This blog is a second in the series of the experiences with fieldwork of Janne. The first blog discussed the personal challenges of doing fieldwork. This blog is based on an ethnographic account of welfare advice work in Manchester, North East England. In the United Kingdom, welfare reforms, budget cuts in public service sector, and increasing poverty have led to a higher demand for advice and support, and less money and resources to meet this demand. Increasingly, welfare organisations rely on the work of volunteers for their survival. In order to better understand how these changes affect the governance of welfare, I have taken up the role of ‘volunteer ethnographer’ in two different projects.

Working in the field: How to be an ethnographer and volunteer 

Ethnographers do research in a wide variety of places, circumstances, and environments that each come with their own challenges. One way of doing ethnography that has gained popularity, is that of taking up a volunteer role within a research project. It presents the researcher with a great opportunity to do participant observation and gather in-depth data, but this dual role of volunteer and ethnographer can also prove difficult to balance.

As a volunteer, it seemed much easier to gain an insider-outsider position, as I quickly became part of the organisations’ team, routines, and procedures. Furthermore, I felt staff and other volunteers were much more accepting of my role as a researcher, as my work as a volunteer demonstrated my commitment to the local community. Researchers often have to find ways to show such commitment to the issues they are studying and prove they are not simply ‘coming in, collecting data, and leaving again’. Volunteering provides a perfect opportunity to do so. I have also found that volunteering provides a new space for the researcher in which relationships with participants are not primarily focused on the research itself and its objectives, but on the tasks of the volunteer. This can be very productive in terms of gathering data, and helps to grasps the experiences of your participants.

However, being a volunteer also comes with the risk of becoming too much of an ‘insider’, and losing the distance required as a researcher. In my case, this manifested itself in various ways. On a very practical level, after a few weeks my fieldwork notes became considerably shorter, even though I was still coming across new stories. I noticed that my role as a volunteer, working as a welfare adviser for clients, required a different mindset than being an ethnographer. During my fieldwork I have discovered that volunteers receive very little training before embarking on their advice journey, and some of the cases I have come across can be emotionally challenging and draining. Many volunteers feel they are not actually equipped or prepared to deal with the cases they come across. Especially when you cannot meet the needs of the people you are trying to help, it can result in feelings of frustration and guilt. Often, for me, this meant I would try to keep these experiences within the day, within the advice centre. This meant that the reflective part, one of the key parts of being a researcher, was sometimes lost. Once I got home, I did not feel like writing out my notes or reflecting on the day. Becoming aware of this, and making sure I did sit down to write something, actually helped me as a researcher, but also as a volunteer. Writing about my experiences was another way of processing what I had seen and it was a way to let my worries go.

Secondly, in my interactions with staff members and other volunteers, I have noticed that my ‘researcher role’ almost seems to disappear at times. I am seen as a colleague rather than a researcher, which is great in most cases, but it also means that I feel awkward asking if I can interview them, or even writing about them in my notes. These tensions are something every researcher has to deal with, but they are especially highlighted as a volunteer ethnographer.

One way to find comfort within this ambiguity, is to make use of it. As a volunteer, you are in a position where you work with paid workers, who are experts in the field. From a research position as well as from the position as a volunteer, one should embrace a narrative of “I am here to learn from you”, both in terms of technical knowledge and in terms of the more personal experiences and feelings. By doing so, you acquire new information while being in the position of researcher as well as volunteer, without having to focus on the ambiguities between them.

Furthermore, on a personal level, I sometimes felt I was almost too close . Every researcher might struggle with this, simply by spending time with the research participants and their opinions and experiences. But as a volunteer there is an additional difficulty; you have more of an influence over the people you also study, meaning that you become more ‘part of the system’ than you ever would as a researcher. As a volunteer, I advise people on how to deal with their benefit applications, how to interact with job centres and local government, and make phone calls and write letters on their behalf. This creates a different kind of bond between me and the participants, which feels more personal than it would if I was just a researcher. I actively help these people with the issues I am also researching. While this helps me truly grasp what it is like from their point of view, it also makes me more inclined to see things from their perspective. This is strengthened by the fact that many people I work with also see themselves as activists and have strong opinions on the current state of the welfare state.

For example, I recently attended an event where a woman from the Department for Work and Pension (DWP)1 presented on her experience of job centres2. Her presentation of job centres sharply contrasted with what I had heard from clients and other volunteers at the advice centre, presenting them as fruitful places where advisers always try to do the best for welfare claimants. Now regardless of whether her words were true or not, I noticed that I had the tendency to go in with the scepticism of a volunteer and my participants, rather than the open mindedness of a researcher. This is not to suggest that activists are not open minded, or that researchers will always be. However, as an activist, the main priority is social and political change, whilst a researcher aims for a more neutral inquiry into the issue at hand.

At the same time, I do not want to discredit the personal stories many have shared with me about their experiences with the DWP. The DWP is far more powerful than anyone claiming benefits through the DWP and I am well aware that the DWP has more resources, opportunities, and power to create a positive narrative about their work. Yet, it is exactly for that reason that I think researchers — no matter how socially and politically engaged they are on a personal level — should keep an open mind when interacting with different actors during their fieldwork. It is only through that approach that a researcher is able to get the best possible representation of the issues at hand and the people involved with it.

Again, note-taking proved a useful solution to deal with the tensions of being in the position of both researcher and volunteer. Systematic note-taking puts you back into the researcher mindset, and helps you to extract all those experiences and feelings you have as a volunteer and transform them into data. This also creates an opportunity to talk about these shared feelings with other volunteers, and better grasp their experiences and frustration.

Finally, it also creates a moment of reflection, because writing down your thoughts often already reveals whether you are managing to keep the ‘researcher objective lens’. This is not to say that a researcher cannot be opinionated. I have personally been shocked by some of the stories I have come across in Manchester, and they have shaped my view of the welfare state in the U.K. And this is where I believe it is important to voice my view, as it is informed by the experiences of people with the welfare state. So, while my writing might be guided by personal experiences and might put forward a specific argument, the data collection itself will not. As such, I believe volunteering can be very fruitful and allows a researcher to underline the ‘participant’ end of participant observation.

1  The government organisation responsible for welfare policy in the United Kingdom.

2 Job centres are involved in the administration of benefits, and are by many of my participants experienced as punitive places, where advisers start from a position of mistrust and offer little help to beneficiaries.