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Journal of Contemporary

Ethnography
http://jce.sagepub.com

Becoming a Nonexpert and Other Strategies for Managing


Fieldwork Dilemmas in the Criminal Justice System
Ursula Castellano
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 2007; 36; 704
DOI: 10.1177/0891241607303529
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Becoming a Nonexpert
and Other Strategies for
Managing Fieldwork
Dilemmas in the Criminal
Justice System

Journal of Contemporary
Ethnography
Volume 36 Number 6
December 2007 704-730
2007 Sage Publications
10.1177/0891241607303529
http://jce.sagepub.com
hosted at
http://online.sagepub.com

Ursula Castellano
Ohio University

In this article, the author presents three fieldwork strategies for managing role
conflict in criminal justice settings. One of the most critical issues for ethnographers immersed in fieldwork is balancing the tension between the researcher and
participant-observation roles. Ethnographers in criminal justice settings as well
as other types of street-level bureaucracies are commonly confronted with
dilemmas involving physical risk, highly sensitive data, marginalized clientele,
and the exploitive use of power and domination by institutional gatekeepers.
Researchers venturing into challenging fieldwork settings, such as criminal justice environments, must be highly attuned to the constraints and opportunities for
collecting data. The author argues that these strategies can augment ethnographers data collection toolkit to better address fieldwork problems. In addition,
deploying these strategies can help to reveal unforeseen findings in the study.
Keywords:

criminal justice system; fieldwork strategies; role conflict

Introduction: Fieldwork Dilemmas in the


Criminal Justice System
The power of ethnography stems from the researchers close observation
of and participation in a particular social setting. Ethnography, as a mode
of inquiry, allows researchers to observe what people do . . . other empirical methods are limited to reporting what people say about what they do
Authors Note: The author wishes to thank Marisol Clark Ibanez, Leon Anderson, Debra
Henderson, and the anonymous reviewers at Journal of Contemporary Ethnography for their
feedback on this article. Please address correspondence to Ursula Castellano, Ohio University,
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 115 Bentley Annex, Athens, OH 45701; e-mail:
castella@ohio.edu.
704
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(Gans 1999, 540). Yet observing what people do belies the deeply complex
process of crafting the role of the researcher in relation to the people and
places under study. The ethnographer must not only understand and record
the lived experiences of the research subjects, but also, and perhaps as important, the ethnographer must undergo the social process of learning how
to be in the field. The difficulty of learning how to be in the field is aptly
described by Toren (1996) when he writes, Fieldwork is a day to day experience in which you are simultaneously caught up and distant (103). Yet
the very nature of fieldwork often places the ethnographer in strange, precarious, and unethical positions, which inevitably threaten to disrupt data
collection efforts (Berg 2004). The ethnographer is routinely confronted with
the tension between acclimating to member culture and abiding by professional research protocols. Hence, fieldwork dilemmas often involve a tension between the researcher and participant-observation roles (Pollner and
Emerson 1983).
I present fieldwork strategies for managing role conflict in criminal justice settings. Ethnographers in criminal justice settings as well as other
types of street-level bureaucracies are commonly confronted with dilemmas involving physical risk, highly sensitive data, marginalized clientele,
and the exploitive use of power and domination by institutional gatekeepers.
Researchers venturing into challenging fieldwork settings, such as criminal
justice environments, must be highly attuned to the constraints and opportunities for collecting data. I will discuss three specific types of dilemmas
that I encountered during my fieldwork in the San Miguel criminal justice
system in California (a pseudonym). These dilemmas are similar to what
other researchers have faced in correctional institutions as well as other
types of street-level bureaucracies. In general, my research objectives often
conflicted with the cultural norms and behavioral expectations associated
with criminal justice organizations. First, I encountered barriers to participation in tasks that involved physical and political risk. Second, I faced barriers to open observation because people were sensitized to my presence.
Third, I confronted challenges to my credibility as a researcher and participant. In short, ethnographers in criminal justice institutions are faced with
difficult dilemmas that threaten the integrity of the research process.
I argue that anchoring and distancing strategies (Emerson and Pollner
2001) are useful methodological tools for managing role conflict. According
to Emerson and Pollner (2001), anchoring involves deepening participation
in fieldwork settings, and distancing refers to negotiating withdrawal from
member culture. In the article, I expanded on the use of anchoring and distancing in several ways. First, I claim that ethnographers can anchor and

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distance themselves from both their researcher and participant roles. Second,
these strategies are valuable methodological tools that can (a) increase quality and quantity of data collection, particularly sensitive data; (b) help the
ethnographer to manage roles and expectations across multiple field settings, and (c) help the ethnographer to manage ethical problems in fieldwork. Third, the use of these strategies can also lead to important research
findings.
In the following sections of the article, I first introduce the concepts of
anchoring and distancing as fieldwork strategies and how they can facilitate
ethnographic research in criminal justice settings. Second, I provide an
overview of the ethnographic setting for my fieldwork in the criminal justice
system as well as a discussion of the substantive focus of my research. Third,
I turn to a discussion of the core dilemmas that I encountered during my
fieldwork tenure and the strategies I used to address them: becoming a nonexpert, refusing to witness, and taking a stand. I conclude with a discussion
of the theoretical and practical implications for using these strategies in
ethnographic research.

Anchoring and Distancing Strategies


The dilemmas I faced doing fieldwork in criminal justice settings is similar to what ethnographers have confronted in other types of street-level
bureaucracies. In Michael Lipskys (1980) study of street-level bureaucracies, he explores how public service workers operate the front line in
public organizations. His concept of street-level bureaucrats describes how
workers must reconcile procedural rules with the complex problems posed
by the clients they encounter. In doing so, workers employ on the spot discretion to make decisions in the face of limited time and resources. In aggregate, these everyday decisions form the basis of public policy. Yet, as other
ethnographers have reported, doing research in these types of organizations
exposes the researcher to incidents of overt power and domination, group
conflict, illegalities, and highly confidential information.
Exemplars of ethnographic dilemmas in street-level bureaucracies
include research in police departments (Leo 2001; Marks 2003), hospitals
(Ayala 1996), prisons (Giallombardo 1966; Jacobs 1974; Marquart 1986),
homeless shelters (Dordick 1997), and government-sponsored programs
(Horowitz 1995). For example, in Markss (2003) study on the Durban
Police Department, she was asked to participate in a high school raid to search
for weapons and illegal substances. During Horowitzs (1995) research on
Project GED, she was pressured to take sides during a dispute between staff

