Accepted paper:

Best friends forever or informant-researcher for now?: the moral quandaries of interpersonal relationships in a school-based ethnography


Melinda Herron (The University of Melbourne)

Paper short abstract:

Anthropological angst about balancing friendship and research in the field is common. We often dwell only on our role in moral responsibility. Yet, this paper explores the unpredictable nature of interpersonal field relationships and questions how much power we, as anthropologists, have over them.

Paper long abstract:

The Alice Goffman debate has landed ethnographic methods in the line of fire. As an anthropologist studying teenagers in a high school, issues of participant vulnerability and litigious precariousness shape my ethnographic practice. How to 'do no harm' and 'do benefit' to my informants whilst collecting fruitful, often personal, information poses moral quandaries at regular intervals. Yet, how much of the interpersonal relationship is within my control? Challenging a litigious frame of reference, how much responsibility rests with the anthropologist? Based on year-long fieldwork in a marginalised, culturally diverse school in Melbourne investigating everyday cosmopolitanism among students, this paper explores the oft-asked question 'are we friends or are you just using me for your book?' and the personal and situational forces that are brought to bear on the informant-ethnographer relationship. Despite the constancy of the anthropologist's interactional style, the locational context and research agenda, informant-researcher encounters at school produced disparate interpersonal outcomes, ranging from the mutually fulfilling and uplifting to the disastrous and distressing. Drawing on three informant-researcher relationships, this paper argues that connections and junctures with informants are fleeting and unstable, influenced by differing and shifting meanings, expectations, practices and performances of friendship across different contexts and participants. In an unstable environment, where the informant and researcher both have emotions on the line, where does power lie and who controls the outcome? This paper aims to draw out rich ethnographic discussion about moral responsibility, agency and relationships in the field.

panel Ethn03
Intimacy & information: dilemmas of power, trust and property in the informant encounter