Prison Ethnography

It is arguable that this research falls into the ethnographic tradition, as the combination of interviewing, observing, and spending time within the institution gives a much deeper view of the social state of the prison as compared to the use of any of these methods individually. That said, I would contend that—if we subscribe to Bryman’s concept of ethnography as entailing ‘the extended involvement of the researcher in the social life of those he or she studies’ (2004: 291)—the fact that the researcher could never really become involved in any extended manner in the social life of the prisoners under examination as a consequence of considerations of gender, personal safety, and relative freedom, has the result of somewhat excluding the research from the traditional field of ethnography. In addition, only a limited amount of time was spent in periods of observation on the wings and in other areas compared to time spent assisting the OMU/psychology department, simply experiencing the prison setting, taking ‘advantage of whatever opportunities for observation present themselves and then to ask questions about what one has seen’ (King 2000: 305), or undertaking interviews. Yet, the current definition of prison ethnography is much more flexible, and has undergone a veritable ‘boom’ during the period in which this book was written, with the combination of a dedicated symposium[1], and a special edition of the journal Qualitative Inquiry,[2] edited by Professor Yvonne Jewkes and culminating in the Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography (2015) being published, in which the discipline is defined as:

a form of in-depth study that includes the systematic and impressionistic recording of human cultural and social life in situ. It includes observing and/or interacting with people as they go about their everyday lives, routines and practices. We contrast an ethnographic approach with purely interview-based research methodologies that tend to be episodic, short-lived and often take place outside of spaces the informant routinely occupies.

In addition, we also recognise an ethnographic approach in commitments to the generation of ‘thick’ descriptive accounts of the research, though these may vary considerably in ‘thickness’, depth and texture. (Drake et al.

2015: 3)

Such thick descriptions became more prevalent and useful when incorporating gendered researcher reflections.

  • [1] This was hosted by the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research at theOpen University and was entitled ‘Resisting the Eclipse’.
  • [2] Qualitative Inquiry (2014), Volume 20.
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