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members. Both Marquart (1986) and Ayala (1996) faced the dilemma of
passing character tests to establish credibility among clients and staff. As
these fieldwork dilemmas illustrate, the ethnographer must develop methodological strategies to manage anticipated as well as unforeseen barriers to
data collection.
Qualitative scholars have written about different strategies for confronting
fieldwork problems. J. Lofland et al. (2006, 54) provide a synthetic overview
of interactional strategies for getting along in the field. Essentially,
according to these authors, fieldwork strategies can be organized into two
types: presentational and exchange (J. Lofland et al. 2006, 68). First, presentational strategies encompass techniques for adopting a fieldwork identity for purposes of building rapport with informants. Second, exchange
strategies are mechanisms of providing assistance to informants in exchange
for access to field sites. A third type of strategy focuses on how researchers
can ward off anticipated fieldwork dilemmas through means of preemption
(J. Lofland et al. 2006, 73) or finessing (74) to avoid participation in
certain tasks.
Given the sensitive, and at times uncertain, nature of my researcher and
participant roles in criminal justice settings, I found that distancing and
anchoring strategies were useful techniques for addressing uneasy moments
in the field (Emerson and Pollner 2001). Distancing is defined as withdrawing from participant activities to avoid overinvolvement with members. This
strategy can help the researcher to minimize subjectivity and bias. Anchoring
is defined as deepening involvement in participant activities to gain acceptance into member culture. However, as I hope to illustrate, not only can we
anchor and distance ourselves from our participant role, we can also anchor
and distance ourselves from our researcher role. For example, distancing
from the researcher role refers to underplaying or minimizing data collection activities. Anchoring to the researcher role refers to openly engaging in
research tasks for purposes of collecting data. Table 1 references the four
ways that anchoring and distancing can be operationalized in field studies.
Although these strategies incorporate both presentational as well as
exchange techniques, anchoring and distancing, as methodological tools,
also allow the fieldworker greater flexibility and skills for managing encounters in challenging field sites. In addition, anchoring and distancing strategies reflect an awareness of how the cultural and organizational contexts of
any given field site can affect the fieldworkers access to data. Furthermore,
these strategies are particularly valuable for helping the fieldworker to handle situations that entail ethical dilemmas. I will demonstrate that being
conscious of anchoring and distancing strategies, and recognizing the costs
and benefits, can augment ethnographers data collection toolkit to better
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Figure 1

Distancing Anchoring

Researcher
Deploying research
protocols to collect data and
protect informants rights.

Member
Deepening participation in
member activities.

Hiding or downplaying
Withdrawing from participant
research tasks and activities. activities to avoid over
rapport with members.

address fieldwork dilemmas. Deploying these strategies can help to reveal


unforeseen findings in the study.

The Ethnographic Setting


This article is based on two years of ethnographic research with four
nonprofit-operated pretrial release programs in a California criminal justice
system. Pretrial release programs operate to release poor defendants from
jail without a monetary bond. The defendant is released on a promise to
appear for their court arraignment in lieu of bail; this is commonly referred
to as releasing a defendant on his or her own recognizance. Caseworkers in
this study carry out pretrial release processes by interviewing defendants in
jail after the arrest, calling three references, summarizing their criminal
history, and presenting the case to the magistrate. On release, caseworkers
supervise the defendant in the community to ensure they return to court.
Caseworkers are not merely objective assessors of pretrial release eligibility, however; they play an important role in shaping the organizational and
legal processes that govern release decision making.
An ethnographic study of nonprofit-operated pretrial release programs
contributes to an understanding of how privatization of criminal justice
programs happens on the ground. Relying on participant-observation and
interview data, I was interested in exploring the contested boundaries involving nonprofits and courts with regard to the defendants entitlement to pretrial release. In the tradition of law and society scholarship, I studied how
pretrial release law in action diverges from law on the books. In these

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comparative legal settings, I examined whether extra legal criteria become


central features for assessing pretrial release eligibility. This ethnographic
study contributes to an important gap in our conceptualization of criminal
justice administration.
During my field studies, I became interested in how nonprofit caseworkers classify and categorize defendants petitions for pretrial release. I began
to theorize that these categories are informed by both statute definitions of
criminality as well as culturally prescribed values of personal responsibility, honesty, and redemption. I noted that although nonprofit caseworkers
have little or no formal legal training, they play a critical, behind-the-scenes
role in disrupting traditional legal procedures that lead to inequalities for
poor and minority defendants in the judicial system. Furthermore, my emerging analysis focused on how nonprofits reconceptualize notions of justice
by altering the ways in which judges, public defenders, and prosecutors apply
the law. In turn, my qualitative inquiry focused on the practice of law in the
private sphere of the nonprofit agency and on what legal and extralegal features are transported into public courtrooms.
To collect the data, I spent six months in each program as an unpaid caseworker between 2001 and 2004. My institutional affiliation with a wellregarded local university helped to assure my access to criminal justice
settings (see Horowitz 1995). I independently approached the executive
director at each pretrial release agency as a doctoral student in sociology. I
prepared a written statement of intent describing the research project, along
with a copy of the interview guide and the approval letter from the Institutional
Review Board (IRB).
As a participant observer of pretrial release practices, I sought access to
the county jail. The process of screening cases for release begins in the jail,
and caseworkers typically conduct interviews with defendants soon after
their arrest. The directors of each program sponsored my application for a
jail clearance card through the San Miguel Sheriffs Department. My application was approved under the assumption that I was a new pretrial release
caseworker, not a social researcher. Marge, one of the program directors,
said, in effect, that to reveal my research interests to jail officials would
unnecessarily complicate the process. This is similar to Marquarts (1986)
experience with ethnographic research in prisons. Although he had sought
approval from the prison warden, he feared that if he openly discussed his
research agenda with the correctional staff, he would not be allowed to
work as a guard. However, like Marquart, I never misrepresented my identity as a social researcher. If someone asked me about my educational or
occupational background, I would provide a general explanation that I was

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a PhD doctoral student in sociology who was interested in studying how


pretrial release decisions were made.
I was required to attend a four-hour jail orientation, submit to a background check, and place my fingerprints and photograph on file. I received
a laminated ID card that included my name, photograph, the date of expiration, and sponsoring organization. I wore the clearance card at all times for
law enforcement officials to easily identify me as authorized personnel. The
clearance card gave me unrestricted access to the processing center in the
San Miguel jail as well as nonpublic areas of the courthouse.
To capture and record the observational and participatory data, I took
extensive field notes every day I was in the field. Consistent with calls for
triangulation of data sources, I also conducted semistructured interviews
with pretrial release caseworkers, superior court judges, and bail commissioners. I completed fifty-seven interviews, lasting approximately one hour
each, with some interviews lasting as long as two hours. I also collected
archival data in the form of organizational brochures, case files, newspaper
articles, and internal court memorandums.

