The ‘research traineeship’: the ups and downs of para-siting ethnography

Maria Schiller
Max Planck Institute

State organisations for long have been regarded as an impossible field for ethnographers. It was difficult to get access to state organisations and a pre-conceived idea 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 and officials and practitioners more often appreciate their outsider perspective, new questions emerge on research relationships and the potential of collaborative ethnography. Yet, how do we relate to officials and practitioners in the field, who often have similar abilities but also loyalties to their organisation? Is it possible to ‘collaborate’ when conducting ethnographies in state organisations and how does such collaboration affect our analysis and findings?

Drawing on my own fieldwork notes from ‘research traineeships’ conducted in municipal organisations of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Leeds in 2009-10, this article argues against an idealised or nostalgic view of collaboration. Instead it delineates some of the challenges and risks of collaborative ethnography. By reflecting on the difficulties I experienced in my role and position vis-à-vis local officials and practitioners I identify the ways in which collaboration has impacted on my research and suggest some provisions for conducting collaborative ethnographies in state organisations.

María Schiller

Maria Schiller

Maria Schiller is a Post-doctoral Research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. Maria holds a PhD in Migration Studies from the University of Kent and an MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Vienna. Her research addresses urban diversification and urban life, bureaucracy and the state, immigrant participation, and the local governance of diversity. Her research uses qualitative methods and often takes a comparative approach. Her contribution to this volume draws on ethnographic research in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Belgium, where she investigated the practice of local diversity officers and their role and position within municipal organizations. Drawing on case studies in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Leeds Schiller analyzed how local diversity policies become defined in bureaucrats’ practices and how this relates to a purported shift away from multiculturalism.