Emotions, selves and fieldwork

For our next meeting, we will be reading Sharon Traweek’s paper Warning Signs, and Ellis ‘ book, Final Negotiations. See you on the afternoon of the 12th!


Starting reading on the train yesterday. Strange experience. After about ten pages, I was quite grossed out with the whole thing. She was stupid. He was repulsive. Was I allowed to feel this way? Could I stop reading on the basis of this? Somewhat vindictively, I was thinking that by putting these characters, their emotions and their relationship so much to the forefront of this book, this was also entitling me to react to them on that basis. I managed to make myself read/skim/read through the first part. Stopped that when I got to the part where she becomes an unpaid nurse to a chronically ill tyrant. And then skimmed the last part, where she talks about writing the various versions of the book. And I read enough of that to realise that, yes, indeed, the whole point was more or less to provoke an emotional reading.

Now, having slept on this, I am feeling somewhat less vindictively repulsed. I’m also rather in awe of (and quite curious about) what it must have been like to publish something like this in the American academic climate of the mid-nineties, at the height of data-rape hysteria on campuses and institutionalised political correctness.


4 responses to “Emotions, selves and fieldwork

  1. Another thing that has stayed with me is the part of the introduction and of the chapter on writing the book where she tells about reactions, reviewers’ comments and comments from editors she received. It is a very powerful way of interrogating ‘readings’ of this material. I found myself recognising some of my reactions in that material, and it was really engaging to read about her own reactions to that feedback and about how such reactions further shaped the book.

  2. I received the book this morning. From reading on the back of it one question immediately came to my head: Is this sociology or a personal novel? I hope the book will challenge my view on both.

    Will the writer be able to get beyond her own personal feelings when writing this book? Should she? Is the writers data less valid as she is so intensely involved ? Are we instead provided with something that qualifies as really thick description as the researcher was there all the time not restricted by the same distance as had it been an informant she was not personally related to?

    I’m really looking forward to read the book and come to terms with the different roles that will have to be balances off when gathering data/experiencing as well as writing about those data /experiences.

  3. Just picked up the book at Anne’s office, and am looking forward to our discussion on auto-ethnography and our experiences as readers of the book, and thoughts on how we ourselves deal with presence in our writings.

  4. Finished reading last night, and here are some first thoughts.
    I was really struck by my initial conservative reaction to the book. Althought it has been a while, I was trained as a psychologist. I was asking myself whether or not I found Ellis – a sociologist, and clearly posititioning herself as a scientist- entitled to write about what I considered psychological topics + if so, if it was interesting scientifically. The book did fulfil one of its goals, I guess, by having readers think about these things.

    Knowing in advance that Anne was quite ‘grossed out’, I was also trying to figure out what her irritation was all about + how I responded to Ellis’ stream of emotions. Not much happened, I must say. I did not feel revolted, nor sad or sorry for anyone. I was wondering why not, because the topic is quite heavy. This probably partly had to do with not feeling sympathy for Gene, Ellis’ partner. If it were her mother (my own weak spot), things would have been very different. The fact that I was reflecting on my emotions to begin with, also partly had to do with the fact that Ellis explicitly warns her readers about the possibility of getting emotional.

    As to the writing itself: I was intrigued by her use of present and past tense in different situations. And puzzled by her use of ‘actual’ literal fieldnotes/diary fragments. Why? It already felt like reading a diary. Why is this extra? I think it also relates in part with how Ellis herself incorporates note-taking into her life, but I am not sure how. F.i. she starts taking notes when she is overwhelmed with emotions (in the plane to the hospital, etc.), to get a grip on what she’s feeling, to create some distance. Interestingly, I felt more like reading a novel, I noticed. The conventions of a novel popped up and when Ellis did not adapt to them, I was irritated. F.i.: usually, descriptions of every little detail warn the reader that something big is about to happen. In this case, these descriptions went on and on.

    At the end of the book (p. 303) Ellis explains how she used narrative to be as faithful as possible to human experience. At first, I wanted to argue that nothing can be, everything is mediated. But then I realised that we were both caught up in a Cartesian framework of a thinking subject versus a passive world. I felt Ellis was replacing one dogma (objectivism, the mainstream sociologists she tries to convince with her narrative) with another (narrativism). She does the latter in a very strict, almost mechanically objective way: if I just describe everything as faithfully as possible, I can get at the ‘real’ experience. Perhaps an ‘actual’ novel, as a scientific format, would in the end have been more truthful to her experience.

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