Three Criminal Justice Settings


I conducted ethnographic research in three legal settings where pretrial
release activities take place: the jail, the courtroom, and the pretrial release
agency. These legal settings are connected to one another in ways that constitute how release decisions are negotiated. In the jails processing center,
sheriffs deputies first determine whether newly arrested inmates are eligible for pretrial release on the basis of the criminal charge and their criminal
status (i.e., on probation or parole). Legal statutes in the California penal
code largely determine defendants eligibility for pretrial release. In the jail,
I interviewed male and female inmates, summarized rap sheets, and collected police reports. Courts then rely on pretrial release agencies once
defendants are out of jail to supervise, monitor, and connect defendants to
social services programs pending adjudication of the criminal case. At
the pretrial release agency, I attended staff meetings, compiled cases for
judicial review, and supervised defendants once they were released from
jail. In the courtroom, I directly observed judges, lawyers, and pretrial release
workers processing cases, engaging in sidebar deliberations, and discussing
cases in judicial chambers. During my field studies, I conducted ethnographic research in multiple settings and collected multiple forms of data. I
was, consequently, required to negotiate roles and expectations with a range
of different people, settings, and organizational agendas.

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I was aware of the ethical problems and dilemmas of doing ethnographic research among incarcerated populations. Conducting participantobservation and taking on the role of a pretrial release caseworker required
that I directly interact with individuals who had been arrested. Each day in
the field required that I think about the rights of criminal defendants. As this
article will explain, there were various roles that I had to adopt in an effort
to live up to my research obligations.
Although my research was granted approval from the university IRB,
I was always aware of my covert researcher role when I worked with defendants in the various organizational settings. The defendants I encountered
were not exposed to any more risk than their everyday experiences in these
pretrial release programs. For me, the most important ethical concern was
protecting the anonymity of the defendants as well as for the organizations
and their staff. I did not gain informed consent from the defendants but rather
protected their rights and dignity by drawing on caseworkers professional
standards (e.g., safeguarding defendants personal information, helping
defendants without judgment or bias). However, all researchers conducting
deep ethnographic research are forced to contend with dilemmas associated
with collecting data in the social world (Warren and Karner 2005). In the
case of this research, I made ethical choices by being conscious of potential harm I might impose while participating in both my caseworker and
researcher roles.
In the following sections, I introduce three fieldwork strategies for managing fieldwork dilemmas in a criminal justice setting: becoming a nonexpert, refusing to witness, and taking a stand. Each strategy uses the techniques
of anchoring and distancing, which helped to reveal important research
findings.

Becoming a Nonexpert
Once the ethnographer has gained entre into the field site, he or she must
find ways to appropriate the data by establishing trust and rapport with
informants. However, during my fieldwork, I faced the problem of overidentification of my researcher status. Overidentification can be detrimental
for collecting data because informants may perceive the ethnographer as
a threat to veiled institutional practices. Leo (2001) experienced a similar
problem during his study of police interrogation methods. To acclimate to
police culture, he deemphasized his researcher role by changing his physical appearance and engaging in casual shop talk with officers.

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In my fieldwork, I used a parallel strategy, which I call becoming a


nonexpert. Becoming a nonexpert refers to a strategy of downplaying my
researcher role to overcome barriers to data collection activities that involve
physical and political risk. This methodological approach was useful for
reducing the overidentification of my research status for purposes of building trust and rapport with informants. I will demonstrate two examples of
becoming a nonexpert: going off the record and seeking an exemption.

Going Off the Record


Conventionally, going off the record in legal settings refers to giving
testimony that is not part of any official documentation. Here, I refer to
going off the record as a strategy of adopting less formal methods for interviewing judges, in particular not using the tape recorder. Although I used
my academic credentials to gain access to restricted court venues, such as
judicial chambers, I discovered, rather quickly, that my research interests
caused suspicion, confusion, and distrust among pretrial release judges.
During the early stages of my fieldwork, I spent many hours in the courtroom
observing how judges and other court officials handled pretrial release petitions. Following Laura Nadars (1969, 239) call to study up, I pursued
interviews with judges to help me understand how criminal deviance is
constructed in the corridors of power. Interviewing judges was important
because they play a critical role in making pretrial release decisions.
Gaining access to judges was not as difficult as I had anticipated
(Ostrander 1993). Judges were willing to talk to me in large part because
I was referred to them by staffers in the pretrial release agencies and I followed up to schedule an interview. The difficulty I encountered was that
judges were reluctant to give me permission to tape record the interviews.
Ten of the twelve interviews I completed with judges took place in chambers; two interviews were conducted over lunch. Traditionally, judicial
chambers are a personal and less formal environment for discussing criminal cases, and I thought it would be an ideal place to conduct the interview.
Judicial chambers are commonly situated along a long hallway that runs
behind the criminal courtrooms on the first floor. It is a small, private office
hidden from view and inaccessible to the public. Although most formal proceedings are recorded verbatim by the court reporter to document the legal
disposition of cases on the calendar, chambers are a backstage (Goffman
1959) setting where traditionally, judges, district attorneys, and public
defenders convene to problem solve, make deals, and plea bargain. In chambers, court officials subscribe to the cultural norm of going off the record.

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I first encountered judges resistance to tape recording when I scheduled


an interview with Judge Delaney. During our initial phone conversation, I
asked Judge Delaney if I could record the interview. There was a long silence
before she said, It depends on the questions. I described the interview guide
and she responded noncommittally, Well, bring it and well see. When I
arrived at her chambers, I asked her again if I could use the tape recorder,
explaining that it would help me to accurately represent her responses. She
hesitated and said, It depends on what you want to know. I reached in my
file folder and handed her my interview guide. She glanced over the questions and began to answer them without ever addressing my request.
Feeling as if I had lost control of the interview and stripped of my technological tools, I fumbled for a pen and paper to write down her answers.
I limited my note taking to essential words or phrases. I then reconstructed
the interview conversation immediately afterward.
I thought my interview with Judge Delaney was an anomaly, but I experienced several more failed attempts to tape record my interviews with
judges. I completed ten unrecorded interviews with judges and tape recorded
two. During the two recorded interviews, one judge asked me to shut off the
tape recorder during various parts of the interview, and one judge said that
he would deny certain statements if asked about it outside of the interview.
I realized that to solicit more open responses from judges, I needed to
actively disengage from formal methods for collecting data. Going off the
record not only reduces formality but also reduces the paper trail that gives
judges the option of denying statements made during the interview.
Going off the record helped me to discover some interesting findings
about the constraints on judicial decision making. I learned that my request
to tape record interviews threatened to reveal hidden pretrial release practices. During the interviews, pretrial release judges talked about how their
decisions are closely monitored by more powerful superior court judges. It
appeared that my research interest in pretrial release practices encroached
on a politically sensitive issue. Leo (2001) confronted a similar problem
because police detectives feared his research would expose their methods
for interrogating suspects.
Judges operate in a social hierarchy, which means that release decisions
are subject to a number of institutional controls. Pretrial release judges, for
example, are closely monitored by the upper echelons of the judiciary,
namely superior court judges. Judge Krupky illustrated this in an interview
when he stated that if a higher judge disagreed with his release decisions, he
would be informed. Similarly, Judge Delaney said that she often sought
out advice on whether or not to release a defendant from a more experienced judge. I began to take a deep interest in how the making of release
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decisions is deeply rooted in socialization processes among judicial elites


as well as a hierarchy of power in the making of the law.
In sum, going off the record was a distancing strategy for disclosing sensitive information from courtroom judges. I downplayed my research
agenda during the interviews by using informal methods to record judges
responses. This technique was useful for gaining a better understanding of
judges constraints on their release decisions that have little to do with the
legal statutes on pretrial release. This fieldwork dilemma was ultimately
beneficial because it revealed to me how release decisions are embedded in
a larger political structure.

