Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anxiety and Phantasy in the Field: The Position of the Unconscious in Ethnographic Research

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anxiety and Phantasy in the Field: The Position of the Unconscious in Ethnographic Research

Article excerpt


This article contributes to the geographical literature on reflexivity by asking what it means to take the researcher's unconscious seriously in ethnographic research, and proposes psychoanalysis as a theoretical and methodological resource for researching the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork. I begin by describing three moments from my fieldwork with panhandlers and drug users that evince the operation of the unconscious. I then review psychoanalytic work in the social sciences where the researcher becomes the object of analysis and situate the debate on psychoanalytic methodology as an extension of earlier work on reflexivity by feminist geographers. I outline three methods for investigating the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork: analysis, supervision, and case consultation. Summarizing my experiments with these methods, I discuss: the discovery that key elements of my research were inextricably connected to my own anxieties as a researcher, how analysis of a dream from early in the fieldwork revealed phantasies rooted in childhood and a profoundly ambivalent relationship to my informants, and I propose a dialectical method for incorporating the revelations of psychoanalytic reflexivity into research. I conclude by discussing some of the possibilities and consequences of taking the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork seriously.


Psychoanalysis, ethnography, reflexivity, qualitative methods, transference, panhandling


The most novel thing about psychoanalysis is not psychoanalytic theory, but the methodological position that the principle task of behavioral science is the analysis of man's [sic] conception of himself--Georges Devereux, From anxiety to method in the behavioral sciences (1967), p. 3

It is good form to introduce a work in psychology with a statement of its methodological point of view. I shall be derelict. I leave methods to the botanist and mathematician. There is a point at which methods devour themselves--Franz Fanon, Black skin, white masks (1967), p. 12

Three moments in the field


It's Friday night and I'm going out for drinks with my new advisor. I've just started the PhD and I'm talking excitedly about my project, which will be an ethnography of drug-using panhandlers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He's new to the city, so I'm playing the local, taking him to a bar I know in the neighborhood. Walking at night, I usually avoid the most intense blocks of the drug scene, but that night I decide to take him straight down Hastings, to show him this place that looms so large in the city's imagination. (Looking back, it's obvious that I was showing off a bit: trying to show him how comfortable I was in the neighborhood, how I could easily navigate this place that was spoken about with such fear. As it turned out, that night reminded me just how much the neighborhood could still unnerve me.) As we round the corner at Columbia and Hastings, it feels like the street rises up to engulf us like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch. Drug dealers on BMXs careen through the crowds on the sidewalk. People huddle in the doorways of abandoned storefronts, smoking crack from glass pipes with long rubber hoses. Others yell at passersby, chasing down people who owe them money, or cajoling them to lend them some: a buck, a hoot, a taste of it. A shirtless man stands in front of Brandiz's Pizza, half-naked in the yellow-green fluorescent light, jack-knifing at the waist, arms flailing wildly, in the throes of cocaine psychosis, sleep deprivation, or god knows what else. As we walk, I feign a confidence that in fact faded away blocks earlier. I feel overwhelmed, like a tourist in my own neighborhood. We walk in silence, eyes fixed on the ground. Turning the corner onto Main Street, I remember looking down just in time to avoid stepping in a pool of blood, a syringe lying in the middle.


That night I dreamt of the Downtown Eastside. …

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