Finding Secrets and Secret Findings: Confronting the Limits of the Ethnographer's Gaze

Drake, Deborah (2015). Finding Secrets and Secret Findings: Confronting the Limits of the Ethnographer's Gaze. In: Drake, Deborah H.; Earle, Rod and Sloan, Jennifer eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography. Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 252–270.



In this chapter, I consider the moments during ethnographic practice when realities or meanings are ‘glimpsed at’, but are not fully revealed to the researcher. To do so, I draw on ethnographic research experiences during two projects conducted in English men’s maximum-security prisons (see Drake, 2012; 2014). I consider some of the moments during these projects when organisational secrets seemed to emerge but which could not be fully verified. In the closed, secretive and often paranoid environment of the prison, some aspects of the field can remain obscured to the outsider researcher, no matter how much time he or she spends with informants or observing in the field. The chapter considers the potential relationship between the conditionality of prison officer collegial culture and the emergence of ‘dark’ practices. It is argued that the deep, enduring tensions between care and custody, brutality and punishment that can accompany the prison officer role can also create structures and spaces in which hidden practices can be both exercised and kept hidden. A particular focus of the chapter is to consider the challenges for the ethnographer when only a sliver view of clandestine practices is obtained.

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