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Doing and Undoing Fieldwork: A Case of Participant Observation in a State Institution

Case
By: Published: 2014 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases
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Abstract

Between 2009 and 2011, I conducted fieldwork with Swiss registrars to understand how they marry people. The research was framed by a particular socio-political context: the struggle against ‘abusive foreigners’ (non-nationals looking for a national spouse to circumvent migration legislation). This case study presents methodological issues linked to the centrality of interpersonal relations as an efficient way to constitute empirical qualitative data. It clarifies assumptions about ‘the field’, which refers to place and time, but is more than a geographical location or a mere moment of the research. Continuity is built through recording field experiences. ‘Entering’ and ‘leaving’ the field are critical steps, but unexpected moments might reveal challenges, so I define unpredictability – the volatility of interpersonal relations that makes it impossible to anticipate all fieldwork events – as the main feature of field methodologies. To identify central issues, I focus on five processes: identifying the participants, collaborating, exchanging, suspending judgement and dealing with emotions. Finally, I argue that these features explain how field relationships endure after leaving ‘the field’, making the processing of notes highly sensitive and critical. Considering such continuities provides useful tools for overcoming the paralysis that often plagues inexperienced social researchers when they review these notes.

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