Reflexive Ethnography and Refugee Research


Anthropologists and sociologists using ethnography set out for the field with a clear boundary between the researcher and researched whichever way this boundary and “otherness” may be defined. The ethnographer is invisible in many classical ethnographic monographs as symbolized by the absence of the pronoun “I” in the methodology and methods sections that tend to be sanitized and devoid of the bumpy experiences that are not alien to human interaction. Published monographs are often polished in ways similar to the final product issued by the film industry. Outside reflexive ethnography, the unvarnished aspects of establishing rapport and experiences of living in a given community for months are rarely discussed. Yet, contrary to being a fly on the wall, the ethnographer is very much part and parcel of situations that unfold during fieldwork. This case discusses the encounter between the ethnographer and research participants and shows how the real experience in the field is not as neat as one reads in many ethnographic studies’ methods sections. Based on my research experiences in 2006-2007 with refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, I argue that ethnographic encounters blur many boundaries that are taken for granted, such as those between home and field, researcher and researched, knower and known, insider and outsider, as well as self and others. Embedded in this blurring of boundaries are fluidity and instability of researcher identity which can shift to the point of both puzzling and amusing the ethnographer.

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