Seeking an Exemption
In some field settings, researchers may be asked to participate in potentially harmful or unethical activities. According to J. Lofland et al. (2006),
preemption is one strategy to ward off these offers of inclusion before they
begin (73). However, preemption implies that the researcher has some
information or foresight that he or she might be expected to perform a less
than desirable task (J. Lofland et al. 2006). In street-level bureaucracies,
these offers of inclusion may include participating in acts of violence
(Marquart 1986), strip-searching suspects (Marks 2003), or mediating organizational disputes (Horowitz 1995).
Seeking an exemption is a strategy for declining to participate in certain
tasks when the researcher has little or no forewarning to preempt the offer.
I sought an exemption during my fieldwork from performing duties that I
felt threatened my personal safety. In essence, this strategy involved positioning myself as a nonexpert for carrying out dangerous tasks. This is
similar to selective incompetence, when the researcher embraces a novice
or learner role to decline participation in member tasks (J. Lofland et al.
2006, 70).
In correctional settings, physical danger may be part and parcel of the
ethnographers fieldwork (Leo 2001; Marks 2003; Marquart 1986; Van
Maanen 1982). Because I spent a significant amount of time working in the
county jail, aspects of my fieldwork required that I expose myself to a
degree of physical risk. Reducing risk is a primary concern among pretrial
release caseworkers and correctional staff in the jails processing center. Yet
I was surprised to learn that caseworkers had authority to traffic inmates in
and out of their cells to conduct interviews, a practice called pulling
inmates. Once the caseworker arrives at the jail, they check out the master
key that opens up the jails holding cells. At the beginning of the shift, caseworkers identify inmates who are eligible for pretrial release, take them out

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of the cell to conduct an interview in a small office, and escort them back
to the cell once the interview is completed.
Kyra, a caseworker for the Reach Program, taught me how to pull
inmates for interviews. I felt apprehensive about taking part in what might
be a potentially dangerous task, but I listened intently to Kyras instructions.
She stuck the oversized key into the lock, gripped the door handle, and said,
You turn [the key] twice around and pull hard. The cell door popped open.
This action immediately caught the attention of the eight inmates inside.
Lt. Davison, a sheriffs deputy, strode toward us and promptly gave me
an on the spot safety lesson from a correctional perspective. In rapid succession, he taught me to never leave the tank door open, to keep your foot
pressed against the heavy steel door in case an inmate decides to charge and
never, ever, step inside [the cell]. I nodded and thanked him for the advice.
In parting, he emphasized one last point, Always keep the keys on your
person or hidden from sight. If an inmate gets a hold of them, you will be
held responsible. Kyra then handed me the keys and said, You have about
six interviews to do. She walked away.
I felt compelled to use the moment to set boundaries on the kind of tasks
I was willing to do and especially ones that I felt were unsafe because of
my level of discomfort. Up to this point, I had embraced all of the opportunities to participate in pretrial release practices, yet if I declined outright
to pull inmates, it could threaten to disrupt my budding rapport with caseworkers. I initially elected to invoke my researcher status as the reason I
should be exempted from the task. I approached Kyra and explained that
having unsupervised control over inmates in the jail violated the terms of
my human subjects review. I briefly explained the role of the IRB in university research projects. In truth, there was no specific clause in my IRB
proposal, but protocols for ethical social research discourage participation
in activities that threaten the safety or reputation of subjects.
Kyra appeared confused by my explanation, and she may have interpreted my opting out of routine tasks as asserting a status hierarchy; as a
researcher, I am exempted from certain tasks that members perform. In hindsight, I should not have used the IRB as an excuse for why I could not
participate in pulling inmates. I then decided to come clean by explaining
to Kyra that I did not have enough experience to bear this level of responsibility. In turn, by highlighting my incompetence, I acknowledged the value
of Kyras extensive experience and specialized knowledge. She became
immediately sympathetic toward my discomfort. She said to me, I didnt
think about how hard it would be for someone new. Similarly, to gain

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acceptance in the prison subculture, Marquart (1986) established rapport


among inmates by letting inmates teach him about boxing and weightlifting. The strategy of seeking an exemption helped to foster greater rapport
between Kyra and me. We were able to negotiate a new division of labor:
she pulled inmates and I conducted the interviews. Seeking an exemption
involved anchoring to my researcher role and distancing myself from my
participant role. Initially, I anchored to my researcher role by declining the
task on the basis of ethical limitations set up by the IRB. Because this explanation caused confusion, I was pressed to directly confront the situation. I
then reframed the problem by talking about how my limited experience prevented me from doing the task safely. The strategy of seeking an exemption
illustrates that multiple techniques can be deployed consecutively to resolve
a fieldwork dilemma.
This dilemma was also helpful for revealing some interesting findings
about jail work. Reducing risk and protecting the safety of personnel are
fundamental institutional goals in the county jail. I observed, however, that
caseworkers assume a great deal of personal risk while carrying out everyday pretrial release processes. The above example of pulling inmates revealed
to me that caseworkers play a tremendously important role in the physical
management of the jail population. They do this work in addition to their
primary tasks of assessing, interviewing, and preparing pretrial release
cases. This is true in spite of the fact that caseworkers receive no formal
training from the sheriffs department nor are they equipped with any
mechanisms of self-defense (i.e., guns, baton, or pepper spray). However,
caseworkers benefit from being able to traffic inmates in and out of their
cells because it allows them to process cases more quickly and efficiently.
They would, alternatively, have to wait for a deputy to escort each inmate
to and from the interview room. Caseworkers and deputies share in the
physical management of the inmate population to carry out pretrial release
practices in the most resourceful manner possible.
In sum, becoming a nonexpert was a useful strategy for establishing distance from both my researcher and participant roles in the field. These roles
conflicted with the social norms and behavioral expectations associated
with pretrial release practices. By becoming a nonexpert, I used informal
interviewing methods to learn about how judges make pretrial release decisions, and I sought an exemption from potentially dangerous tasks. Although
the strategy of becoming a nonexpert yielded important findings, implementing this strategy meant that I had to adapt my research protocols to
different institutional constraints.

