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A road stretching into the distance.
Clay Banks on Unsplash.

From Nearness to Distance: Reflections on Insider Ethnography

A road stretching into the distance.
Clay Banks on Unsplash.

Before joining academia, I spent much of my working life as a magistrates’ court advocate. In that setting, I had noticed that increasing expectations for speedy case progression, reduced eligibility for legal aid funding, and administrative difficulties agreeing funding with the Legal Aid Agency appeared to be diminishing the quality of justice. When asking for hearings to be adjourned because case papers and/or funding to give detailed advice were lacking, some courts were adopting the adage ‘your client knows if they did it or not’ as justification for refusing an adjournment. A fleeting conversation with a confused, and often vulnerable, client might have persuaded those courts that the client may struggle to fully understand the legal meaning of, e.g., self-defence. Prioritising efficiency at the expense of taking the time to ensure understanding, might (inadvertently) result in a defendant either being wrongfully convicted or put a victim through an unnecessary trial. These experiences appeared to be happening with greater frequency, so I determined to research how funding issues, demands for efficiency, and working culture intersected and influenced criminal justice.

I wanted to achieve deep understanding of the issues, so I decided to conduct a case study in one particular government-designated local justice area.  I adopted an ethnographic methodology, observing five magistrates’ courts followed by nineteen semi-structured interviews with defence lawyers and prosecutors. I chose to conduct my research in a familiar locale because I felt it gave me access advantages while maintaining ethical and robust methodological practices. For example, my attendance at court to observe was largely unquestioned. I was even offered hot drinks at one court when I went to observe. I was also able to make easy use of snowball sampling when recruiting interview participants.

Whichever location I chose to study, I would need to reflect on my own experiences of criminal justice. I qualified as a solicitor in 2006, having begun work at a firm of criminal defence lawyers in 2004. Though I dropped to part-time hours when I began my PhD (which led to my book), I worked at that same firm until 2015. This positionality meant that I shared class, educational, and occupational privileges with many research participants. Some interviewees commented on my status, revealing that I was regarded as a competent researcher: ‘[y]ou’re obviously aware of the system we have here’ (interviewee C). Such comments appeared to reflect my understanding of the legal process, as well as my ability to fall into familiar speech patterns. For example, I understood all of the acronyms used among practitioners, (e.g. ‘SSO’ for Suspended Sentence Order) or jargon (e.g. ‘sending’ in reference to an indictable only case being transferred to the Crown court). I found that these expressions of ‘sameness’ helped me to build rapport and obtain rich data with relative ease.

As a defence solicitor researching magistrates’ courts, my interpretation of the experiences and practices of the workgroup under observation are likely to have influenced research design, and analysis. I found it jarring when I observed people I regarded as good colleagues behaving in ways that I realised were marginalising, such as failing to acknowledge clients sitting in the dock when magistrates’ retired for decision-making. I sometimes found myself caught between ‘identification dilemmas’ (Brannick and Coghlan, 2007, 70), especially regarding the way I observed defendants being undermined. I observed lawyers who I held in high professional regard engage in behaviours that I realised were likely to undermine the lawyer/client relationship. To combat that role conflict, I engaged deeply with other studies in the field to ensure I had breath of understanding beyond my own experience and help me identify relevant themes (e.g. Newman, 2013; Carlen, 1976; Ward, 2017). I also adopted a reflexive thematic analysis, which encouraged me to contemplate how my own positionality might influence data collection and analysis, enabling me to document points at which I felt uncomfortable observing lawyers’ behaviour. (Braun and Clarke, 2019).

When reflecting, I considered whether the work was actually autoethnographic. However, my own experiences were not central to the research endeavour (sometimes pejoratively termed ‘mesearch’ (Campbell, 2017)). Rather than build the research around my experiences, I used my experiences to highlight both expected and unexpected findings. I, therefore, regard my work as closer to insider ethnography than autoethnography.

Insider ethnographers and autoethnographers share the need to be deeply reflexive, and examine how researcher perspective informs research processes, aligning the methods well with reflexive thematic analysis. Shared insider knowledge can, though, produce thick, nuanced narrative. Consequently, while the knowledge produced by insider ethnographers cannot be more truthful than any other research, insiders can produce rich and detailed accounts about sites of study.

Although I initially saw myself as a complete member of the researched organisational system, I became an outsider through the research process and my own transition into academia. These experiences therefore reflected my ‘journey from nearness to distance’ (Brannick and Coughlan, 2007, 66).

About the Author

Portrait of Lucy Welsh

Dr Lucy Welsh

Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Sussex

Lucy Welsh is senior lecturer in law and director of Clinical Legal Education, University of Sussex. Lucy was a criminal defence and prison law solicitor for ten years before moving into academia in 2016. Her research focuses on issues surrounding access to justice, especially in magistrates’ courts or appellate processes.

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