on the 'use of the right method' simultaneously indicates that we are attempting to reconstruct social reality based on ad hoc sociological concepts, an effort that implies normative claims regarding social reality. Thus, we run the risk of miring ourselves and understanding silence (i.e. someone's refusal to give an interview) as a mere 'technical dysfunction', an obstacle to fulfilling the criterion of sample representativity, and not as a structural characteristic of the social place under investigation (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, pp. 214- 217; Collins, 1998). This implies that the fact that a person has the right to speak publicly (i.e. in an interview) is not a simple issue of methodological significance but also an issue of structurally conferred authority (Temple, 1997; Collins 1998; Scott, 1998).

1.13 The relationship between the researcher and the informants/narrators is complex, shifting and fluid and it is always, even in the more 'loose or hierarchical contexts', inter-subjectively structured. This implies that it is not always crystal clear where the equilibrium of power or authority lies and what are the 'real' practical advantages of the researcher's symbolic capital. In other words, the informants/narrators also hold power and might, if they are forced or challenged to, 'bring into play' it against a pressing situation/question. In this negotiating and communicative process, which actually constitutes selves and transforms identities, we can detect costs, losses and gains. Apart form the previous, we also find out an enormous effort to improve the quality of the data in a reflexive way, for the social word is always an ambivalent and ambiguous universe that holds well-hidden petit secrets, which are not exposed to the researcher without personal involvement (Collins, 1998).

1.14 In this corpus of methodological difficulties-typical of fieldwork-based inquiries-we can identify a 'privileged forum' of analyzing the structure of the research field (Schwartz, 1993, p. 272)-that of the researcher's entry to the field.A strictly technical and instrumental approach to these refusals to speak, which are quite often encountered in fieldwork, their reading as mere 'methodological failures' or as failures to gather a 'representative sample', would distort the structure of the research field as this is crystallized in a particular historical moment, namely the moment of the research act. These 'technical difficulties' constitute integral elements of the field. In these methodological fallacies we can detect the grounding of a general exhortation to take advantage of 'bias' (Temple, 1997).

1.15 This taking advantage of 'bias' should not be overlooked or simply downgraded to the status of 'sampling problem' (Kaufmann, 1996, p. 66; Guibert & Jumel, 1997, pp. 100- 124; Temple, 1997). It should not also be posed to a mere unscientific issue that does not concern or does not influence the final research result, for the social world is neither a ready-made entity waiting 'out there' to be discovered; nor a monolithic and static reality that is irrelevant or indifferent to the interpretative schemes or the actions of the agents involved[2].

1.16 In every case, however, the researcher should reflect on the way s/he enters the field of inquiry (Laplantine, 1996, p. 21; Guilbert & Jumel, 1997, p. 100; Scott, 1998). For instance, the mediator influences the way the researcher is welcomed and perceived. In addition, this reflection on the way the researcher enters the field and is received by the informants/narrators constitutes an integral dimension of his/her analysis for it reveals the way the research field deals with and perceives him/her. According to Ricoeur, the understanding of the other is simultaneously self-reflection and every knowledge of the other is always a dynamic process of self- knowing (Ricoeur, 1990, p. 40).

1.17 Under the light of the previous theoretical thoughts, the present analysis is focused on the entry of the researcher in the empirical research field and on his/her first contact with the informants/narrators. In the present contribution, two cases[3] of empirical research are examined. The first case concerns the psychiatric reform in Greece, especially in Crete, an endeavor that took place the last eighteen years. The second case regards the Leprosarium of Spinalonga in Crete, an institution that was established in 1903 and terminated its function in 1957.

1.18 Both cases are related to asylums of confinement, which functioned in the geographical area of Crete. Based on these two research projects, which seem to hold certain analogies and differentiations, two examples of entering the research field are analyzed. These two empirical examples, which are based on two particular case studies, seem to demonstrate corresponding structural elements of the social worlds under examination (Wengraf, 2000, pp. 140-164; Travers 2001).

1.19 In the first case, which is based on the psychiatric reform in Greece, what is put forward is the weight of the professional status of the researcher. In the second case, which is based on the Leprosarium of Spinalonga, what is highlighted is the importance of the common geographical origin of the researcher and the narrators. In both cases, these elements, which emerge during the process of entering the respective research fields, demonstrate intrinsic characteristics of the cases examined and do not simply concern technical dimensions of the research process. We might even argue that on the spectrum of attitudes towards the researcher, these two cases occupy relatively extreme positions: the first introducing a negative bias and the second a correspondingly positive bias to the research.

1.20As we mentioned earlier, the present paper examines in the first case (psychiatric reform in Greece) the 'professional status' of the researcher and in the second case (Leprosarium of Spinalonga) the 'common origin' of the researcher and the informants as constitutive elements of the research process based on three criteria.

1.21 More particularly, these criteria are strongly related to:

1.22 The core aim is to demonstrate the presuppositions and problems of the entry into the research field as issues of major methodological significance, which is to say that these issues are qualitatively different from the way a possible classification or reduction would understand them- that is as 'simple technical dysfunctions'.

First Case: 'I do not have the right to speak in public ...'

2.1 The first case is based on participant observation in community psychiatry services and concerns psychiatric reform in Greece (1985-2003). As we mentioned earlier, for the past eighteen years a reform of the psychiatric services is being attempted in Greece. For many psychiatrists, this undertaking essentially involves the replacement of the 'asylum' model' with a 'community model' of psychiatric treatment (Tzanakis, 2003, pp. 138- 197). This process is intensely conflictual and therefore results in competitive perspectives of evaluating the process of transformation, particularly on the level of everyday life.

2.2 The three prisms for evaluating these processes of transformation regarding the field of Greek psychiatry schematically are: