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Durham Research Online
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06 May 2016
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Proudfoot, J. (2015) 'Anxiety and phantasy in the eld : the position of the unconscious in ethnographic
research.', Environment and planning D : society and space., 33 (6). pp. 1135-1152.
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Anxiety and phantasy in the field:
The position of the unconscious in ethnographic research Jesse Proudfoot Email: email@example.com
Proudfoot, J. (2015). Anxiety and phantasy in the field: The position of the unconscious in ethnographic research. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33(6), 1135–1152.
http://doi.org/10.1177/0263775815598156 Abstract This article contributes to the geographical literature on reflexivity by asking what it means to take the researcher’s unconscious seriously in ethnographic research, and proposes psychoanalysis as a theoretical and methodological resource for researching the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork. I begin by describing three moments from my fieldwork with panhandlers and drug users that evince the operation of the unconscious. I then review psychoanalytic work in the social sciences where the researcher becomes the object of analysis and situate the debate on psychoanalytic methodology as an extension of earlier work on reflexivity by feminist geographers. I
outline three methods for investigating the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork:
analysis, supervision, and case consultation. Summarizing my experiments with these methods, I discuss: the discovery that key elements of my research were inextricably connected to my own anxieties as a researcher, how analysis of a dream from early in the fieldwork revealed phantasies rooted in childhood and a profoundly ambivalent relationship to my informants, and I propose a dialectical method for incorporating the revelations of psychoanalytic reflexivity into research. I conclude by discussing some of the possibilities and consequences of taking the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork seriously.
Keywords: Psychoanalysis, ethnography, reflexivity, qualitative methods, transference, panhandling.
“The most novel thing about psychoanalysis is not psychoanalytic theory, but the methodological position that the principle task of behavioral science is the analysis of man’s [sic] conception of himself.” Georges Devereux, From anxiety to method in the behavioral sciences, 1967, page 3.
“It is good form to introduce a work in psychology with a statement of its methodological point of view. I shall be derelict. I leave methods to the botanist and mathematician. There is a point at which methods devour themselves.” Franz Fanon, Black skin, white masks, 1967, page 12.
Three moments in the field 1.
It’s Friday night and I’m going out for drinks with my new advisor. I’ve just started the Ph.D. and I’m talking excitedly about my project, which will be an ethnography of drugusing panhandlers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He’s new to the city, so I’m playing the local, taking him to a bar I know in the neighbourhood. Walking at night, I usually avoid the most intense blocks of the drug scene, but that night I decide to take him straight down Hastings, to show him this place that looms so large in the city’s imagination. (Looking back, it’s obvious that I was showing off a bit: trying to show him how comfortable I was in the neighbourhood, how I could easily navigate this place that was spoken about with such fear. As it turned out, that night reminded me just how much the neighbourhood could still unnerve me.) As we round the corner at Columbia and Hastings, it feels like the street rises up to engulf us like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch. Drug dealers on BMXs careen through the crowds on the sidewalk. People huddle in the doorways of abandoned storefronts, smoking crack from glass pipes with long rubber hoses. Others yell at passers-by, chasing down people who owe them money, or cajoling them to lend them some: a buck, a hoot, a taste of it. A shirtless man stands in front of Brandiz’s Pizza, half-naked in the yellow-green fluorescent light, jackknifing at the waist, arms flailing wildly, in the throes of cocaine psychosis, sleep deprivation, or god knows what else. As we walk, I feign a confidence that in fact faded away blocks earlier. I feel overwhelmed, like a tourist in my own neighbourhood. We walk in silence, eyes fixed on the ground. Turning the corner onto Main Street, I remember looking down just in time to avoid stepping in a pool of blood, a syringe lying in the middle.
That night I dreamt of the Downtown Eastside. In the dream, I’m walking down an alleyway with a tour group of middle-class senior citizens. Around us, homeless men and drug users push shopping carts in the dim light of the alley. A wild-haired homeless man climbs atop a dumpster and holds a jewelled crown above his head. Catching the glow from the street lamps above, he projects a beam of light from a gem in the centre of the crown. Laughing maniacally, he shines the light into the eyes of an old woman from the tour group, blinding her. She covers her eyes, trying to shield them while the man laughs. Her elderly husband ineffectually yells at him to stop. I feel powerless, knowing that the homeless man can do with us what he wants. I run down the alley trying to escape, squeezing through the narrow spaces between dumpsters, stepping over bloody syringes, before finally stumbling into the bright light of the street.
Three years later, near the end of my fieldwork, I found myself in an alley again. It’s early morning when I see Dean, one of the panhandlers I’ve been following, standing in the street. It’s below freezing and he’s shirtless, his torn and dirty jeans hanging off his hips. He’s doubled over at the waist, head hanging down past his knees, swaying from side to side with his arms locked in mock-paralysis. I’ve never seen him like this before.
He’s moaning like an animal: deep, long groans that come from the pit of his stomach and echo off the buildings in the still deserted street.
