Jochen Bonz

Subjectivity as an intersubjective datum in ethnographic fieldwork processes


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Ethnographic fieldwork is a major methodological tool for studying cultural phenomena in terms of ways in which people make sense of reality, practices of daily life etc. To an even larger extent than qualitative methods in general, ethnographic fieldwork for this purpose relies on the subjective experiences of the person, who is conducting the research. This is due to her functioning as “both the research instruments and the filter through which the lives of the informants are sifted” (Marianne Gullestad 1984: 47). The article brings forward the argument that in order to appreciate ethnographic fieldwork methodology and its outcomes adequately, it is crucial to deal with the problematic as well as the encouraging aspects that come along with this subjective quality. Whereas current methodological debates simply ignore the issue or treat it rather superficially, methodological approaches stemming from the 1970ies and 80ies handled it explicitly. The article brings to light their conceptualisations of the fieldwork encounter, focusing especially on the Zurich school of ethno-psychoanalysis and on Maya Nadig in particular, as well as on considerations by Georges Devereux, Jennifer Hunt, Paul Willis and others. Vital to them is an understanding of the research process and the findings as intersubjective in character. To state the intersubjectivity of ethnographical fieldwork methodology is allowing for the possibility to interpret the subjective experiences of the researcher as potential data about the field itself. This notion is articulated by means of the psychoanalytic concept of countertransference and, more generally, as irritation. Subsequently, the challenge brought up by ethnographic fieldwork consists in the researcher committing herself/himself to a dynamic of “empathetic-identifying approximation and reflectiveconfining withdrawal” (Nadig 1986: 49, trans. J.B.). The method of the free association interpretation group is presented as a means of supervision of these dynamics and as a sensible tool for the analysis of fieldwork materials.

ethnographic fieldwork methodology, ethno-psychoanalysis, intersubjectivity, countertransference, free association interpretation group, fieldwork supervision