Edge Ethnography

Edge ethnography is the qualitative social science approach that emphasizes depth of understandings of socially marginal and stigmatized populations and settings wherein the researcher undergoes dangerous and potentially threatening (personally, socially, professionally) exposures. Central to the conduct of edge ethnography is the researcher voluntarily exposing himself or herself to some form of danger through immersion in the culture or setting being studied.


I. Introduction

II. Edge Ethnography Involves Voluntary Risk Taking

III. Differences Between Edge Ethnography and Traditional Qualitative Research

IV. How to Conduct Edge Ethnography

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Edge ethnography is an approach to the conduct of qualitative research that pushes the limits and tests the skills and tolerances of researchers in exploring marginalized populations and deviant and dangerous settings and groups, and requires researchers to voluntarily take risks. Edge ethnography is practiced by a small proportion of criminologists, criminal justice scholars, and all social scientists. The goals of edge ethnography are to gain an in-depth and detailed understanding of groups, settings, and activities that are not necessarily available or accessible to either empirically based quantitative researchers or traditional qualitative researchers (including ethnographers). Because of the marginalized status of the typical foci of edge ethnography, and the necessity of gaining and demonstrating ful immersion in the world(s) being studied by the edge ethnographer, there is a de facto need for scholars who practice this approach to engage in behavior that is physically, legally, socially, or otherwise dangerous.

Edge ethnography is a method of social science that emphasizes understanding deviant groups and settings through the process of risk taking, researcher immersion in the culture or setting being studied. Edge ethnography is scholarship that is done on, in, and with populations and subcultures that are in some way physically, emotionally, psychologically, or socially dangerous and in which those persons involved in the social world being studied are at risk of (usually official or legal) sanctioning for their behavior.

Edge ethnography also is the qualitative data collection and analysis approach that is used by social scientists conducting edgework. As defined by Lyng (1990), edgework is the realm of activities that “involve a clearly observable threat to one’s physical or mental well-being or one’s sense of an ordered existence” (p. 857). Conducting edgework not only involves individuals (in this case, researchers) placing themselves in dangerous settings, actions, and interactions but also requires individuals to apply specialized skills for survival (or safe management of the dangers present). As such, edgework pushes individuals to test their limits, their skills at managing dangers, and their attempts to control dangerous situations so as to control what others may perceive to be uncontrollable situations.

For researchers, ethnographic projects regarding edgework mean that while experiencing and attempting to control some form/variety of danger, the individual needs to filter and navigate myriad relationships while charting the networks of relationships and interactional processes and products arising from culturally and situationally specific environments. The edge ethnographer seeks to use his or her methodological and insight skills to understand and explain worlds in which danger (of some form) is paramount and a defining element of the situation.

Edge ethnography methods are also one of the several approaches to research that make up the field of cultural criminology. As the study of stylized frameworks and experiential dynamics of marginal, deviant, and illicit subcultures and practices, cultural criminology is focused on understanding, among other issues, the “subtle, situated dynamics of deviant and criminal subcultures” (Ferrell, 1999, p. 396). In this regard, as cultural criminologists attempt to define, delineate, and deconstruct the ways, ingredients, and products of such worlds, they find that it is necessary to study such from the inside. In this way, building on the anthropological traditions of ethnography, edge ethnography necessitates entry, immersion, movement, and experiencing of the dangerous, illicit, or marginal worlds that are studied. Ferrell (1999) explained the study of such worlds:

It necessitates . . . a journey into the spectacle and carnival of crime, a walk down an infinite hall of mirrors where images created and consumed by criminals, criminal subcultures, control agents, media institutions, and audiences bounce endlessly one off the other. . . . as part of this exploration, [cultural criminologists] in turn investigate criminal and deviant subcultures as sites of criminalization, criminal activity, and legal control. (p. 397)

Tying together the issues of cultural criminology and methods for studying them is the sociological concept of verstehen.As originally defined byWeber (1964), verstehen is the idea of knowing something from the inside.To achieve verstehen is to be able to have an appreciation of the subjective reality of some phenomenon. Rather than attempting to understand an experience, structure, process, or culture based on objective, external observations (or measurements), the focus in such an approach is to use experience, with an emphasis on understanding, not explaining. When applied to the conduct of research, sociological verstehen refers to researchers focusing on the subjective components of what is being studied (crime; criminals; and criminal, deviant, or marginalized subcultures). Put a bit differently, verstehen (as a goal of edge ethnographers) is the systematic process of achieving understanding by a researcher who, while initially and objectively is an outside observer of a setting or phenomenon, interacts with a subculture’s population and combines his or her scholarly training with the point of view of those on the inside of that subculture. Therefore, verstehen is typically used to refer to either a kind of empathic or participatory understanding of social phenomena rather than an ostensibly objective interpretation of such persons in terms and from the perspective of an outsider. In this regard, this means that the situational meanings of the ingredients of the people, places, and actions being studied and the emotions that are elicited for those being studied and conducting the study are assessed within situated environments.

In short, edge ethnography as a practice requires researchers to gain access to the inside of worlds that are typically thought best viewed from afar and controlled or eliminated rather than experienced. Edge ethnography strives to overcome the barriers perceived to keep respectable and reputable persons away and instead emphasizes the need and importance of getting inside—to achieve understanding by means of verstehen. The edge ethnographer seeks to know the deviant, to know the deviant individual’s world, and to know how it feels not only to be a part of the deviant/illicit world and behavior but also to be known as a deviant by the outside world.

In regard to products, edge ethnography most often contributes case studies or analyses of limited generalizability. Because one of the foci of the edge ethnographer is the cultural world in which particular forms and mixes of people, places, experiences, and thereby yielded cultures are found, the traditional social science criteria of studies outputting findings, facts, and interpretations that can be similarly applied to other samples, populations, or settings is not necessarily appropriate. Instead, edge ethnographers, and cultural criminologists more generally, offer analyses and interpretations of very unique subcultural worlds. However, when accumulated and viewed as individual contributors to bouquets of studies, it becomes possible to identify conceptual and theoretical patterns across the case studies and sample-restricted analyses.

The focus of edge ethnography—understanding dangerous and socially marginalized groups, settings, and experiences from the perspective of an insider—builds on traditional ethnographic methods while also focusing on defining elements of the culture of such groups, settings, and experiences. As such, edge ethnography necessarily draws on the extremes of qualitative methods so as to access and gain understandings of precise meanings of symbols, language, behaviors, values, and experiences. Edge ethnographers look to understand these cultural ingredients within the cultural milieu that center on some form of danger whereby the various ingredients are produced, reproduced, experienced, and consumed. However, whereas traditional qualitative approaches may prioritize the ingredients and understandings of them, the edge ethnographer either dismisses this prioritization or complements it with an inverted prioritization, simultaneously prioritizing the cultural milieu as well as the situated ingredients. This is all done while experiencing and seeking to safely navigate and manage the dangers posed to the researcher as a participant in the world being studied.