Fieldwork in Criminology

V. Methods

The methodological core of fieldwork has always consisted of participant observation and interviewing. Although it is not uncommon to supplement such work with documentary research, archival data, survey methods, and multimedia techniques (e.g., photography and video), the cornerstone of fieldwork has always rested with the street ethnographer’s interpersonal abilities in and style of collecting observational and interview data while in the field. In general, street ethnographers view the social world through an interpretive/constructionist lens, thereby placing an emphasis on the subjective, the cultural, and the situational. Guided by a philosophical tradition rooted in American pragmatism with linkages in symbolic interaction and phenomenology and a break from naive realism, an idealist– internal ontology, and a healthy obsession for self-reflexivity, street ethnographers engage both a setting and the people therein in their quest to understand those people’s everyday reality. By purposively situating themselves in the local culture of study and by taking a risk in making themselves accessible, both physically and emotionally, street ethnographers strive to create an empirical representation that is as nuanced as life. Through “thick descriptions” (Geertz, 1973) of observed social events, interactions, and individuals’ emotions, street culture is enlivened, defined not by a composite measure, an attitudinal scale, or as a caricature in a journalist’s column but rather by the ethnographer who is trained in the method of observation and its power for preserving in writing observable aspects of the human condition, a condition that is often veiled to outsiders.

The diversity of human experiences in the street is of great importance for the ethnographer. The range of perceptions, the existence of a variety of perspectives, the unspoken as well as what is articulated, and one’s emotional self make up the street ethnographer’s currency. Conversations in the field are never casual or happenstance but are guided and topical and serve as an opportunity to learn more about the research participants. Through the use of interviews, which range in format depending on the research setting and its purpose, the ethnographer presents accounts of lived experiences that, when coupled with field observations, become archetypes of street culture.