Accepted Paper:

Fieldwork behind bars: researching alien confinement in French prisons  


Carolina Boe (Aarhus University)

Paper short abstract:

On the basis of a fieldwork on alien confinement in the French prison system, this contribution discusses the situation of the researcher who carries out prison ethnography while working for a non-profit organization.

Paper long abstract:

Little research has been carried out on alien confinement in penal institutions. France is no exception despite the fact that as many as 22% of the country’s prison population are non-citizen inmates. Part of the explanation may lie in the practical difficulties researchers often face when they try to gain access to prisons, and those they may meet if they attempt to approach incarcerated non-citizens, who are often among the most isolated and distrustful inmates. For more than three years, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork while providing incarcerated non-citizens with legal counselling and helping them file motions against deportation orders. “Taking a stand” while carrying out fieldwork instead of staying “neutral” or “objective” is often highly criticized in anthropology. In this paper, I will discuss some of the ethical implications of this approach, and its consequences on data-collection.

Maintaining relationships with inmates over months and years allows one to observe their socialization to the prison institution and question the relationship between the lives they led before their incarceration and the resources they are able to mobilize in prison.

Being trusted because one is identified as someone who is “on our side” gives valuable insight into power relations. For instance, while some inmates openly resist against prison discipline or deportation orders, other inmates seem to be model prisoners, as they are both calm and cooperative when they face representatives from the administration and from the penal institution. A relationship built on mutual trust often allows the researcher to see beyond these inmates’ “public transcripts” and observe some of the “hidden transcripts” (Scott: 1985, 1990), such as the trafficking of goods and information, rumours, and gossip. This knowledge, of course, poses certain ethical questions.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the importance of reciprocity cannot be underestimated when one conducts fieldwork among highly marginalized and vulnerable populations. Working for an organization makes it possible to “give something back” to the very individuals whose situations one studies.

Panel W043
Alien confinement in Europe: field perspectives