Accepted paper:

Doing research about the prison system as a prisoner's relative: participant observation and academic legitimacy


Gwenola Ricordeau

Paper short abstract:

My paper assesses my experience as a prisoner's relative and a scholar involved in prison studies in France for more than ten years. I address the questions raised by my position as an insider when conceptualizing my research, conducting fieldwork and disseminating the results of my research.

Paper long abstract:

My paper assesses my experience as a prisoners' relative and a scholar involved in prison studies since more than ten years in France. My research has been based on information I gathered both as a prisoners' relative and a sociologist conducting fieldwork among prisoners and prisoners' relatives. My experience of being an insider led me: [1] to center my analyze on visiting rooms rather than on cells and on the visitors and the prisoners' relatives rather than on the prisoners themselves; [2] to question the traditional academic focus on (male) prisoners that has overviewed the (female) prisoners' relatives and that echoes how the prison studies are themselves gendered; [3] to reflect on how the auto-ethnographic part of my work has been pivotal for my analysis. My paper mainly addresses two questions: [1] Are the methodological and ethical questions raised by being an insider in prison studies specific to this field of research? [2] Why auto-ethnography is so rare and often aggressively challenged in prison studies? My discussion of these two questions is organized around the successive steps of research (conceptualizing research, conducting fieldwork, disseminating results). I elaborate from my insider position on the reflections conducted by Becker (1967) and Liebling (2001) about "taking side" in prison studies. I also analyze the academic reception of my research and the suspicion of "being biased" that I routinely face.

panel P051
Prison ethnographies, research intimacies and social change