Accepted paper:

Studying Islam in French prisons: reflections on a challenging fieldwork

Author:

Jules Hervault (IEP Rennes)

Paper short abstract:

Based on an ongoing study about Islam in French penitentiaries, this paper proposes a reflection on the methodological difficulties added to an inevitably challenging fieldwork in prison, due to the specific nature of the subject studied.

Paper long abstract:

Based on an ongoing study about Islam in French penitentiaries, this paper proposes a reflection on the methodological difficulties added to an inevitably challenging fieldwork in prison, due to the specific nature of the subject studied. First of all, one's religious experience can be a rather intimate subject, which makes it difficult to broach with some inmates, many of whom proved reluctant to open up or struggled to develop a reflexive discourse. Furthermore, Islam permeates many aspects of the daily life in ways that are hard to perceive through interviews only, but that one can grasp through observation. Such characteristics makes it especially difficult to study in prisons since there are often considerable limitations to what a social scientist is able to observe in such institutions. Most importantly, due to the automatic association of this research subject with the issue of radicalization, working on Islam in prisons raises suspicion regarding the purpose of the inquiry, from both detainees and staff members. This was particularly true when I started doing fieldwork in detention, only a few months after the Toulouse and Montauban shootings brought media attention on the issue of radical Islam in French prisons and made many French Muslims fear an increased stigmatization of their community. My paper will therefore highlight how the sensitivity of this subject complicated my relations with actors on the field and will present the strategies I developed to get around these difficulties as well as the consequences of such strategies on collected datas.

panel P051
Prison ethnographies, research intimacies and social change