Making Silence Matter: The Place of the Absences in Ethnography

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Professional and organizational attention in recent years to what ethnographers can and cannot disclose as part of their research accounts has extended the range and relevance of concerns pertaining to the relation between investigators and those they study. When researchers are working under conditions characterised by secrecy and a limited access to information, then the difficulties faced in offering accounts are all the more acute. This presentation examines the political, ethical, and epistemological challenges associated with how we manage what is missing within our writing. The argument is based on an ethnographic-type engagement over a five-year period. I want to consider the representational implications of the disclosure rules, confidentiality agreements, informal arrangements, etc. associated with contemporary research; in particular their implications for how knowledge claims are substantiated and reproduced. I also want to go further though to ask what novel writing strategies and methods could enable us to undertake a critical and evocative engagement with the worlds we study, while also respecting the limitations on what can be communicated. My basic orientation has been to seek forms of writing that exemplify the negotiation of disclosure and concealment between investigators and those they study in the relation between authors and their readers. In doing so, a goal has been to determine how limits to what can be said could figure as a productive part of our research accounts.

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