Accepted paper:

Gaining access to and within the prison


Irene Marti (University of Bern)
Ueli Hostettler (University of Bern)

Paper short abstract:

Based on ethnographic fieldwork on end-of-life in Swiss prisons, this paper will present experiences in conducting ethnographic research in the prison by adopting or being ascribed different roles. A special focus will be on the institutional influence regarding the production of knowledge.

Paper long abstract:

Doing ethnographic fieldwork in prison is connected to specific challenges since this institution can be considered as a "closed" and "sensitive" field. Therefore, gaining access to the field is crucial and closely related to different roles the researcher will take intentionally or be ascribed by others (e.g. a visitor during official prison tours, an independent researcher entering the prison from the outside, or a prison employee or staff researcher). In the context of an on-going research project on end-of-life in Swiss prisons financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, insight into the experiences of a researcher is provided. She obtained access to the prison in the role of a researcher doing an "internship" as prison officer. As a formal intern, the researcher was allowed to do research while being integrated in day-to-day work as staff. However, experience often oscillated between dependency (as quasi-employee) and self-determination (as independent researcher coming from outside) opening a host of questions - practical and ethical. These challenges will be highlighted. The first part is based on fieldnotes recorded during field trips in two medium security prisons in Switzerland and addresses the organisation of the fieldwork by the prison authorities (physical access, tasks as intern, and norms of conduct, etc.). The second part will discuss institutional influence on data collection and the researcher's agency and strategies with a special focus on the how trust between researcher and prisoners is established within this strongly hierarchized context where social relationships are characterized by a default mutual distrust.

panel P051
Prison ethnographies, research intimacies and social change