Observing, theorizing and coping with ‘nothing’ in ethnographic fieldwork

Michael Rowe, Tobias Eule, Bagga Bjerge & Annika Lindberg

Observing, theorizing and coping with ‘nothing’ in ethnographic fieldwork

Small Group Project 2022-23

We propose to hold two workshops bringing together four experienced researchers to explore the periods of inactivity and waiting in the field when nothing is apparently happening. Ethnographers know that hours of inactivity and waiting dominate the experience of fieldwork. Yet these hours make little appearance in writing. Publications focus on things that happen, the events, conversations and encounters that we set out to observe. Focused on the expected activity, ethnographers do not talk of the time spent waiting around for something to happen. Where scholars have written about waiting, dead time and inactivity, they have focused on the experience of boredom and idleness for research subjects. This project will engage with the awkwardness that appears when we observe, hear, and research nothing. In doing so, we will address the methodological, ethical and political challenges of ethnographic research and its limits. In focusing on activity, do we risk misrepresenting our fields of study? By excluding inactivity from our representations, do we fail to fully grasp the activities which we set out to study, the object of our study? We argue that these questions are significant as a tool for better understanding and contextualising the object of study, the activities intended for research. The project will develop on three levels: as methodological intervention; as illustration of fieldwork; and as critical analysis of social research. As a methodological project, it will examine the significance for our research of nothing as a time and space of potential in which something might occur. At the same time, the project will be illustrative and illustrated, drawing on the notes and reflections of our four participants’ research experience. Furthermore, it will be argumentative, demonstrating and theorizing the empirical value of nothing for our different studies.

Contacting Fellows

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