Academic journal article Social Justice

Ethnography and the Governance of Il/legality: Some Methodological and Analytical Reflections

Academic journal article Social Justice

Ethnography and the Governance of Il/legality: Some Methodological and Analytical Reflections

Article excerpt

This article focuses on some of the contributions and pos sibili ties of ethnography in relation to the study of the governance of il/legality: that is, the ways in which societies understand and act on crime, punishment, security, and law. It represents neither a comprehensive treatise on ethnography nor a methodological how-to guide. (1) Rather, this article attempts an analytic and methodological reflection on ethnography vis-a-vis legal and penal governance. It asks, for instance: What contributions have ethnographic inquires made in these arenas? What possibilities might this methodological approach open? How can ethnography contribute to expanding and deepening the study of law, punishment, and governance? In what follows, we put forward a case for the value of ethnography for studying il/legality in our current moment that, we hope, will be of interest to individuals new to or considering ethnography as well as to those already utilizing it.

We conceive of ethnography as more than a methodological toolkit or set of procedures that researchers simply adopt and apply (see Coutin 2002; Nader 2002). There are multiple reasons for this. First, ethnography necessitates the formation of relationships with people who are already enmeshed in complex webs of relations, processes, and groupings (Coutin 2002), and gathering data through firsthand methods places the researcher within these webs of relations. Thus, ethnographers do not only discover and report on a field site; they inevitably influence and, at least partially, constitute what they study. Second, ethnography "is a project that develops over time" (Starr 6c Goodale 2002a, 3): It requires a considerable investment of time, and it can necessitate adapting plans, questions, or even foci as the project progresses. Third, although participant observation and interviews are at the core of ethnographic projects, these projects can and do entail other methods, such as gathering documents (Merry 2002), archival and historical research (Friedman 2002), and linguistic analysis (Collier 2002; Richland 2008). In ethnographic projects, methods "become eclectic because a loyalty to a single technique, even participant observation, commonly stultifies research" (Nader 2002, 192). Lastly, practicing ethnography in legal and penal settings requires careful consideration of the ethical issues involved, including the often complex relationship between researcher and research subject/participant as well as a recognition of the ways in which research is inextricable from the politics of knowledge and power (Coutin 2002; Marcus & Fisher 1999). (2) Ethnography certainly entails a set of practices for gathering data--although they are more diverse than sometimes acknowledged--but this article focuses more on ethnography as a modality for engaging with complex phenomena, opening new or underexplored lines of inquiry, developing theory and critical thought, and intervening in the social world in different ways.

Penality: Embracing Mess and Entanglement

Before focusing on the place and potential of ethnography, a few words about our areas of substantive interest are in order. In particular, we focus on the relatively recent blossoming of scholarship exploring the complexity, diversity, and diffuseness of the governance of crime. Of course, recognizing multiformity in this realm is nothing new: Various observers have, for some time, called attention to the entangled nature and dispersed operations of societal efforts to govern il/legality. In a foundational text, for instance, Durkheim (1893/2014) highlighted that crime control practices are thoroughly social practices deeply interconnected with, and reflective of, other social facts and forces. Rusche and Kirchheimer (1939/2009) called attention to linkages between political economy (e.g., labor surpluses or shortages) and punishment. Foucault (1977, 2009) enjoined readers to explore penal phenomena both within and beyond the walls of the prison and conceptualized punishment as a "carceral archipelago": a diverse and extensive array of institutions, practices, and logics. …

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