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Refusing to Witness
Fieldwork settings will differ in terms of the researchers ability to access
sensitive data. In my field experience, I faced barriers to open observation
in certain social settings because people were sensitized to my presence.
Marquart (1986) faced a similar problem at Eastham prison because both
guards and inmates were highly suspicious that he was a journalist or government official, which hindered his ability to collect data. Refusing to witness is a strategy of not openly observing social phenomena to record
confidential information. This strategy was necessary when I experienced
institutional and ethical barriers to observation in the county jail and the
pretrial release office. I will discuss two examples of refusing to witness:
feigning disinterest and faking it. Both of these techniques involve anchoring and distancing from various role expectations in the field.

Feigning Disinterest
In the jail, many pretrial release activities are under surveillance by correctional staff. I could not engage in open observation in part because my
research agenda was not officially announced to the sheriffs deputies (see
Marquart 1986). In addition, according to caseworkers, deputies were highly
suspicious of any civilian personnel who worked in the jail. I was reticent
to use overt methods of data collection under these conditions for fear I
might not be allowed to work as a pretrial release staff person or lose access
to the field site altogether. Feigning disinterest refers to how I appeared to
ignore events that would otherwise be of great interest to me as an ethnographer of pretrial release practices. L. Lofland (1985) also deployed the
technique of civil inattention to observe public spaces without drawing
attention to herself (also see Goffman 1963). The strategy of feigning disinterest facilitated my access to sensitive data in the county jail, a highly
restrictive environment. The first time I worked in the jail, Samantha, a caseworker, and I flashed our clearance cards to the deputy posted at the main
gate. I struggled to keep up with Samanthas sudden brisk strides down the
long, white-walled corridor. Samantha explained to me that pretrial release
staff members are considered guests and the jail is [the deputies] turf.
As we reached the staff entrance to the jails processing center, Samantha
gave me a short list of things not to do once inside: Dont stare at inmates,
dont look deputies in the eye when they pass by, and never question what
deputies do. I became highly self-aware about how my actions were perceived by deputies and inmates.

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The jails physical environment is highly compatible with the interests


and aspirations of an organizational ethnographer. The processing center is
modeled as a direct supervision facility, meaning that the jail is architecturally designed to maximize surveillance and management of the inmate
population. The sheriffs deputy station is physically situated in the center
of the facility, and the holding cells are positioned along the perimeter. The
intended effect allows law enforcement to constantly monitor inmate activity and immediately quell any incidents that threaten the safety of the institutions personnel.
The physical layout of the processing center afforded me impressive
observational access to jail operations in general and pretrial release practices more specifically. The corporal requirements of the intake procedures are evident once the arrestee arrives at the processing unit of the jail,
which is the point of entry and exit to and from the criminal justice system.
The jail, as a total institution, indoctrinates newly arrested inmates by subjecting them to degradation ceremonies (Goffman 1961). Arrestees are
strip-searched, photographed, fingerprinted; they must surrender all markers
of their personal identity and connections to the outside social world, such
as jewelry and wallets. Immediately on arriving at the jail, arrestees step out
of their civilian clothing and are fitted in bright orange tops and pants.
During a typical week in the field, I worked six hours a week in the
county jail. I conducted interviews with newly arrested inmates in the jail,
answered the phone, called references, and helped caseworkers with the
rigorous process of compiling pretrial release cases for judicial review. My
natural inclination as a fieldworker is to ask questions, when appropriate,
and take field notes based on close observation of routine work practices.
However, I was unable to use traditional ethnographic tools to capture and
record data. If I openly promoted my research agenda, I might draw suspicion and distrust from correctional staff. A vivid example of this methodological dilemma occurred one afternoon in June 2002. Stacy, a pretrial
release supervisor, assigned me to the task of telephoning references for
pretrial release cases. I was seated at a small desk situated in close proximity to the sheriffs central station. I was well positioned to observe naturally
occurring on-site activities. I overheard exchanges between deputies and
inmates; I was privy to sensitive information, threats of physical violence,
and degradation.
On this day, it had been relatively quiet because of the low number of
arrests. The calm was suddenly and violently disrupted when two sheriffs
deputies placed Daniel, a white man in his mid-thirties, in a safety cell for
what deputies called mouthing off. Safety cells are typically reserved for

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inmates who pose a threat to themselves or the institutions, oftentimes


because of mental illness. Once the heavy steel door was shut and locked,
Daniel repeatedly kicked the door and screamed through the tiny window:
You treat me like shit, Fuck you, and Ill bomb this place. His sounds
of torment and angst were inescapable and ripped through me. I looked at
the other caseworkers, but they appeared unflustered by the disruption. They
continued with the routine tasks of interviewing inmates, making phone
calls, and processing paperwork. I was afraid of getting caught in a fleeting glance in the direction of the disturbance. It took great effort on my part
to ignore this compelling incident of domination and go about my assigned
task of readying cases for judicial review. Daniel stopped kicking the door,
and the relative quiet of a slow jail day was restored. I took the opportunity
to look up, and I saw a few deputies taunt Daniel as they walked by; enraged
even further, his kicks and screams resumed. Marquart (1986) recounts a
similar type of experience in the prison when he remained silent when
observing guards . . . beat and physically injure inmates (23). I could no
longer make the phone references (usually to inmates mothers and grandmothers) with Daniels deafening screams in the background.
In some circumstances, researchers decide that they must use concealed
methods to record observation data (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 1995;
Johnson 1975; J. Lofland et al. 2006). I recorded how troubles are handled
in the jail by memorizing key words and phrases spoken in exchanges
between deputies as well as between deputies and inmates (see Marquart
1986). I was able to reconstruct the data in written field notes when I went
to the restroom or returned to the pretrial release office. I took notes in
shorthand on small Post-its. I could fit the Post-its into my pocket, and
in case they were lost, they could not be deciphered by anyone else.
Similarly, Goffmans (1989) concept of taking field notes off phase refers
to not recording the ethnographic event at the same time that it occurs. The
researcher is less likely to draw attention to his or herself and thereby minimize the risk of informants becoming suspicious or uncomfortable. By
feigning disinterest, I deployed both distancing and anchoring strategies to
record data in the county jail. In this example, distancing refers to how I
appeared to be disinterested in surrounding events, and anchoring refers to
how I covertly recorded ethnographic events.
The technique of feigning disinterest demonstrates that distancing and
anchoring can equip the ethnographer with strategies for collecting data in
restrictive field settings. In correctional settings in particular, the ethnographer will likely face institutional barriers to open observation. Feigning disinterest is useful because it allows the researcher to maintain an analytic
frame of mind while employing covert means of recording data.
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I learned through this experience that jail work not only involves physical
jeopardy but moral compromise. I discovered that caseworkers manage the
emotional labor (Hochschild 1983) of working in a loud, chaotic, and highly
stressful environment by adopting what they call a jail personality, an
identity that enables them to become desensitized to defendants personal
plights. In interviews and informal conversations, caseworkers articulated
that adopting a jail personality helps them to be fast paced and thick
skinned, both of which are requirements for doing their job well. Caseworkers see their primary job as compiling accurate data on defendant eligibility for pretrial release (Matoesian 2001). In the jail, caseworkers strive
to achieve managerial efficiency without expending a lot of emotional energy
(LeBar 1973).

