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The Ethnographic Rollercoaster: The Emotional Impact of Ethnographic Research

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Angela MazzettiORCiD


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Conducting an ethnographic study is an emotional experience which can have long-lasting impact on the researcher (Van Maanen 2010). Emotions may be experienced throughout the ethnographic research process including gaining access (Brewer 2000; Crang and Cook, 2010); fieldwork (Down et al., 2006; Mohrman, 2010; Waddington, 2004) and writing up (Van Maanen, 2011; Waddington, 2004). Yet within the field of Management and Organisational studies, this emotion is rarely expressed in academic writing (Clarke et al., 2014; Down et al., 2006; Whiteman et al., 2009). With limited role models to draw on, this may result in new ethnographic researchers being unprepared for the emotions they may encounter in the field (Whiteman et al., 2009). Researchers may therefore feel that their emotional experiences are not normal and that they are in some way inadequate (Down et al., 2006). Without appropriate guidance and support, researchers may lose faith with ethnography and ultimately eschew ethnographic research in favour of other methodologies (Van Maanen 2010). This paper draws on both the literature on researcher emotion and my own personal experiences of planning, conducting, and writing up ethnography, to explore some of the emotional encounters experienced by ethnographic researchers. I first review the literature within Management and Organisational studies and also from the interrelated disciplines of Health and Social Sciences to highlight some of the potential emotional risks involved in ethnographic research. I then present examples from my three-year ethnographic study conducted with three fire and rescue services and a private fire training provider. I explore the range of emotions encountered throughout the research process: from the frustrations, euphoria, and disappointment of gaining and losing access; the fear of encountering fire and new experiences; feelings of affection and in some cases loathing for my research participants; being overwhelmed with research data; and the ethical dilemmas of writing up and publishing ethnographic data. Finally, drawing on best-practice from the literature and my own personal experiences I present a series of suggestions to support ethnographic researchers. Ethnography has made significant progress and impact over the past twenty years (Van Maanen, 2011) and it is therefore important that ethnographic researchers are appropriately prepared and supported throughout their research studies to enable further advancements to be made. It is hoped that this paper will go some way to reduce the emotional ‘‘shock impact’’ (Van Maanen et al., 1993) by better preparing ethnographic researchers for the emotions they may encounter in the field.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Mazzetti AS

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Unpublished

Conference Name: 11th Annual Ethnography Symposium

Year of Conference: 2016