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Ethnography in Action: Bouncers, Boxers and Drug Dealers

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By Jack Holmes

Last week, Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) played host to the 2016 Career forum Regional Event on Ethnography, an event focusing on the idea of studying cultures and societies from the point of view of the subject of the study.

In recent years ethnography has been making a resurgence in the academic fields of sociology, criminology and more, and Manchester Met were keen to bring together a number of the key voices in the movement to continue to develop these new waves of interactions with the method.


The day featured five speakers, including lecturers from universities across the country, a number of whom currently lecture at Manchester Met. The first speaker was Dr James Treadwell from the University of Birmingham, who spoke at length about the ideas of the ethical issues behind ethnography, a topic raised by every lecturer during the event in some form. Treadwell also discussed the ideas of these ethical issues being regulated by regulatory bodies who expect ethnographers to dictate their exact moral compasses before the research even begins to be conducted. He argued that this is a difficult method to take as often decisions have to be made while in the field, something that again, almost every lecturer described as something they’ve had to deal with at some point in their careers. Treadwell also set the tone for the day by filling his lecture with interesting anecdotes from his time in the field, from MMA fighting movements, EDL marches and the British prison system.

Treadwell was followed by Dr Dave Calvey, Senior Lecturer in Sociology from Manchester Met. Calvey went into more detail of what it is like to be undercover in a sub culture, in his case his time working as a bouncer to analyse stereotypes such as their perceived masculinity. He described the “fear of wilful deception” going on to explain the worry that there is no way of knowing “where it will take you”. He even went on to describe having to lie to a particular student that recognised him while he was “working the doors” and being forced to dismiss her before she alerted the rest of his colleagues that he was actually a university lecturer studying them.


Next was Manchester Met Lecturer in Criminology, Dr Mike Salinas. Salinas spoke in depth about his research into the illicit drug economy through his time spent with childhood friends who he reconnected with for the purposes of his study. He described the way his time with them was a massive contrast to the perceived public opinions of drug dealers, both international and local, pointing out most had high levels of education. In fact one of the individuals in the study went on to be a college lecturer, as well as exploring the reasons for individuals taking up the occupation in the first place, and why the majority had moved away from it now they were reaching their 30s.

The last of the Manchester Met lecturers of the day was the host of the event, Dr Deborah Jump. Jump spoke about her “core observations” from her time at the North Town Boxing Gym, and especially about the ethical dilemmas when it came to prying information from participants in her study. Rather than simply focusing on the ideas of whether taking up boxing is a way to dissuade men from criminal behaviour, Jump explored why this might be the case, and if it really changed the individuals or simply moved their criminal energies into something more “constructive”. She went on to describe moments of turmoil, shared by all of the days lecturers including a particular conversation in which one of the boxers stated he “didn’t know whether to f**k you or fight you”, which Jump gladly took for the title of her book on her experiences.


Closing the event was Dr Stephen Wakeman, a Liverpool John Moores University Lecturer and member of a number of bodies focusing on ethnography including the Centre for Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion. Stephen spoke primarily of his research into auto ethnography, a form of research in which the researcher takes into account their own knowledge of a culture to discern real meanings behind certain moments. He gave a number of examples from his time as an addict including an anecdote about a man desperately trying to find a vein in his arm to inject into. He also spoke about his attempts to “democratise knowledge”, and his movement to create a resistance to the long established power structures apparent in ethnographical research.

There will be a podcast of the entire days lectures, questions and answers and general discussions released soon. We’ll make sure to share it through our Twitter page for those of you who couldn’t attend.

Did you attend the Ethnography in Action day? Did you have an opinion that has only formed since the day and want to make it known? Join the conversation at #MMUethno @HumanityHallows @Holmesblogs.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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