Faking It
As I have described, researchers are commonly faced with negotiating
the limits of their participation in member activities. It is useful and appropriate at times for the researcher to clearly delimit what tasks he or she is
willing to do. There are also circumstances, however, when the researcher
can finesse offers of inclusion without directly confronting the issue (Emerson
and Pollner 2001; J. Lofland et al. 2006). Similarly, faking it refers to
how I pretended to perform certain caseworker responsibilities to minimize
ethical compromise.
Many defendants had to submit to random drug tests as a condition of
their release from jail. This practice involved donning rubber gloves, labeling urine vials, and witnessing the client providing the sample in the bathroom. To carry out a legal drug test, the caseworker stands against a small
sink facing an open toilet stall as the client urinates into a small plastic cup.
I felt this was a humiliating experience for the clients, yet most willingly
complied. Because many defendants have spent time in and out of jail, I
theorized that they were used to having their bodies under surveillance. I,
however, was uncomfortable administering drug tests and tried to avoid it
whenever possible by leaving the room if I overheard mention of a drug
test. Yet, as one of the few women in the office, I was occasionally asked to
drug test the female defendants.
I faked my participation in the drug test by standing just to the left of the
stall and did not fully witness the client urinating into the cup. Marks (2003)
responded similarly while doing ethnography with the Durban Public Order
Police unit when officers asked her to frisk a female suspect. I acknowledge
that by refusing to properly administer the test, I technically compromised
its legal integrity. However, on reflection, faking it was a strategy to distance

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myself from the shame and stigma associated with drug-testing practices,
what Hughes (1971) called dirty work. Faking it was also an anchoring
strategy because by refusing to witness, I sought to protect the privacy and
dignity of defendants, the majority of whom did not know I was a researcher.
This fieldwork dilemma heightened my critical observation of the power
and discretion wielded by pretrial caseworkers in the defendants social and
legal worlds. The jail and courtroom are traditional sites of legal social control: the institutional goals of the criminal justice system are to process,
control, and punish persons judged to be in defiance of the law or a threat
to public safety. However, given caseworkers legal authority over defendants petitions for release, the pretrial release agency emerges as a new
satellite of social control. Foucault (1979) predicted that informal means of
social control would evolve out of formal correctional institutions. In this
vein, criminal defendants released to nonprofit pretrial release agencies are
subjected to monitoring, behavioral modifications, and other forms of informal disciplinary sanctions (see Burns and Peyrot 2003). These forms of discipline are beyond the defendants legal obligation to the court and at times
have little direct relevance to the adjudication of their criminal case.
In my fieldwork experiences, refusing to witness was an important strategy for collecting sensitive data in the jail and pretrial release office. The
techniques of feigning disinterest and faking it aided my ability to maneuver situations that posed ethical dilemmas. However, by implementing the
strategy, the researcher may have to make choices that compromise research
protocols, such as resorting to covert methods for recording data and subversively engaging in member tasks.

Taking a Stand
One of the dilemmas that researchers have faced is establishing their
credibility among informants. This is a particularly salient problem for
ethnographers studying marginalized clientele or doing research in correctional settings. Ethnographers have written about how they had to pass a
series of character tests to gain acceptance (Ayala 1996; Dordick 1997;
Horowitz 1995; Marquart 1986). For example, in Ayalas (1996) research in
a hospital medical ward, patients tested her familiarity with hospital procedure by asking for larger doses of medication than prescribed by the doctor.
Taking a stand is a strategy of adopting a position of authority to establish credibility with research subjects. Ethnographers, while striving to balance their researcher and participant roles, try to not disrupt subjects routine

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activities or intercede in interpersonal disputes. However, at times, it may be


difficult for the ethnographer to maintain a completely neutral stance, particularly when carrying out intensive participant observation. I argue that it
can be useful, if not necessary, to take a proactive stance or voice an informed
opinion during a fieldwork dilemma. I experienced moments in fieldwork
when I felt compelled to step outside my neutral role to acquire the trust
and acceptance of my informants. I will discuss two examples of taking a
stand: learning to pass and claiming expertise.

Learning to Pass
Learning to pass is a strategy of overtly adopting the attitudes and behaviors of the member subculture to gain acceptance (see Leo 2001; Marquart
1986). During my initial entre into each pretrial release program, I experienced difficulty fitting in among pretrial release caseworkers. Naturally,
most ethnographers have to overcome the burden of mistrust when entering
the research setting (Burawoy 1979). In particular, at the Open Door, a pretrial release agency for high-risk felony defendants, the majority of caseworkers responded to my research background as a deficiency for learning
how to be a good caseworker. Indeed, caseworkers were relatively frank
about their doubts that I was going to be able to relate to defendants. Patricia,
a caseworker, said to me that she did not think that I could get down to the
clients level. At the end of a staff meeting, Rafik, a caseworker, called me
an egghead and too straight to work there. Joseph, a caseworker, said,
Im going to get you some rap music, speaking about the majority of young
African American men referred to Open Door.
Given my social location as a middle-class woman in graduate school
who has never been arrested, I had similar concerns about my being able to
pass as a caseworker (Johnson 1975). The staff at Open Door mirrors the
population of the Open Door clientele, primarily African American and
Latino from poor or working-class backgrounds. Many caseworkers grew up
in the same communities as many of the criminal defendants, had spent
time in jail or prison themselves, or had a family member incarcerated. As
Monique, a caseworker, aptly stated, Ive been where they are so I feel
comfortable telling them off. On the whole, the majority of caseworkers
had little or no college education; only a few held college degrees.
Defendants referred to the Open Door also questioned my legitimacy as a
caseworker. One afternoon, Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old African American
man facing drug possession charges, came into the office. I motioned him
over to my cubicle and began to ask him a series of questions about his