I cross the street and try to talk to him. He’s incoherent, but through his tears and slurred speech, I can make out that something has happened between him and his girlfriend. Within a moment, he seems to have forgotten that I’m there and begins moaning again, pigeon-toed and bent at the waist. Just then, the cops show up. The transformation in Dean is incredible: his instincts, when confronted with blue uniforms, are so deeply ingrained that they sober him up in a heartbeat. He tells them I’m a researcher, we’re doing an interview, everything’s fine. He can only hold it together for a moment though; pretty soon his eyes are rolling back in his head and he’s starting to starting to lean again. Thankfully, the cops are satisfied when I tell them I’ll walk him home—they’re probably grateful to have the problem taken off their hands.
Half a block later, I realize it isn’t going to work. Dean walks straight into a telephone pole, bangs his head against it hard and collapses. He’s crying, and even though he’s barely able to stand, he’s lucid enough to blame me for letting it happen. I decide that the best I can do is cut through the alley and get him to the harm reduction clinic. As soon as we turn the corner to the alley though, I’m in over my head again. We’re surrounded by people dealing, scoring, smoking rock. A woman calls out to Dean, wanting to know what’s up. I try to explain but she pointedly ignores me, repeatedly asking Dean, “Is your friend cool?” A group of women are sitting on the ground of the freezing alley. “Hey, check out Peanut Butter!” one calls out, taunting my companion with a nickname referring to one of his regular scams. They point and laugh at us as we pass: Dean, slack-jawed and staggering; me, nervous and fumbling. I feel completely adrift, like I’ve somehow stumbled into the back alley of my dream from years before. I was no more than fifty feet from the streets I walked every day, and yet there in the alley, I was a thousand miles from home.
* I begin with these fieldnotes—two stories flanking a dream—in order to pose the two questions that frame this paper: What does it mean to listen for the unconscious in ethnographic fieldwork? And, how should we go about investigating the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork? My argument is that the unconscious is an integral element of qualitative research, especially in methods such as ethnography, which involve long periods of time in the field and close personal relationships with participants. In this paper, I consider one aspect of the unconscious dimensions of fieldwork—the researcher’s unconscious—and situate this project within the broader projects of reflexivity and positionality in qualitative research, where researchers attend to the role they play in affecting, and even constituting, their objects of study. I propose that if we are interested in understanding how the unconscious haunts our fieldwork, we would do well to turn to psychoanalysis. This tradition of scholarship offers unparalleled theoretical and methodological resources for social scientists seeking to understand themselves in relation to the field, their research subjects, and their objects of study.
This article discusses how psychoanalysis can be used methodologically in qualitative research and presents examples from my own use of psychoanalytic methods. In so doing I hope to demonstrate what attention to the researcher’s unconscious looks like in practice, how it might inform ethnographic research, and what challenges the unconscious presents for reflexive researchers.
From reflexivity to the unconscious
The relationships between researchers and their fields have been problematized by many years of post-positivist critique, first under the sign of the “crisis of representation” (Marcus and Fischer, 1986; Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Rabinow, 2007 ; Whitaker, 2010, pages 594–596), and later in feminist geography through the lenses of “positionality” and “reflexivity” (England, 1994; Katz, 1994; Madge, 1993;
McDowell, 1992; Merrifield, 1995; Nast, 1994, 1998; Pratt, 2000; Rose, 1997; for an overview see Barnes and Gregory, 1997). These critiques, beginning in the 1960s and reaching their apex in the 1990s, called into question the notion of objectivity in social science research. They demonstrated how the subjectivity of the researcher was an essential component of the research itself, and that the idea that science—especially social science—could be conducted from a neutral, objective “view from nowhere” was worse than illusory, it was ideological. The pretence to objectivity obscured the circumstances of knowledge production, the particular viewpoints it represented, and the power dynamics inherent in research relationships. Feminist scholarship in particular called on researchers to give “greater consideration of the role of the (multiple) ‘self’, showing how a researcher’s positionality (conceived in terms of race, nationality, age, gender, social and economic status, sexuality) may influence the ‘data’ collected and thus the information that becomes encoded as ‘knowledge’” (Madge, 1993, page 295).
While this impulse was certainly an essential corrective to positivist social science, even its earliest proponents foresaw problems with such an approach to reflexivity. In a celebrated article from 1997, Gillian Rose argued that attempts to practice reflexivity in research were hindered by researchers’ assumption that they could fully understand their positions as researchers and their relationships to the field, a position she critiques as “transparent reflexivity” (page 305). While the feminist goal of “situating” knowledge is necessary to avoid “the false neutrality and universality of so much academic knowledge”, Rose argues that the task of fully “tak[ing] account of our own position[s], as well as that of our research participants, and writ[ing] this into our research practice” (page 306) is so overwhelming as to be practically impossible. Because of this, the practice of situating knowledge is often reduced to a truncated form of positionality, where the researcher enumerates a series of social markers—class, gender, ethnicity, privilege—in order to signal her awareness that these markers have influenced the research process. But, as Frosh and Baraitser put it, “declarations of relatively explicit aspects of the researcher’s persona will… never be complete enough to understand what her or his contribution to the research might be”, because so much of what affects the research we do (and the texts we produce) resists our awareness (2008, page 360).
Put another way, it is not enough to recognize that knowledge is situated and partial;
what is required is the recognition that “our understanding of the situatedness of our knowledge is itself partial, incomplete, ambiguous, and vulnerable” (Barnes and Gregory, 1997, page 21, emphasis added).