Understanding immigration detention: The analytical value of practical and emotional challenges during fieldwork

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Purpose: A reflexive ethnographic account of the practical and emotional challenges encountered by the researcher during fieldwork is too often separated from the analytical research results, which, as argued by this paper, downplays or even ignores the analytical value of the encountered challenges. Drawing on personal examples from ethnographic research in immigration detention, the purpose of this paper is to show that these challenges have an intrinsic analytical value.

Design/methodology/approach: Ethnographic research was carried out in two immigration detention centres in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. Observations, informal conversations with detainees and staff, and semi-structured interviews with detainees were triangulated. Extracts from fieldnotes are presented and discussed to demonstrate the analytical value of the challenges experienced during fieldwork.

Findings: Three important challenges are presented: distrust from organisational gatekeepers and research participants, disruptions of the organisational routines, and witnessing and experiencing feelings of powerlessness. The analytical value of these challenges is strongly connected to theoretical and analytical themes that emerged during the research.

Originality/value: Ethnographic researchers are encouraged to explicitly treat the reflexive accounts of practical and emotional challenges as “data in itself” and as such nested within their analytical results.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-142
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Organizational Ethnography
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

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