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upcoming court date. Have you been attending the drug treatment meetings at A New Leaf? I asked. Instead of answering my question, Thomas
cocked his head and said, Are you some kind of professional? McNamara
(1994) faced a similar dilemma when the street hustlers he studied told him
that he smelled like a cop (57). Other defendants said I was mean and
too strict. Monique, amused by my lack of client appeal, joked, You
would make a good correctional officer. I realized that I lacked the cultural
and behavioral markers of an Open Door caseworker.
To gain acceptance, it was very important to demonstrate that I was
capable of carrying out pretrial release duties. I realized that if I was going
to be a good caseworker, I had to stand firm with defendants, take control during the interview, and not tolerate defendants bullshit. Carla provided an opportunity for me to publicly demonstrate my capabilities as a
caseworker. Carla, a thirty-nine-year-old Latina woman, was mandated to
come to the office on a frequent basis to check in with her caseworker,
Todd. Arrested for felony drug possession, the court ordered her to submit
to random drug tests. At times, I had to administer the test. Carla always
gave me an excuse for why she was not ready to pee: She did not have to
go, or she was on her period. These excuses, as caseworkers called them,
were not uncommon among clients, and the cultural norm in the office was
to direct the client to sit down and drink cupfuls of water. One day, Carla
came into the office and claimed she really had to go. I was not immediately available to administer the test and directed her to just go and well
do the test later. She disappeared and reemerged from the bathroom with
her urine vial contaminated with fecal matter. Carla blithely presented the
sample to Todd, with the explanation that I had given her permission to do
so. Todd was aghast and asked me what was going on. I was angry and told
Carla that I never gave her permission to do such a thing. I added with a
stern tone, Carla, you are lying and you know it. Afterward, Monique and
Jerome, two caseworkers, congratulated me for taking a hard line with
Carla. Jerome said, I didnt know you had it in you. My taking a hard
line with Carla in hopes of legitimatizing my status as a caseworker is on
par with Gwen Dordicks (1997) forceful retort to guards sexual comments
in hopes of preempting further harassment. Similarly, in Marquarts (1986,
21) prison research, he acquired insider status after he had been assaulted
by an inmate and defended himself in front of other guards.
This type of role conflict is a common dilemma for researchers engaged
in deep participation with informants. Sanctioning Carlas behavior served
to anchor my position as a good caseworker because I stood up to Carlas
perceived manipulations. However, I felt it was inappropriate for me, as a

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researcher, to scold Carla publicly, especially to accuse her of lying, which


could have threatened her standing in the program. The act of reprimanding Carla challenged my ethical principals because I personally benefited
from the incident. These issues are particularly problematic in correctional
settings where coercive power and domination are part of the institutional
makeup (Marquart 1986).

Claiming Expertise
Doing research in conflicted organizational environments poses another
type of fieldwork dilemma. The ethnographer may be drawn into organizational disputes and called on to take sides. In Horowitzs (1995) study of
Project GED, an educational and job training program, she found herself in
the middle of strained relations between two staffing groups. In my fieldwork, claiming expertise refers to a strategy for mediating organizational
conflict without having to truly take sides. Although my researcher status
was initially a detriment for fitting in at pretrial release agencies, in time my
academic credentials were seen as valuable for resolving organizational
problems. In general, caseworkers and supervisors sought my advice on organizational problems for three central reasons: (a) As an outsider, I was not
perceived as having any particular stakes in shaping the agencys policies
and procedures. (b) When I began my research, I identified myself as someone interested in law and organizations. I believe that the executive director thought I had specialized knowledge about organizational restructuring.
And (c) I was identified as an important resource because I had worked
with three other pretrial release agencies. So staff members thought I could
offer them a comparative perspective about what works and what does not
work in these types of programs.
At the Open Door, the tension among staff and supervisors was palpable,
and I was increasingly asked to comment on the interoffice strife. Many
people in the agency pointed out that I could be more objective. Much of
the staff discord was focused on Wayne, the director. Although he was considered a shrewd executive director, he earned a reputation for being cruel
and overbearing toward his employees. Caseworkers thought Wayne
expected too much of them and treated them poorly. Many caseworkers,
frustrated with the work conditions, began to seek me out to listen and advise
them on the problems the agency faced. Wayne and the supervisory staff
wanted to tap my expertise on how to make the organization more efficient and get staff to work smarter. Both sides approached me to critique
current organizational polices and develop recommendations to help the
agency overhaul its internal structure.

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Taking sides in organizational conflicts poses a significant risk for ethnographers. In Horowitzs (1995) study, she was pressured to choose sides
between two groups that she called the mediators and the arbiters. She
aligned herself with the mediators, a group of staff members most sympathetic to clients needs. However, this decision alienated her from the arbiters,
a group of staffers that valued bureaucratic control over the clients participation in the program. When I confronted a similar dilemma, I agreed to
write up recommendations for improving the agencys daily operation based
on my experiences, observations, and discussions with both caseworkers
and supervisors. I felt obligated to acquiesce to their request because the
agency had generously granted me access to their organization. As an
anchoring strategy, openly adopting an expert role had value for building
trust among all the staff members. It also enabled me to finesse the problem of being asked to take sides in a bitter agency dispute.
In claiming expertise, I framed my recommendations as addressing
organizational-level problems that might be remedied with structural solutions, such as changing how the court refers defendants and hiring a human
resources manager to standardize personnel policies. I did not comment on
any interpersonal disagreements between individual staff and supervisory
members. Overall, my report was well received by most members of the
Open Door. Given my participatory role as a caseworker, I had some authority to speak about the hardships of the job. This meant that my professional
evaluation of agency problems was anchored in real experience, not just
bureaucratic observation. By claiming expertise, I was able to take a stand
in an organizational dispute without damaging my established rapport with
both caseworkers and supervisors.
The strategies of taking a stand were helpful for revealing how organizational cultures shape pretrial release practices, which was important since
I was conducting a comparative project. The four pretrial release programs
have different organizational procedures, and they require different criteria
for determining good risks for release. This helped me to understand how the
structure of the four programs results in different release outcomes for
defendants.
In short, although conducting participant observation in agency settings,
the ethnographer may be asked to remark on organizational problems. Taking
a stand can be risky for the ethnographer; involvement may result in unintended consequences, such as detracting from the research focus or creating undue hostilities with the very people with whom you want to build
rapport. For example, initially I feared that any commentary I made on the
issues would be wrongly construed by either side as unsympathetic toward
line staff or overly critical of management. There is a parallel risk in not takDownloaded from http://jce.sagepub.com by Nubia Rodrigues on October 22, 2008

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Journal of Contemporary Ethnography

ing a stand, however. This strategy of taking a stand, if executed with caution and foresight, can help the ethnographer to deepen trusting relationships
with informants and gain insight into the cultural makeup of the organization
(Horowitz 1995).

