Situating the Self in Prison Research: Power, Identity, and Epistemology

Rowe, Abigail (2014). Situating the Self in Prison Research: Power, Identity, and Epistemology. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(4) pp. 404–416.



Despite the central importance of ethnographic methods to sociological understandings of imprisonment, ethnographies of prison life have tended to evade ideas of “connectedness” between researcher and participant. This arguably underplays the epistemological possibilities of the unique characteristic of participant observation: the presence of the embodied, subjectively perceiving researcher in the field. Using data from English women’s prisons, this article argues that attending to the (inter)subjective dimensions of ethnographic research can bring gains in sociological understanding. The analysis considers moments of disruption in field research, exploring themes of emotion, identity, and power. It focuses particularly on experiences of being positioned and misplaced by prisoners and prison staff, and of negotiating a researcher identity as a gay woman in a field in which sexuality is a pervasive theme. It is suggested that making the self visible in the text offers both substantive insights and a response to some of the dilemmas generated by even marginal participation in a complex field like a prison.

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