Ethnographies into the illegal

by thomasdekeyser

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My paper with Bradley Garrett on the political potential, situated difficulty and ethical validity of  ethnographies into the illegal has been published in Area. Why did we write it? Well, because this (from my pre-PhD time) still resonates today:

Yesterdays PhD interview started off seamlessly. We shared theoretical interests, political hopes and I think I responded adequately to some of the more provocative questions. Towards the end, however, when we started discussing the ethnographic component of the proposed methodology, the temperature of our conversation dropped. Hmmmmm, this all sounds a bit too innovative for this university, the proposed supervisor said. It felt like this signalled the end of his, and his universitys, interest in my project with subvertising practitioners. (Author one, MA research diary, January 2015)

And because we need to think seriously about how to deal with ethical ambiguity that marks ‘illicit ethnographies’, including moments (described in the paper) like these:

When I arrived at the subvertising workshop a few hours ago, people were already getting seated, notepads and information packs in hand. The community centre was packed. Two men arrived late, just after I started my presentation on subvertising history and theory. They slotted in the background and kept to themselves, didnt mingle with any other participants. I didnt think much of it until later, when during the practical part of the workshop, they spoke for the first time. Are you thinking of doing any digital billboard takeovers? Slightly uncomfortable, my co-presenter Donna responded after a moment of silence: No, no, these are legally a wholly different thing. What were doing is closer to criminal damage. . .’

As people gathered after the workshop, the two same men perhaps ten to twenty years older than the average crowd approached us with a certain sense of urgency. Can we have your full name? Donna, by now severely suspicious, responded: Erm, no, I dont see why youd want that. We want to follow you on Facebook. Oh, okay, well you can follow the collectives name, Donna suggested. They kept pressing until we pretty much ran away from them.

Not knowing what to do, I rang my friend Amelia and talked her through the details: the layout of the evening, the mens looks, their not-so-subtle questioning, how they had wrenched as much info as possible, and how they had this peculiar determinacy and almost arrogance in their voices. Private investigators, she responded shortly. And added, before I had taken in what that actually meant, prepare for a raid.

Now Im sitting here, in my living room. Im actually terrified. FUCK. I guess this is what my research-participants have had to deal with all along. It now makes sense, more viscerally than ever. (Author one, field notes)

Anyway, the full paper is available here.

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