Implications and Conclusions


In this article, I discussed three core dilemmas that I encountered during
my fieldwork in the criminal justice system: (a) I faced barriers to participation in activities that involved physical and political risk. (b) I faced barriers
to open observation because certain groups were sensitized to my presence as
a researcher. And (c) my credibility as a researcher and a participant was put
to the test by informants. During my research on pretrial release programs,
these dilemmas affected my ability to record data and also posed serious
ethical problems.
I deployed three types of strategies to manage these fieldwork dilemmas.
These strategies draw on and build on the techniques of anchoring and distancing (Emerson and Pollner 2001). In becoming a nonexpert, I downplayed my researcher status to collect data from reticent judges, and I
highlighted my incompetence to caseworkers to avoid dangerous tasks. By
refusing to witness, I ignored incidents of violence in the jail while
covertly logging data, and I subverted the process for administrating drug
tests to protect clients dignity as well as my own. Last, in taking a stand,
I adopted the cultural markers of a good caseworker to establish my credibility, and I mediated intra-organizational conflict to gain legitimacy from
disputing agency groups.
These dilemmas are similar to what other ethnographers have faced while
carrying out research in correctional settings and other types of street-level
bureaucracies (Ayala 1996; Dordick 1997; Horowitz 1995; Leo 2001; Marks
2003; Marquart 1986). In law enforcement agencies, the ethnographer grapples with gaining and maintaining access to restricted social settings (Leo
2001; Marks 2003; Marquart 1986). In correctional institutions, the ethnographer is likely to be exposed to violence, suffering, and abuse of power
(Marks 2003; Marquart 1986). In health and social service agencies, the
ethnographer may become embroiled in organizational disputes between
clients and staff (Ayala 1996; Horowitz 1995). Furthermore, as Dordick
(1997) experienced, the ethnographer may experience disdain and harassment from staff members in community-based agencies. This suggests that
the strategies of anchoring and distancing are applicable to a variety of field
settings in and beyond street-level bureaucracies.

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I build on Emerson and Pollners (2001) concepts of distancing and


anchoring strategies in several ways. First, I argue that we can anchor and
distance ourselves from both our researcher and participant roles. Anchoring
to and distancing from the researcher role refers to either deploying research
protocols to collect data or using informal or covert methods to record data.
Anchoring to and distancing from the participant role refers to either gaining a foothold in member culture or seeking to withdraw from certain activities. Fieldwork dilemmas are often encapsulated in what I call negotiable
moments, meaning they occur in subtle, unexpected, and spontaneous ways.
As methodological tools, the techniques of anchoring and distancing empower
the researcher to resourcefully respond to a range of problems and issues in
the ethnographic setting.
Second, these strategies are useful for addressing ethical dilemmas in
criminal justice settings and other types of street-level bureaucracies. Doing
research in the criminal justice system, I observed and participated in activities that involved confidential information, emotional coercion, and physical domination. The techniques of anchoring and distancing can be used to
manage fieldwork dilemmas in ways that minimize moral, ethical, and legal
compromise. In general, these strategies can be used to purposefully negotiate difficult encounters in the field that challenge the delicate balance
between researcher and participant roles.
Third, these strategies are useful for increasing the quality and quantity
of ethnographic data, what Snow, Benford, and Anderson (1986) call informational yield. In particular, these strategies can equip the ethnographer
with a variety of tools and techniques for augmenting data collection efforts
in multisited research projects. Ethnographers doing research in multiple settings must navigate different organizational cultures, rules, and procedures.
Although multisited research can yield significant comparative data, it also
requires that the researcher find ways to adapt to each social setting in ways
that appropriate the data. In my fieldwork, these strategies helped me to
develop an understanding of the constraints and opportunities for collecting
data in the county jail, judicial chambers, and pretrial release agencies. In
addition, these strategies can help to reveal important research findings.
There are, however, limitations to the ethnographers ability to use these
techniques in field settings. For example, the ethnographers ability to effectively deploy anchoring and distancing strategies is contingent on the local
cultures, institutional norms, and structural constraints of the field site. In
my fieldwork, I faced barriers to observing data in restricted research settings, such as judicial chambers and the county jail. I confronted a different
set of challenges while conducting research in pretrial release agencies. The

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researcher may need to adapt these strategies depending on the scope and
nature of the ethnographic setting.
An additional limitation is that the ethnographers ability to successfully
deploy these strategies depends, in part, on the status of the informants. In
my interactions with judges and defendants, for example, I distanced myself
from my researcher role but for different reasons. Many judges, aware of my
research agenda, harbored skepticism about what I would do with the information they put forth. In chambers, downplaying my researcher role resulted
in data that led to new analytic insights about the organization of the lower
courts. In contrast, role conflict was a more difficult problem to overcome
while working with defendants. My interactions with defendants were
influenced by the culture of pretrial release practices. In some programs, the
organization of pretrial release services rewards efficiency and risk management, yet there is a human cost in the form of emotional avoidance and in
types of surveillance that undermine a defendants dignity. In addition, many
defendants were unaware that I was a researcher in addition to my caseworker duties. Given my deep involvement with defendants in these pretrial
release agencies, it was more difficult to distance myself from situations
that posed moral and ethical problems.
In conclusion, for ethnographers doing research in challenging field sites,
such as the criminal justice system, anchoring and distancing strategies can
augment the ethnographers data collection toolkit. These strategies, in general, can facilitate and maximize data collection opportunities, protect the
integrity of both the researcher and participant roles, and help ethnographers
manage research agendas across multiple settings. Of equal importance,
these strategies may help to reveal some of the hidden motivations for informants actions. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the ethnographer is not alone in deploying anchoring and distancing strategies to manage
fieldwork relationships. Indeed, research subjects play an active role in this
process as well. Judges, for example, distanced themselves as formal participants in the interview process by refusing to tape record interviews or
giving evasive answers.
Additionally, this article highlights the need for further ethnographic
research in criminal justice settings. My research on pretrial release
programs illustrates the value of studying up (Nadar 1969, 289), studying
the middle (caseworkers), as well as studying down (defendants) to gain a
deep understanding of criminal justice processes. This study illustrates that
the ways in which defendants experience criminal justice processing is produced, in large part, by how deviance is constructed by social control agents,
including the hidden influence of pretrial release caseworkers. In my study,

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doing ethnography in the criminal justice system revealed differences in how


legal cases are constructed across multiple institutional settings: the jail,
judicial chambers, and the pretrial release agency. Future ethnographic
research in the criminal justice system should continue to explore how traditional and nontraditional court officials interpret and enact the law.

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Ursula Castellano is an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University. She received her BA
in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MA and PhD in
sociology at the University of California, Davis. She is completing a book on the role of nonprofit organizations in the criminal justice system. Her current research project explores the role
of clinicians in mental health courts.

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