Skip to content

Fieldwork in prison

By Lilian Ebbelaar – During my research in a prison I have learned multiple things by actually doing fieldwork. The most important things I have learned though, are the importance of bias-free research, and our place as researchers. I think that as anthropologists, we all agree on the importance of bias-free research. It is one of the main things we are taught. Though knowing of its importance, and actually experiencing it are two very different things.

I think many people have their own view of what a prison is like. They have their bias, stereotypes, and perceptions of prisons. As did I. So when I first walked into Justitieel Complex Zaanstad, my hands were sweaty and, because of my nerves, I forgot to take off the belt I was wearing before going through the metal detector. On my first day, I would be getting a tour from one of the guards in the prison. While talking with the guard, I was counting the doors we had to go through, seven doors, and going through all of them we had to wait for the previous one to close.

Walking through the prison was a weird feeling, I had been in one before, but everyone was locked in by then since it was evening. I had never seen a fully functioning one, especially not of this size. People were walking around, going to work, going to visiting hours, going outside, going to see the doctor, going to see their case manager etc. It was strange for me to see. I don’t really know what I expected, but for some reason, it wasn’t this.

One of the first encounters and conversations I had with inmates was in the coffee bar/roastery. In the coffee bar, I met two inmates, both very nice, both very interested and open about their stories with me, except for what they had done to end up in prison. I had a very nice and informative conversation with both of them. The conversations were so nice even, that I would describe them as gezellig. However, later I found out what they had done and I was perplexed. I felt a bit weird about the conversations I had, I felt uneasy and felt quite torn about over what they had done, and the conversation I had had with them. I noticed I was no longer as unbiased towards them as I was before I learned about the crimes they had committed in the past.

This particular topic became more and more relevant. How can I stay bias-free, comfortable, and ethical within these types of situations? Another ‘struggle’ I had was the one between personal comfort and the gathering of data. There were some instances (disclaimer: I have never once felt unsafe, threatened, or severely uncomfortable, these men have been nothing but respectful to me), in which I did not feel completely comfortable, but continued because I wanted to gather data and wanted to find out more about the topic and emic perspective I was researching. For instance, it happened several times that I was asked for my phone number, or that I was hit on etc. Usually in these situations ‘outside’ I would be very straightforward, tell them no and to go away. But in this particular context I did not do that (I have not given any personal information, do not get me wrong), even though I maybe wanted to react in that way. I felt that a ‘harsh’ rejection would make them less open, or not willing to converse with me anymore. So, usually, I laughed it off or said no and then continued with something else right away.

These two separate instances taught me the importance of bias-free research, but also the sometimes hard position we’re in as a researcher. The bias struggle was easily solvable, but the second example I gave you was more of an internal struggle. As a researcher you never want to feel uncomfortable, and yet our goal is to gather as much information as we can. I think the main takeaway is that as researchers we’re always going to face challenges with regards to our own comfort, and that of our research participants. But actually experiencing these things are essential in becoming a better researcher.

Lilian Ebbelaar graduated in 2023 of the Bachelor Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *