The research traineeship: Conducting participant observation in state organisations

by Maria Schiller

Working Papers WP 15-12
September 2015
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

State organisations have long been regarded as an impossible field for ethnographers. It was difficult to get access and preconceived notions of the state kept critical scholars from taking a closer and empathic look at its workings. As anthropologists take a reinvigorated interest in state organisations, new questions emerge as to how to set up participant observation in state organisations and what opportunities and challenges arise for the ethnographer in their relationships with state officials. Drawing on my own fieldwork notes from participant observations conducted in municipal organisations in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Leeds in 2009-10, this paper introduces the method of the ‘research traineeship’. The research traineeship entails being open to playing multiple roles as an ethnographer, and allows for new forms of relationships emerge during the fieldwork. Research traineeships involve analyzing the evolving relationships and moments of collaboration between researcher and researched and using this analysis as an important element of the epistemic knowledge production. While collaboration with research subjects who share similar intellectual or analytical capabilities is often depicted in idealised ways, I will focus in this paper on some of the opportunities and challenges of collaboration in state organisations.

Keywords: Fieldwork, participant observation, collaboration, anthropology of the state, organizational anthropology  

Maria Schiller is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. She holds a PhD in Migration Studies from the University of Kent, and earned her MA degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include urban diversity, local government and governance, and immigrant policies.